Franz Liszt was a virtuoso pianist, composer and Romantic artist par excellence. He is remembered today mainly for his important contributions to piano technique and repertoire, but there is much more to Liszt the composer. A child prodigy, the young Liszt toured Europe under the guidance of his father (an amateur musician), showing off his amazing pianistic talent. A turning point came when, in his early twenties, Liszt heard the virtuoso violinist Paganini perform. He decided from then on that he would dedicate himself to doing for the piano what Paganini had done for the violin. After isolating himself in intense practice he finally succeeded admirably in that goal, writing a number of works of hither-to unheard-of difficulty, many actually inspired by Paganini's Caprices. Using his own compositions and virtuoso fantasies based on contemporary operas, Liszt took Europe, Russia and Turkey by storm as a soloist. After reaching the highest levels of society and receiving the endorsement of royalty from every European nation, Liszt abruptly gave up the stressful life of a touring concert artist and settled down, at age 37, to other artistic pursuits.
The period that followed was a very fruitful one for Liszt. He extensively revised many of his earlier piano pieces to give them more musical and poetic depth, in the process often greatly reducing their technical demands. He also set to work on a number of new and major compositions, including the Sonata in B Minor for piano and symphonies inspired by Goethe's Faust and Dante's Divine Comedy. Finally, he pioneered a new genre of orchestral music, the "symphonic poem". These works were extensions of his earlier character pieces for piano, and are intended to depict a poetic or dramatic scene in symphonic terms. Liszt was a deeply philosophical man, and much of his music was inspired directly by the poets and writers he admired, including Byron, Goethe, Lamartine and Senancour. Throughout his career Liszt was highly supportive of his fellow musicians and worked tirelessly to promote their work. Among his closest acquaintances were Berlioz, Chopin, Schumann and Wagner. By performing their music in his recitals and also arranging orchestral works for piano, Liszt did much to help his colleagues find a wider audience. He gave lots of encouragement to Edvard Grieg for example praising his music and playing through his Piano Concerto.
Liszt was never content with the status quo or with simply continuing artistic traditions. He was always on the forefront of the most progressive trends of his time. In addition to his exploration of the Symphonic Poem, he is also credited with Leitmotif technique which was used by Wagner in his operas, his textural inventions predated the French Impressionists, he introduced bold new gestures into the art of conducting, and during the final decade of his life he began to write music in a nearly atonal idiom. Through his expanding of tonality to the breaking point, Liszt not only wrote powerfully expressive music, but also foreshadowed the harmonic developments of the 20th century. However, he forbade his students to play these late works, fearing their progressive nature would harm careers just then in the making. Though Liszt had a reputation as something of a hedonist and showman for much of his life, he was also profoundly spiritual, to the point where he took on minor Catholic orders as an abbé in the final years of his life. He died in Bayreuth, Germany, surrounded by his adoring students, many of whom were to become the most famous and successful pianists of their own generations.
Liszt is primarily remembered today as a composer for piano, second-to-none. The majority of his piano works are in the standard repertoire of every professional and student pianist. Recently, many famous conductors have championed Liszt's orchestral works and have brought his brilliance in orchestration and symphonic form to a wider public.
Among the composer's major works are:
Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsodies" were originally written for solo piano, but many were arranged for orchestra or other combinations of instruments. The Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 is the most popular and was the basis for the Tom & Jerry cartoon called the Cat Concerto. Another of Liszt's works to be adapted for other purposes was his symphonic poem "Les Preludes" (listed below under orchestral works) was used in "The Amazing Interplanetary Adventures of Flash Gordon" a 1936 adaptation of the comic strip.