A Romantic icon and one of the first proponents of the orchestral tone poem, Franz Liszt was an unparalleled keyboard virtuoso and a supremely talented and innovative composer. He was also renowned as a mercurial personality and bandit of love; in short, like the flamboyant violinist Niccolo Paganini, Liszt lived the Romantic ideal to the hilt.
He was born in Hungary in 1811, and began to study the piano at the age of six. He exhibited unusual talent on the instrument, and gave a number of successful concerts while still a child. After continuing his piano studies with the help of Hungarian nobility, he moved with his family to Vienna, where he studied with Carl Czerny and the now-infamous Antonio Salieri. He made more concert appearances, and audiences took to his passionate and technically immaculate playing. Next was Paris, where, at the age of 16, he decided to take up long-term residence.
Liszt's fame as a piano virtuoso grew; in 1831 he was lucky enough to see the violinist Paganini in performance, and that experience (Paganini's gifts on the violin were so breathtaking that many people believed he was in league with the devil) made a profound impact on the young pianist; he resolved to apply Paganini's showmanship and pyrotechnics to the piano, and in so doing revolutionized the piano as a virtuosic instrument.
Liszt's life reads a bit like a chapter out of Don Juan. Flamboyant in dress and manner, he carried out innummerable minor love affairs and two major ones - first with the Countess Marie d'Agoult, and later with the Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, who worked with him while he was Court Music Director at Weimar. At the age of 48, after living the high life for three decades, he suddenly entered the priesthood, thereafter splitting his musical activities between Rome, Weimar and Budapest; he was conferred the religious title of Abbé in 1866 by Pope Pius IX. Wherever he went, even in later years, he was surrounded by throngs of admirers, imitators and hangers-on.
One might think that all of this adulation and personality-worship would color Liszt's approach to the music that had vaulted him to such overwhelming fame. But this never happened; rather, Liszt always adhered strictly to his core musical values, and considered the directions of the composer the ultimate authority in interpretation. He revered composers from Beethoven to Berlioz to Wagner, and always tried to expand upon their work to create new musical forms. And he succeeded...his transcriptions of orchestral works for the piano (Schumann's Widmung, Verdi's Rigoletto and Aida, Beethoven's symphonies and Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique are only a few) led to a completely new style of piano composition, and his orchestral tone poems, written mostly during his stint at Weimar, are revolutionary in their use of harmonic progression and programmatic elements.
Liszt is perhaps best-known, however, for his piano music, and much of it is utterly magnificent. His monumental one-movement Sonata in B minor (1853) is one of the masterpieces of instrumental solo music, and his numerous tone poems, showpieces and smaller works for piano are brilliant examples of a restless, Romantic imagination, informed but quite removed from the rigor of Classical forms.