On this day in 1886, Liszt Ferencz (known in the West as “Franz Liszt”) died of pneumonia in Bayreuth, Germany—home of the famous Wagner Music Festival. Liszt was a prolific composer, one who had an influence on the following century’s great composers, and he was considered, in his day, to be the world’s greatest pianist.
Franz was born to a Hungarian musical family in 1811. His father played the piano (and a number of stringed instruments) and personally knew composers Beethoven, Haydn and Hummel. Franz’s father began teaching his son the piano when the boy was seven—and by the time he was nine, the boy had impressed many wealthy, local music patrons who offered to sponsor the boy’s musical education in Vienna.
The Liszt family moved to Vienna and, soon enough, Franz’s virtuoso playing pulled him into the aristocratic social circles of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1823, as a pre-teen, Liszt’s first composition was published, bringing him even greater fame.
When Franz’s father died, the sixteen year old boy and his mother moved to Paris where Franz began teaching piano to support his family. He stopped composing and performed rarely. It was during this time—keeping irregular hours and criss-crossing the city to the homes of students—that Liszt began smoking and drinking, habits which would affect him for the rest of his life.
In 1832, during a charity concert featuring the violin maestro Niccolò Paganini, Liszt resolved to pursue his piano playing with renewed vigor. His goal: to become as great a pianist as Paganini was a great violinist. Sure enough, he met his goal. Liszt began performing and touring and, before long, “Lisztomania” was sweeping Europe. Women in the audience tore at his clothing, gloves and handkerchiefs, hoping for a souvenir of the charismatic, talented musician. Before long, Liszt was making so much money that he could afford to donate much of it to charity—which only fueled the composer’s popularity throughout the continent.
In 1881, Franz Liszt fell down a flight of hotel stairs. His subsequent confinement led to a host of debilitating ailments, not the least of which was a deep depression. A downward spiral of health issues culminated in his death on this day in 1886. He was 74. The composer is buried in Bayreuth.
Liszt had many students, friends, and admirers who were composers themselves. His influence has touched many of the great names of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century musical composition, including Berlioz, Wagner, Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Ravel and Bartók.
The 1920’s bust of Franz Liszt, shown above, captures the proud “Classical Rock Star” of his day. It is cast of spelter and is mounted atop a marble base.