In 1881, Franz Liszt visited Raiding, the small Hungarian town where he had been born nearly seventy years before. He was arguably the most famous musician in the world. Trailed by local dignitaries, he arrived at the modest house where he had grown up. Inside he was amazed to find the remains of an old stove. He recalled that, as a small boy, he had destroyed the stove and nearly killed himself when he threw a pouch of gunpowder onto it, curious to see the result. “Already it was apparent that I had a feeling for mass effects,” he said.

Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt; drawing by David Levine

There was a rueful edge to this joke. Liszt’s barnstorming performances as a pianist had brought him adulation but also opprobrium. Even though he had left the concert stage thirty years before to devote himself to composing, the legend of his performing career still eclipsed all the music he wrote. Worse, his works were disparaged in much the same terms as his playing. In the opinion of Eduard Hanslick, the foremost critic of the day, “a profound knowledge of pianistic effect” was all they had going for them. Liszt was resigned to such judgments and comforted himself with the idea that future generations might understand him.

Controversial in his own time, Liszt manages to remain so, and the charges against him—that he had a poor grasp of compositional technique and that his pieces are shallow vehicles for display—have not changed. Yet he has always had fervent admirers; Richard Strauss called him “tragically misunderstood.” The misunderstanding stems in part from the sheer variety of Liszt’s career and output. Born in Hungary, he became, first, a Parisian composer who spoke French better than his native German, and then a pioneer of the New German School in Weimar, and the living embodiment of Hungarian music. His works, written over seven decades, encompass numberless genres and styles—from salon pieces to liturgical works, and from the most extravagant virtuosity to radical spareness. “Is that all by me?” Liszt asked once, seeing a colossal pile of scores on the desk of his biographer. It is still more than the musical world can fully absorb.

Biographers of Liszt have alternated between adulation and skepticism. The first major attempt was by Lina Ramann, who began her work while Liszt was still alive and with information partly supplied by him. It is unabashedly hagiographical and often inaccurate. In 1934, Ernest Newman, the biographer of Wagner, took aim at the “Liszt legend.” He overcorrected, portraying Liszt as essentially a phony and misusing source material to support the thesis. The standard biography is now Alan Walker’s, which appeared in three volumes from 1983 to 1996. Its archival resourcefulness and engaging style put it among the greatest biographies ever written. Yet it is distinctly partial to its subject and Liszt scholars have since chipped away at its more generous claims. A new book by the German biographer Oliver Hilmes is more critical, though still sympathetic. Short and breezy, it is in no way the equal of Walker, but it is persuasive in giving us a less beatific, saintly figure. It also sheds useful light on the way that Liszt’s achievement arose as much from his weaknesses as from his strengths.


Asked if he had ever written his memoirs, Liszt replied, “It is enough to have lived such a life as mine.” As a child, he came to the attention of Beethoven; six months before his death, he played for the young Debussy. In between, he knew not only all the great musical figures of his time but also Heinrich Heine, Victor Hugo, George Eliot, and countless others. He enjoyed a social eminence unprecedented for a musician—he once rebuked Tsar Nicholas I for talking during a performance—yet he emerged from unusually modest circumstances.

He was born, in 1811, on the Esterhazy estate, where his father was an agricultural administrator. Most of his relatives were peasants. When Liszt’s genius manifested itself, at six, his father was determined to spare him from a life of provincial mediocrity. He took his son to Vienna, engaging Carl Czerny and Antonio Salieri as teachers. By the age of twelve, Liszt was one of many child prodigies touring Europe. When his father died unexpectedly three years later, he settled in Paris, eager to give up the touring life, which he compared to that of a performing dog.

In Paris, a city teeming with virtuosos, he might easily have disappeared entirely. He gave piano lessons, and had a nervous breakdown after a love affair with an aristocratic pupil was thwarted by her father. He considered entering the Catholic priesthood, a recurrent obsession.

Yet the exciting, cosmopolitan city soon proved to be the making of him. Seeing Paganini perform transformed his sense of what a concert could be. He overhauled his technique, placing particular emphasis on fast repeated notes, hair-raising leaps, and rapid interlocking octave scales (an effect still known as “Liszt octaves”). Contemporary caricatures show a multi-armed Liszt, seemingly everywhere on the keyboard at once. Paganini inspired in him a revolution not just of execution, but also dramatic effect. In his mature style, streams of notes are heard not as ornamental filigrees but as evocative swirls of texture. In the notoriously difficult étude Feux follets, the will-o’-the-wisps of the title are represented by a delicate trilling figure of double notes, which shroud the melody in a cobweb of sound—directly prefiguring the diaphanous sound world of such works as Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit.


In parallel with Liszt’s musical development came an intellectual one. Completely unschooled but passionately intelligent, he began a scattershot program of self-improvement, absorbing Rousseau, Chateaubriand, Montaigne, Plato, Locke, Byron, Sainte-Beauve. He flirted with Saint-Simonism and was mentored by the dissident priest Félicité de Lamennais. He frequented intellectual salons and published essays on the role of artists in society. Heine made fun of these aspirations—“In what intellectual stall will he find his next hobby-horse?”—but Liszt’s attempts to embody ideas in music produced some of his most original work.

On a spiritual retreat with Lamennais in 1834, he wrote the first of three Apparitions, a remarkably forward-looking work that begins with a harmonically and rhythmically ambiguous meander, hinting at a pentatonic scale. An even more exploratory piece from this time is Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (not to be confused with a later set of the same name). Bearing the sphinx-like direction “senza tempo,” it begins without a time signature and features rhythmically irregular groupings of notes in fours, fives, and sevens.

The time that Liszt spent thinking about art, literature, politics, and philosophy was crucial to the musician he became. His horizons kept expanding after he had to leave Paris in 1835. He had begun an affair with Marie d’Agoult, a bookish countess estranged from her husband. When she became pregnant with the first of their three children, the couple tactfully undertook a prolonged tour of Switzerland and Italy. These travels inspired the Annèes de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage), piano pieces that directly evoke experiences in Switzerland—lakes, storms, alphorns, shepherds’ songs—and the paintings and poetry of Italy. Liszt was expanding the expressive ambitions of his music, to encompass not only art and nature but subjective responses to them.

The match with d’Agoult was doomed from the start. Each had fallen for an ideal of the other. She loved the notion of a meeting of minds, but was bafflingly indifferent to Liszt’s actual abilities. “To go through life with a woman like me, one needed something more than being able to play the piano well” was her later comment. As tensions grew, he found excuses to start performing again. For nearly a decade, starting in 1838, he gave concerts almost nonstop all over Europe—from Ireland to Gibraltar, St. Petersburg, and Constantinople. This was the period of Lisztomania, a term coined by Heine after hearing Liszt in Berlin in 1842. When he performed, women fainted, cut locks of his hair, fought over his discarded gloves, and stored his cigar butts or coffee dregs in lockets around their necks. Silly as all this seems, Liszt essentially instituted the modern concert format. He was the first to play entire concerts solo, rather than as part of a varied program, and the term “recital,” with its connotation of poetic declamation, was his coinage. The overall effect was unprecedented. “He had total control of my pulse,” one listener recalled.

Hilmes sees Liszt as the forerunner not only of classical stars like Maria Callas and Hebert von Karajan but also of the Beatles and Madonna. This isn’t a new observation—Ken Russell’s gleefully anachronistic 1975 film Lisztomania cast Roger Daltrey of the Who as Liszt—and the need to keep a biographical narrative moving prevents Hilmes from probing deeply.

Other writers have evoked not only the legacy of Lisztomania but also its historical circumstances. Dana Gooley’s study The Virtuoso Liszt (2004) emphasizes that “a skeptical, critical public” kept demanding new things, so that Liszt was “constantly on the lookout for ways to broaden and deepen his appeal.” Richard Taruskin notes that, in an era of constant audience expansion, Liszt self-consciously gave political meaning to the act of playing to packed public halls rather than high-society salons. “An artist such as is required today,” he wrote, must “seek out the PEOPLE and GOD,” so that “all classes of society, finally, will merge in a common religious sentiment, grand and sublime.”

In 1847, at the age of thirty-five, Liszt gave his last recital. Though he still played occasionally in public, he never again accepted a fee. There were many reasons to stop. The tours were wearing him out and he had earned enough to live modestly and educate his children. He had also met Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a wealthy landowner in eastern Ukraine less glamorous and more devout than d’Agoult, and they decided to marry once she had obtained an annulment of her previous marriage. Finally, he had accumulated trunkfuls of unfinished manuscripts, and knew that he could never achieve his potential as a composer if he kept touring. An invitation to become court kapellmeister in Weimar gave him the chance to start anew.


Franz Liszt, circa 1869

Franz Hanfstaengl/Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Franz Liszt, circa 1869

In Weimar he revised early piano pieces and produced substantial new ones, including his undisputed masterpiece, the B-Minor Sonata. He taught, and his method—holding forth in a large group—essentially instituted the master class format. Famously generous, he never charged for lessons, and a quasi family of protégés gathered around him. (One of them, Hans von Bülow, married the younger of Liszt’s two daughters, Cosima, who later left him for Wagner.)

Liszt conducted the Weimar orchestra, championing the work of other composers, notably Berlioz and Wagner, in the face of devastating hostility. Wagner eventually outgrew and belittled his mentor, but for a while he was deeply influenced. He described the experience of studying Liszt’s orchestral scores as like plunging “into a crystalline flood,” and these works nudged him toward the enhanced chromaticism of Tristan.

Finally, Liszt expanded his reach as a composer, leaving seemingly no genre untried—church music, organ music, and, above all, orchestral music. He invented a new form, the symphonic poem, and a new genre, program music. Rejecting the abstract forms of the classical style, he took inspiration from extramusical “programs,” such as a story, character, or landscape. The procedure was a natural outgrowth of the Swiss and Italian piano works but was controversial in an orchestral setting. Conservative composers, such as Brahms, had scorn for the results. Still, symphonic poems became a dominant form well into the twentieth century. By 1860, Liszt was able to say that he had dedicated himself to “the renewal of music through its more intimate connection with poetry.”

The Weimar period marked the height of Liszt’s influence and achievement, but also the beginning of a sadness that shadowed the second half of his life. His tenure was marred by budgetary squabbles; and conservative Weimar deplored both his musical taste and his liaison with a married woman. The relationship with Carolyne atrophied after she was unable to obtain an annulment of her marriage. Two of his children died in quick succession.

These blows brought about a profound change in Liszt’s outlook. In 1861, he went to live in Rome: the Colosseum, he joked, would make an excellent concert hall. He went on religious retreats, cultivated friends in the Vatican, and took the four minor religious orders, becoming known as the Abbé Liszt. The final decades of his life—he died in 1886, at the age of seventy-four—were spent shuttling between Rome, Vienna, and Budapest, with occasional trips to visit Cosima and Wagner in Bayreuth. He was often severely depressed and considered suicide. “To tell the truth I sense in myself a terrible lack of talent compared with what I would like to express,” he wrote. “The notes I write are pitiful.”

Liszt’s work now became more contemplative and less preoccupied with effect. He produced a handful of startling short piano pieces—terse, ascetic, and despairing—that have become popular with performers only recently. Liszt claimed to have given up seeking approval: “I calmly persist in staying stubbornly in my corner, and just work at becoming more and more misunderstood.” Less self-deprecatingly, he wrote that his ambition was to “hurl my lance into the boundless realms of the future.”

The forward-looking nature of these works is impossible to miss. The two eerie chords at the end of Nuages gris, dissonant and unresolved, are pure Scriabin, and late Scriabin at that. A tiny toccata from 1879 would not be out of place among Debussy’s études, with white-key runs giving way to foreboding tritone harmonies. The introverted sound world of late Liszt prefigures any number of twentieth-century composers. Bartók wrote that Liszt’s music contains “more things that are in advance of his time than in those of many other composers whom the average public esteems more.” Schoenberg believed that “his effect has perhaps been greater, through the many stimuli he left behind for his successors, than Wagner’s has been.”


Hilmes’s biography gets better as things get worse for Liszt, because he is less determined than Walker to make Liszt look spotless. Liszt’s drinking in later years worried everyone around him. Walker, despite reporting a tally of “one bottle of cognac daily and on occasion two bottles of wine” as well as some absinthe, maintains that “whether he was an alcoholic in the medical sense of that term we cannot be sure.” Hilmes details hair-raising episodes of drunkenness that Walker omits and quotes the conductor Felix Weingartner, one of Liszt’s last piano pupils, saying that he was a “confirmed alcoholic.” Similarly, Walker tries hard to counter Liszt’s reputation for promiscuity, interpreting friendships with women as platonic wherever possible. Hilmes has no compunction about assuming that they were sexual affairs, and quotes Liszt himself saying that his great weakness was “the demon of arousal and extreme emotions.”

Drunkenness and sexual intrigue from a century and a half ago may seem beside the point, but they indicate an appetitive aspect in Liszt that is important. Hilmes portrays a man with a deep need to perform and to be admired—hardly a surprise in someone whose formative years were spent largely on stage. Even Liszt’s attempts to shake this destiny, such as his taking religious orders, had a dramatic side. Von Bülow said, “My father-in-law strikes me as being outwardly too much of an abbé and inwardly too little of one.”

Those who knew Liszt also observed a surprising passivity at odds with his colossal output. “Liszt does not have much ambition of his own,” a diplomat in Weimar recorded in 1851. “He seems to be weak by nature, someone who simply goes with the flow.” Going with the flow aptly describes a good deal of Liszt’s career, even at moments when he appeared to forge a new path. It was only after being hailed as a national hero in a concert in Pest in 1840 that he developed his interest in Hungarian music. The religious turn came when he was in Rome, and Hilmes conjectures that he hoped for a Vatican appointment. Supremely adaptive, Liszt was able to make the best of what life threw at him and this tendency is reflected in the music itself. The fantasies he wrote on operatic themes, a mainstay of his output, demonstrate a remarkable facility for creating workable wholes from disparate material.

Hilmes does not connect his reading of Liszt’s character to the music, and is clearly uncomfortable discussing musical matters (in contrast to Walker, whose insights are unerring). Hilmes writes that the title of Liszt’s B-Minor Sonata is “misleading,” merely because it’s written in one continuous movement, rather than three separate ones—a reading laughably inadequate to the work’s endlessly discussed and highly intricate structure. He suggests that “the fact that Liszt had large hands certainly helped him develop his new way of playing.” But Liszt’s hands, of which casts exist, were not abnormally large. His widest stretch, he said, was in the final chord of the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata—so a tenth in each hand.

There is something odd about a composer biography with so little music. Without a reliable sense of compositional breakthroughs, Liszt comes off as ineffectual. The Weimar years seem like a concatenation of bureaucratic fiascos rather than the most productive period of his life.

Critics divide Liszt’s output into three periods: the early showpieces, the mature Weimar works, and the cryptic late utterances. This view obscures strong continuities, the most important of which is that Liszt was a serial transformer, seizing newness at every opportunity. Piano music, orchestral music, and lieder, performance, conducting, and pedagogy—all sooner or later got the Liszt treatment. He persistently dynamites received practice and then moves on, leaving others to mine the rubble more fully (and often more successfully). Seen in this setting, the somber late works emerge not as an ascetic rejection of earlier flamboyance but as the culmination of a lifelong quest to interrogate and rethink every aspect of his art.

Another problem with dividing Liszt’s music up into three periods is that it is not simply a matter of early glitz versus late pensiveness. Some youthful works, like the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, are as introspective as late ones, and many popular showpieces—the Mephisto Waltzes, for instance—come from well into his mature years. Instead, more intriguingly, the dramatic turn from the worldly to the spiritual is enacted in piece after piece throughout Liszt’s career. Mendelssohn described the Liszt phenomenon as “a continual alternation between scandal and apotheosis.” He meant it sardonically but it is a perceptive observation. Liszt’s life and work present a fascinating oscillation between the splashy and the austere, the public and the reclusive.

The dichotomy is embodied in the music by a tendency to follow shattering climaxes with exceptionally restrained writing. Contemporary listeners spoke of “sunshine after a lightning storm,” and of an alternation between the diabolic and the heavenly. A good example comes in one of Liszt’s two Légendes, which depicts Saint Francis of Paola (his patron saint) walking on water. Surging scales in the bass, representing waves, seem to attack a hymnlike theme portraying the saint. After a climax, the saint, safely arrived onshore, offers thanks with a new theme—a falling stepwise pattern broken up with soblike rests that has an unmistakably prayerful tone.

The weakness that Hilmes identifies in Liszt is that his character was fundamentally reactive. This precluded the kind of single-minded achievement that he clearly admired in Wagner, but it was also the source of inexhaustible versatility, of his drive to transform everything he touched. Liszt strove to make his art embrace everything in the world around him. Schoenberg recognized this, finding his compositional innovations “less remarkable…than the things behind them—the personality, the true artist-being, that draws from direct vision.”

This is why the most successful performances of Liszt are often not the most technically dazzling; a poetic impulse behind the notes is far more important. Liszt impressed this point on his students. Late in life, while living at the Villa d’Este, in Tivoli, he gave a lesson on his study Harmonies du soir to Arthur Friedheim. The piece begins with muddy, crepuscular chords, which develop into a chorale-like theme and culminate in a climax of rhapsodic, numinous power. Before Friedheim began to play, he recalled, Liszt took him over to a window. With a sweeping gesture to the rays of the setting sun over the golden slopes of the Roman Campagna, and to the dome of St. Peter’s just visible in the distance, he said, “Play that.”