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Franz Liszt
Lithograph by Charles Etienne Pierre Motte

ca. 1827

Portrait File
Gilmore Music Library

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portrait of young liszt

Liszt was born into a fairly humble family in 1811, but in some ways he was well situated for a musical career. His father, Adam Liszt, a skilled amateur musician, was a clerk at the estate of the Eszterhazys, one of the richest families in Hungary. Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) spent the better part of his career in the service of Prince Nicolaus Eszterhazy, composing and direct­ing symphonies and operas for a world-class musical establishment. Adam Liszt knew Haydn, and had the opportunity to perform with him. Franz Liszt was a child prodigy; he began piano lessons with his father at the age of six, and by the time he was nine, he had played a concerto in public.

In 1822 the Liszt family moved to Vienna so Franz could study with Carl Czerny. (He also received music theory instruction from Antonio Salieri.) Best remembered today for his finger exercises, Czerny ranked among the leading pianists of the day. Liszt made remarkably rapid progress under Czerny’s tutelage, and his public performances quickly earned a reputation in Vienna. When the publisher Diabelli commissioned numerous prominent musicians each to write a variation on Diabelli’s own theme (with a coda by Czerny), the young Liszt was among them; it was his first publication. Czerny was a friend and former pupil of Beethoven (who, incidentally, had composed a set of thirty variations on Diabelli’s theme), so he was able to introduce his star student to the great man. Exactly what happened between them is the subject of much scholarly debate. Contrary to some later accounts, Beethoven did not attend Liszt’s concert, but he may have listened to him in private, although Beethoven’s deafness would have hindered his ability to judge Liszt’s playing. Decades later, Liszt proudly claimed that Beethoven had bestowed a “kiss of consecration” on his forehead.

In 1823 the Liszts moved to Paris, which was even larger and more cosmopolitan than Vienna. Although barred from enrolling at the Conservatoire because he was a foreigner, Liszt studied theory and composition privately with Reicha and Paër. Paris would be his base of operations for many years to come, but he was already beginning a life of frequent concert tours throughout Europe, and across the Channel to England, where he played for King George IV in 1824.