Franz Liszt: The Impossible Virtuoso

Ryan Modafe

May 19, 2023

Liszt has become etched into music history as the most brilliant and supreme commander of the piano that has ever been known to walk the earth. His upbringing began in Raiding, Hungary, on October 22, 1811. Born into a musical family with his father being a cellist, his journey with music was heavily emphasized in his early years when identified as a child prodigy at the age of 6 and by the age of 12 already being able to play almost any score placed in front of him. At this point he moved to Paris with his family where he applied for membership at the Paris Conservatoire. Even with his unmatched piano abilities at such a young age, he was rejected because of his foreign nationality, a very poor choice in hindsight. 

Throughout his musical career, he tended to and developed a set of musical etudes that have now become known as the epitome of pianistic showcase. These began in 1826 as Etude en douze exercises, which were an adolescent and simple composition of technical exercises that could act as piano pieces as well. However, they had not yet reached their full potential and most of them had very trivial chord progressions and harmonic patterns. As a revision, in 1837, he constructed the second form of these etudes, known as Douze Grandes Etudes, which had heavily modified the previous version. In this set, he had essentially composed a true collection of masterpieces that wiped away the previous straightforward nature of his douze exercises and incorporated those motifs in a wondrous way. His final revision came in 1852, dedicated to his piano father, Carl Czerny, who nurtured him into the pianist he was and impressed upon him technical perfection. This version of etudes ramped down the difficulty level in order to make the pieces more accessible to the general public and expounded upon previous melodies in a less bombastic manner. With the addition of titles to ten out of the twelve pieces, he left these etudes in the form loved and exalted today. 

Unfortunately for him, his glory days of happiness and pure ecstasy were coming to a close as it all began to fall downhill for him beginning in 1859, with the loss of his son Daniel, and in 1862 with the death of his daughter Blandine. This period of turmoil deeply affected his future compositions and came together to create both brooding, dark, and grieving pieces as well as flowing and calm pieces, complementing each other throughout his last years. Even though his death in 1886 came as a great blow to many who appreciated his works, his legacy lives on forever as the master pianist, one who could never truly be lived up to.