Music History

Franz Liszt: Artist Spotlight

By Jesse Preis
Franz Liszt - Artist Spotlight with Biography and Famous Compositions.

Explore the genius of Franz Liszt, including his most popular music

Franz Liszt was a Hungarian composer, pianist, conductor, and teacher who was popular during the Romantic period. His pianistic virtuosity, showmanship, and physical attractiveness made him so well-known that his fans started a movement that is now known as “Lisztomania.” He might be considered the world’s first rock star, with popularity similar to the modern-day Taylor Swift, The Beatles during the 60s and 70s, or Elvis Presley during the 50s and 60s. If you grew up watching cartoons such as Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry, then you will already be familiar with Liszt’s music. Read on to learn more!

Franz Liszt: Biography

Liszt was born into a musical family on October 22nd, 1811 in Doborján, Hungary (which is known today as Raiding, Austria). His first piano teacher was his father Adám, who began teaching him at the age of seven. At age nine, Franz began performing in concerts around the cities of modern-day Hungary, Austria, and Slovakia. Around this time, he also began taking piano lessons from Carl Czerny, who was a student of Ludwig van Beethoven

At the age of 21, Liszt had the opportunity to see Italian violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini perform in concert. Following this concert, he became determined to become a piano virtuoso of the same caliber as Paganini. Luckily, he was living in Paris, France, which at this time in history was known as the pianist capital of the world. His growing friendships with virtuoso pianists and composers such as Frederic Chopin, Sigismond Thalberg, and Alexander Dreyschock helped build his technical knowledge of the instrument. 

Franz Liszt: Music & Most Famous Works

Liszt is not just well-known for his brilliant compositions, but for his arrangements and transcriptions of other composers’ works as well. Here are some examples of his most famous arrangements and original works.

  • Probably best known is his Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2, which comes from a set of 19 Hungarian-themed rhapsodies. This piece has been referenced in many cartoons, including Looney Tunes (performed by Bugs Bunny) and Tom and Jerry (performed by Tom the Cat)
  • An example of his most romantic would be his Liebestraum no. 3 in A-flat Major. “Liebestraum” translates from German as the “Dream of Love”, which you can clearly hear in the tone that he creates if you listen here.
  • In his Grandes études de Paganini, Franz Liszt composed six etudes based on melodies written for the violin by Niccolò Paganini. These pieces are argued to be some of the most difficult pieces in the piano repertoire. The most famous is the Étude no. 3 in G# Minor, “La campanella”, which makes use of fast octave jumps, scales, arpeggios, and so much more. Watch and listen to this piece here!
  • Perfect for October (his birth month), Liszt’s Totentanz for Piano and Orchestra is based on the creepy Gregorian chant “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”) and is frightening enough to keep you up on Halloween night!
  • Another Halloween classic is French composer Camille Saint-Säens’ La danse macabre, which Liszt transcribed and arranged for piano. Check out this piece here!
  • Liszt also transcribed and arranged Beethoven’s 7th symphony for piano. You can hear that by clicking here.

Relationship with Frederic Chopin

Liszt maintained friendships with several important composers, including Robert Schumann, Hector Berlioz, and Frederic Chopin (about whom you can learn more here). Liszt and Chopin are known as two of the greatest pianist-composers of the 19th century. They became acquainted when Chopin made his Paris debut in 1832. Liszt was in the audience and had the following to say:

“The most vigorous applause seemed not to suffice our enthusiasm in the presence of this talented musician, who revealed a new phase of poetic sentiment combined with such happy innovation in the form of his art.”

Although Chopin and Liszt became friends, their friendship was strained at times. There is an account that he performed a piece of Chopin’s, but with Liszt embellishing and adding to it. Chopin felt insulted and told Liszt that if he didn’t plan on performing it as written, he should not perform the piece at all. Liszt apologized, but whether that fixed the strained relationship is unknown.

Interesting Facts About Franz Liszt

  • Have you ever wondered why pianists often perform without sheet music and so many other instrumentalists such as violinists perform with sheet music? Thank Liszt! Before Liszt’s time, it was uncommon for pianists to perform without sheet music in front of them. In fact, pianists such as Chopin considered it an insult to the composer to play without sheet music. Liszt was a showman and enjoyed wowing his audience with his technical brilliance and his ability to play from memory. His personal performance technique influenced other pianists and the rest is history!
  • Although Franz Liszt was Hungarian, his first language was German and he didn’t learn his ancestral language until later in life. Despite this fact, he was known to be intensely proud of his Hungarian heritage.
  • Impressionism, the French compositional-style that is famously tied to composers like Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, is rumored to have been inspired by the use of whole tone scales and extended chords in his Années de pèlerinage.

We hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about the amazing Franz Liszt and his music. If you’d like to explore more fascinating pianists and composers, check out the articles below.

Read Next