In his final years, Franz Liszt wrote that his one remaining ambition was to ‘throw a lance as far as possible into the boundless realm of the future”. He was referring to his compositions, far ahead of their time. Is Liszt’s metaphorical spear still in flight, or has it found its mark? Dr Luis Dias pays tribute on the occasion of his birth bicentenary.

22 October 2011 marks the birth bicentenary of the great Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, and it is cause for year-round celebration the world over.

Along with the flurry of music festivals and tribute concerts this year there is also serious scholarly review of this controversial, enigmatic man, and recognition by musicologists that Liszt was a veritable giant of nineteenth-century music.

Jeremy Siepman, author of Naxos’ The Life and Works of Liszt writes: “One of the most prolific and influential composers in the history of music, he anticipated the chromaticism of Wagner’s Tristan, the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel, the rhythmic complexity of Bartok and Stravinsky, even the atonality of Schoenberg. Yet…as recently as the 1950s, he was regarded in many high-minded circles as little better than a pariah…Even today, true popularity, on the order of a Mozart or Beethoven, still eludes him”.

In many ways, Liszt’s extraordinary ability to excel at so much: peerless pianist, composer of genius, brilliant orchestrator and transcriber, virtuoso conductor, indefatigable and generous champion of other composers’ work; has worked against him. For instance, although his huge body of work for his instrument the piano is often visited, his equally large collection of compositions for other genres (orchestral and choral works, oratorios, songs, chamber music, compositions for organ, and even literary essays) is all-too-often overlooked. Pianist Leslie Howard considers Liszt’s oratorio Christus to be not only his magnum opus, but the finest of all Romantic oratorios. Yet it is rarely ever performed.

Of peasant stock, Liszt’s prodigious talent was nevertheless made apparent at an extremely young age. He gave his first public concert aged nine, received his first commission as composer and famously received Beethoven’s kiss of approval at 11, and had written an operetta at 14. In an era where the term “child prodigy” is bandied about so loosely, it is sobering to recall the lofty benchmark set by the likes of Liszt.

Liszt single-handedly created the concept of the solo recital, something we take for granted today. “Le Concert – C’est moi!” he had confidently exclaimed, before his first exclusive solo performance. The very word “recital” was coined for him. Audiences all over Europe, from the Urals to Ireland, responded with the adulation today reserved for a rockstar. “Lisztomania” was another term coined in his own lifetime.

His years in Paris brought him into close proximity with several luminaries in music, art, literature: Berlioz, Hugo, Sand, Chopin, Delacroix. But it was violin virtuoso Paganini who gave Liszt the inspiration to develop a complete breakthrough in piano technique, both in terms of composition and improvisation.

Had Liszt’s Kapellmeister years in Weimar not regrettably been overshadowed by petty intrigue against him, they would certainly have marked him as a pioneer in the art of conducting as well. What he is certainly remembered for is his single-movement ‘cyclical’ extension of the sonata form, via the ‘transformation of themes’ technique, into the symphonic tone poem.

The final chapter in Liszt’s life saw the natural fulfilment of a lifelong spiritual commitment when he took the minor Catholic orders in 1865, and lived for several years in a simple monastic cell in Rome. It is here that his prolific choral output reached its peak. This treasure-trove still waits to be better explored.

To quote Liszt biographer Alan Walker: “Nothing is more remarkable in all Liszt’s creative output than the pieces he composed in the last decade of his life. If he had written nothing else, he would still be an extraordinary composer.”

There will be a presentation “What Liszt did for us” on 22 October at 5 pm at Fundação Oriente premises, Fontainhas Panjim. The event is hosted by Fundação Oriente and Child’s Play (India) Foundation.


liszt poster

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times, Goa India on 18 October 2011)