Creative Director Cecil Lytle reflects on the importance of Franz Liszt and celebrating his bicentenary.
2011 is the occasion of the 200th birthday of one of the most enigmatic and influential artists of the 19th century, Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Love and hated throughout most of his life, Liszt knew, shaped, and supported every emerging arts and political movement of his era. By the age of nine, young Franz Liszt was praised about across Europe as the second Mozart. However, not content with the fleeting fame of the prodigy, he sequestered himself to develop upon the foundational training he received from the greatest piano pedagogue in Europe. Carl Czerny. During a long ten-year pilgrimage across Europe, he developed what he called a “transcendental technique’ for playing the piano. Consequently, he composed and performed a piano music that reinvented conventional pianism as well as the physical and kinetic relation of the body to the piano. In his compositions and performances, no longer would music be simply two dimensional (melody and accompaniment) but enhanced to incorporate 3 or 4 dimensions of activity at the piano. His celebrated Paganini Etudes (1851) and Transcendental Etudes (1852) soon became the mainstay of the piano repertoire and altered the way other composed music for the piano.
Franz Liszt was the most celebrated pianist of his generation and most innovative composer of the century. Chopin commented that, “I should like to rob him of his way of rendering my own Etudes.” Indeed, through his worldwide tours, Liszt made Chopin and his music a household name. Clara Schumann spoke often of his extraordinary capabilities as a pianist; although she and her famous husband, Robert, along with Johannes Brahms, also criticized his compositions as shallow and showy. Liszt and his cohorts thought of themselves as providing the, Music of the Future.” This rivalry immediately spilled into the press and, even today, divides opinion in the concert halls, and in the major conservatories of Europe and the United States.
During the period he was Kapellmeister Extraordinaire at Weimar (1849-1858), Liszt championed the new music and composers of the day, especially Richard Wagner and his controversial operas. Their relationship began in Paris in the 1830s and continued until their deaths in the 1880s. Liszt’s surviving daughter, Cosima (1844-1930), was the source of both immense joy and heartbreak to him. In 1857, Cosima had married his most celebrated student, Hans von Bülow (1830-1894), bore him two children before beginning and adulterous relationship with Richard Wagner who depended almost entirely on support from her famous father. Their ménage à trios was the worse kept secret in Europe and part of the amazing history of “Mad King” Ludwig, opera, and Franz Liszt. Surviving well into the 20th century, Cosima Liszt maintained Bayreuth as a monument to Wagner and participated in the rise of anti-semitism of the Nazi Party in Germany.
Reconstructing the story of Franz Liszt is made difficult by the man himself. Although born in a borderland region between Austria and Hungary, Liszt declared himself “Hungarian” at an earlier age, although his mother-tongue was German, not Hungarian. By age 11, he was recognized as the greatest prodigy since Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and had moved to Paris with his family to pursue fame and fortune as a concert artist. He did not return to Hungary until thirty years later. He was the first artist to make world tours and at the age of 35 discontinued the life of the concert artist to devote himself to conducting the avant garde music of the day.
In 1865, Franz Liszt journeyed to Rome to take Minor Orders and became a Holy Roman Abbé. As such, he spent his final thirty years in the ministry of music composing a great many religious works for choral ensemble, piano, and orchestra. Many of these late works pushed the boundaries of music. Indeed one of his penultimate works was title, Bagatelle Without Tonality (1883) and inspired the revolution in atonal music led by Arnold Schoenberg in the 20th century..
The 2011 bicentennial is our opportunity to celebrate the life and music of the most remarkable figure in Romantic music. Our film series, The Nature of Genius: Franz Liszt will be part of the international celebration of bicentenary of Franz Liszt.
– Cecil Lytle