CONTEXT

October 22, 2011

Lisztomania

Something happened when Franz Liszt played – variously described as mass hysteria, the effects of magnetism or a form of collective epilepsy, it was considered a serious medical condition for which the only cure was the avoidance of crowded concert halls filled with other victims – all there to hear the young virtuoso from Hungary.

During the 1840s and early 50s – for about eight years – Liszt toured the capitals of Europe, performing at best guess more than a thousand times.  By the end of the decade, he’d made so much money that he began to donate most of his fees to charity – which naturally made him an even greater object of adoration.

Most of what you’d like to know about Liszt is here – but if you want the whole story, you must read Alan Walker’s three-volume biography.  Walker is a teacher and musicologist who found, while assembling some notes on Liszt, that there was no decent biography available, so he set out to write one.

One of Liszt's pianos. Photo by Tamcgath.

It took Walker 25 years, but the result was three volumes that are described as landmark.  The New York Times review observed that,  “Mr. Walker seems to know everything about Liszt, and anything connected with Liszt, during every single day of the long life of that genius.”

Liszt, born this date in 1811, was taught piano by a student of Beethoven’s, studied composition with Salieri, was inspired to perform at the same level after seeing Paganini, was life-long friends with Chopin and did what he could to help the desperately poor Berlioz.

It must mean something when you can describe all the key figures in someone’s life using only last names…

He lived with the Vicomtesse de Flavigny for about five years and fathered three children, including Cosima Liszt, who grew up to become Cosima Wagner.

In 1863, he joined a Franciscan order outside of Rome, although he continued to teach and perform.  He traveled constantly between Rome, Budapest and Weimar for the rest of his life.

Liszt has been portrayed in a couple of not very notable movies, but this Liszt-as-a-rock star – with Roger Daltrey as Franz – gets the originality award:

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