Is there a way to definitively say someone is the “greatest pianist ever,” especially when the person in question lived long before recorded music? One of the contenders for the title is a gentleman by the name of Franz Liszt. His peers were awed at his skill and proclaimed his playing to be the pinnacle of instrumental prowess. European audiences bowed before him; women fawned over him; and fellow musicians aspired to be like him. Liszt was a master of the piano.
Born in the Kingdom of Hungary in 1811, Liszt was exposed to music at an early age. His father was an aspiring musician who played piano, violin and guitar and was personally acquainted with Beethoven. As a young child, Liszt would watch his father playing piano. He was interested in both sacred and gypsy music, which greatly influenced his later playing.
At age 11 he studied in Vienna and met both Schumann and Beethoven. Moving to Paris as a teenager, he was surrounded by virtuosos. The great violinist Paganini, who so accomplished that he was accused of being in league with the devil, sparked Liszt’s imagination. If someone could perform that well on the violin, he thought, why couldn’t a virtuoso do the same with the piano. He quit playing concerts for a few years in order to devote himself to practice. Having already become wildly successful as a live performer, this move stunned the public.
After moving back into the public eye, Liszt showed his new mastery of the instrument. He wrote that “ten fingers have the power to reproduce the harmonies which are created by hundreds of performers.” Just to show the audience what he meant, he followed an orchestral version of a Berlioz piece with his own solo arrangement. On a lone piano he made the piece more powerful than the entire orchestra.
In 1933 Liszt made an impression on Countess Marie D’Agoult, who left her husband and children to join his side. The couple lived in Switzerland and Italy for four years. He still gave performances, one of which is particularly noteworthy. The pianist Sigismond Thalberg had become very popular, and the two gave a dueling piano concert. While Liszt hadn’t been playing as often as Thalberg, he was more than ready to match his skill. Before a stunned audience, each pianist transcended the ordinary confines of the instrument, both technically and emotionally. Both were proclaimed victors by the assembled guests.
Though he constantly toured and composed his own pieces to rapturous reviews, he wanted to be recognized as a composer rather than a performer. He quit touring at age 36 in order to concentrate on his pieces. Liszt conducted orchestras and gave away free piano lessons. Later in his life he took holy orders, which was a definite contrast to his earlier life as a notorious playboy. He continued to compose experimental piano pieces until his death in 1886.
Throughout both his concert and composing careers, Liszt pushed the envelope of the piano. His work stretched the definitions of both acceptability and accessibility. Since his life, piano playing has never been the same.