Franz Liszt was the son of a talented amateur musician who was a steward in the service of the Esterhàzy family. He was a child prodigy at the piano and, by the time he was eleven, had performed in many parts of Europe and was well-established as a concert pianist.
In 1821 he left Hungary and moved to Vienna where he studied piano with Carl Czerny and composition with Antonio Salieri. Two years later he went with his family to Paris where he was recognised as a brilliant performer and quickly became a favourite of the wealthy French families. In 1830 he met Chopin, Berlioz and the violin virtuoso, Paganini. Paganini’s virtuosity inspired Liszt to explore the expressive possibilities of the piano, transferring the violinist’s technical wizardry to his own instrument.
As a young man in Paris, Liszt was as famed for his affairs of the heart as for his piano technique. In 1835 he eloped with his mistress, the Countess Marie d'Agoult (who was already married), to Switzerland and they spent the next few years in the Alps and in Italy. They had three children.
Between 1839 and 1847, Liszt took on the role of a traveling virtuoso, playing all over Europe to wide acclaim. It is said that he invented the concept of a modern piano recital. He separated from his mistress in 1844, and in 1848 took up a full-time conducting post as Kapellmeister at the Weimar court, where he lived with Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein. He abandoned his performing career and devoted his attention mainly to composition, although he conducted and taught, among others, Hans von Bülow. Here he wrote some of the most difficult piano music ever written, such as the Transcendental Studies. He expanded some of the ideas of musical form, increasing the length and scope of traditional ideas such as Sonata Form, and turning multi-movement pieces into single works.
It is in his piano compositions, though, that Liszt’s virtuosity as a performer shows through. His imaginative use of unusual combinations of chords, scales and intervals is punctuated by a very advanced use of chromaticism. He also had the ability to express a very wide variety of moods and ideas in his music, which makes it so rewarding to listen to. Unfortunately for Liszt, public denouncements on his relationship with the Princess forced him to move to Rome in 1860, where he stayed until 1869. Here, he found expression for his long-held spiritual leanings and he composed many religious works. In 1865 he joined the Franciscans and was given the title of Abbé. From 1870 onwards, he traveled regularly between Rome, Weimar, where he had many pupils, and Budapest, where he was regarded as a national hero.