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Franz Liszt
Engraving by August Weger

Papers of Vladimir and Wanda Toscanini Horowitz
Gilmore Music Library

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liszt engraving portrait middle age

From 1823 to 1835, Liszt lived mainly in Paris, although he was often away on concert tours. He became an important figure in Parisian society, with ties to the aristocracy as well as many notables from the worlds of literature, art, and music (including Chopin and Berlioz). In 1832 he began seeing the Countess Marie d’Agoult (1805–1876), a wealthy noblewoman who was sepa­rated from her husband. Initially their relationship was a secret, but in 1835 she gave birth to a child (whom Liszt acknowledged), and the scandal led them to move to Switzerland and later to Italy. Altogether they had three children, the second of whom, Cosima, became famous in her own right; she married Liszt’s student Hans von Bülow, but later left him for Richard Wagner. After Wagner’s death in 1883, she headed the Wagner festival in Bayreuth until 1906. The rela­tionship between Liszt and the Countess was always tempestuous, and it ended acrimo­niously in1844.

In 1847 Liszt met another rich aristocrat who was separated from her husband, Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein (1819–1887), who was from Poland. This union proved to be somewhat more successful, but her existing marriage to Prince Nicholas (which, she said, she had entered under duress) led to many years of bitter litigation. The Tsar exiled her from Russia, and her efforts to gain an annulment from the Vatican (so she could marry Liszt) in 1861were thwarted at the last minute after her relatives, who stood to lose financially, secretly undermined her case.

Throughout the 1830s and ’40s, Liszt toured relentlessly throughout Europe, from England to Russia to Portugal; his concerts created a sensation wherever he went, in a manner strikingly similar to the rock stars of more recent times. These performances solidified his reputation as the dominant pianist of the century, and they established customs that pianists have followed ever since, such as playing without the assistance of other instrumentalists or singers, calling such solo concerts “recitals,” and placing the piano sideways on the stage, so the audience can see the pianist.

In 1848 Liszt decided to end this peripatetic life style and settled with Carolyne in Weimar, Germany, where he served as music director for a decade. During these years he concentrated on composition and conducting; he wrote the Piano Sonata and the Faust Symphony, among other works, and in 1850 he directed the premiere of Wagner’s Lohengrin.

For such a busy musician, Liszt was also a remarkably prolific author; his wrote books and articles on topics ranging from the life of Chopin to the music of the Gypsies. Both the Countess and the Princess played significant roles in his literary production, although scholars differ on the precise extent of their contributions.