Posted on Sun, May. 15, 2005

Today's Cliburn competitors are rebelling against the conservative composers and are favoring composers such as Franz Liszt.

A-Liszt artist
The truth about the 19th-century 'rock star' whose innovations are behind much of what you'll hear onstage

If you could gaze into the soul of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, you would find yourself eyeball-to-eyeball with Franz Liszt.

Of all the great pianist-composers, he casts the greatest shadow over this event, which is devoted to the kind of virtuosity and showmanship that Liszt used to build one of the most dazzling careers in the history of performing arts.

It is no surprise that Liszt works are so popular with Cliburn competitors: Every concert pianist working today owes a debt to Liszt's trailblazing artistry at the keyboard.

But the Liszt legend is built on more than piano notes. His entire life was something of a work of art. He was one of the most wildly popular figures of 19th-century Europe, earning the sort of celebrity status that today is reserved for rock stars and movie actors. Women swooned at his sold-out concerts and fans eagerly snatched up any Liszt memento they could get their hands on, from gloves to abandoned cigar butts. He romanced countesses and princesses, and his roster of male friends read like a who's who of classical music, ranging from his early teacher Antonio Salieri (the bad guy in Amadeus) to his son-in-law, Richard Wagner.

As with any larger-than-life figure, a number of myths have developed about who he was and what he has accomplished. Because many of us are going to be spending a great deal of time with this Hungarian composer over the next three weeks, let's set the record straight about one of music's most unbelievable figures.

Myth No. 1: Liszt was the greatest pianist who ever lived.
This is a commonly held notion, supported by firsthand accounts of his concerts and the knuckle-busting works he composed to show off his skills. But, ultimately, the claim is unsupportable.

It's impossible to compare the performing abilities of today's pianists with one who left us not a single recording. Saying Liszt was the greatest ever is about as crazy as doing something like bringing a group of 35 pianists together for a few days of recitals and then determining that one of them is better than all the rest (uh, wait a minute . . . ).

Liszt was obviously one of the greatest keyboard masters who ever lived, but even he was not without detractors. You can dismiss Clara Schumann's remark about Liszt being "a smasher of pianos" as just a catty piece of professional jealousy (she was one of the few 19th-century pianists whose popularity rivaled his). But Clara wasn't alone. "I am quite impervious to your music," noted musician Joseph Joachim wrote to Liszt. "It contradicts everything in the works of our great masters." Another informed contemporary referred to Liszt as "an inspired charlatan."

And many musicians found that performing with Liszt was a mixed blessing. The pianist, who quickly tired of a piece as written, added embellishments each time he played it. Imagine being a string player in a quintet where the pianist suddenly begins to make up his part as he goes along. He drove fellow musicians nuts.

There can be no argument that Liszt was one of the greatest keyboard talents in history. But, as not everyone was charmed by his talented excesses, it's hard to place him above all who came before and after. It's fair to say, however, that Liszt was the most important pianist who ever lived.

Myth No. 2: Liszt invented the piano recital.
There is more truth to this one, but it comes down to how you define "piano recital."
Many scholars cite one of the Bach sons, Johann Christian Bach, as the first piano recitalist. But others give the honor to Liszt because his performances were the first to be all piano and nothing but piano. Earlier recitals alternated solo piano segments with singers or orchestral works. If Liszt did not quite invent the piano recital, he certainly perfected and popularized it. He is credited with some of the most fundamental aspects of the form, such as turning the piano sideways on the stage. In earlier concerts, the pianists usually had their backs to the audience, but Liszt wanted the crowd to see his handsome profile.

Myth No. 3: Liszt was an inveterate womanizer.
Another one that has plenty of documented support. But it is not too shocking that a rich, talented and handsome star of the stage would have a few girlfriends. Considering that he probably had a pool of potential groupies that would have made the Rolling Stones envious, Liszt may actually have shown a great deal of restraint. Rather than a Don Juan-like string of one-night stands, some accounts suggest that he actually moved from one relatively long-term relationship to another during his youth. His relationship with Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, for example, lasted for more than a decade. And, for the last 20 years of his life, Liszt lived alone.

In 1865, he took holy orders and earned the title of "abbe" (a low-level priest). To be sure, Liszt got around. And he did not always wait for a divorce decree to be finalized before starting an affair. But he may not have been the bed-hopping opportunist he is often assumed to have been. After all, he was one of the few romantic-era composers who did not die from a sexually transmitted disease. He died at 74, done in by the more mundane afflictions of dropsy and pneumonia.

Myth No. 4: Liszt's works for solo piano are the most difficult to play in the entire repertoire.
Hearing the thundering cascades of notes found in almost all of Liszt's great keyboard works, it is hard to believe that any music could be more challenging. And, yes, most of Liszt's works do require a high degree of virtuosity -- as do the works of Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, for that matter. "Other composers have written more difficult pieces, even in Liszt's day," says Rich DiSilvio, an artist and musician who maintains a worshipful Web site devoted to Liszt and his music ( But, DiSilvio says, "no other composer generated as much amazement at the keyboard." Liszt, he points out, was the first to perform entirely from memory. He also composed "penetrating melodies that emotionally captivated his audience and had that magical quality called charisma."

Myth No. 5: Liszt was a great pianist, but he was a vain and shallow man who offered the world nothing beyond his keyboard skills.
Given the celebrity trappings of Liszt's life and many quotes that suggest a self-centered view of the world, the initial impression he makes is one of flash and thunder without real substance.

But the showy Liszt hides the true artist, a well-read and surprisingly pious man who had an incredible impact on classical music. He also composed great orchestral music and was one of the most important conductors of his century. He was a tireless teacher who never charged his students; many of the great pianists of the 20th century were trained by them or their students, including Oscar Peterson and Van Cliburn, among many others.

So rather than being just a skirt-chasing "smasher of pianos," Liszt was an artist whose contributions continue to echo in the world's concert halls, illuminating and aggrandizing his legend. The notes you hear at the Cliburn competition will be brought to you by Steinway. But in more ways than you may have realized, the music will be coming from Liszt.

Liszt on the big screen
Franz Liszt has logged plenty of screen time -- both as a character and as a composer on soundtracks. Here are a few films where he can be seen or heard.

Lisztomania (1975): Who better to play Liszt in a film than a rock star? The Who's Roger Daltrey chews up the scenery in this wildly fanciful take on the composer's life that is way over the top even by British director Ken Russell's standards (Ringo Starr plays the pope, to give you some idea). Hard to watch, but it flirts with "so bad it's good" status.

Impromptu (1991): Hugh Grant and Judy Davis play Liszt's friends, Fredric Chopin and George Sand, respectively. A handsome little period piece that is more soap opera than music drama. And Julian Sands makes a great Franz Liszt.

Rhapsody Rabbit (1946) and The Cat Concerto (1947): These two cartoons, one by Warner Bros. and the other by Hanna-Barbera, are almost identical. Bugs Bunny and Tom the Cat desperately try to play Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 while being bedeviled by a rodent in the piano. Both are hilarious.

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