Franz Liszt At 200: An Important, But Not Great, Composer : Deceptive Cadence Commentator Miles Hoffman reflects on the influential composer's legacy 200 years after his birth.
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Franz Liszt At 200: An Important, But Not Great, Composer

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Franz Liszt At 200: An Important, But Not Great, Composer

Franz Liszt At 200: An Important, But Not Great, Composer

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We are listening to the striking opening of the "Piano Concerto Number 1" by Franz Liszt. Tomorrow is the 200th anniversary of the composer's birth.

MORNING EDITION's music commentator Miles Hoffman thought we should join the celebration, and he's here to tell us why.

Good morning, Miles.

MILES HOFFMAN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Franz Liszt was a superstar in his day. That, many people would know. But where would you, Miles, place him in music history, if you had to find a spot?


HOFFMAN: A spot for Franz Liszt.

MONTAGNE: Just a spot, a perch.

HOFFMAN: It would have to be a very big perch, a very big spot, Renee. This was an enormous figure in the history of music. And, as a matter of fact, in the history of Western music, only eight composers have been written about more than Franz Liszt. This is a man who lived an extraordinarily long and an extraordinarily productive life, a very complicated life.

And I guess the first perch I'd put him on is the perch as, by many accounts, the greatest pianist of the 19th century. This is somebody who revolutionized people's ideas of what was possible on the piano.

And we can hear what I mean by that, I think, if we just listen to a little bit of Evgeny Kissin playing one of Franz Liszt's transcendental etudes. This is pretty amazing stuff.


MONTAGNE: It sounds difficult and...

HOFFMAN: I mean, yeah. How do you say holy cow in German?


HOFFMAN: Yeah. Nobody had ever heard of anything like that. And, again, that's a transcendental etude or, in French, an etude of transcendental execution. And, Renee, basically, what Liszt did for the piano was what Paganini had done for the violin. And he did it in a similar way, which is he wrote incredibly difficult music, music that completely bowled audiences over, and music, at the time, only he was capable of playing.

MONTAGNE: And, Miles, as famous as Liszt was as a pianist during his lifetime - and there was even a moment of Lisztomania. I mean, you're talking...

HOFFMAN: Oh, yeah, big moments of Lisztomania.


MONTAGNE: You know, with gloves being thrown onto the stage, that sort of thing. Why is it that we primarily think of him today as a great composer?

HOFFMAN: Well, he gets a little complicated, Renee. I think there are people who would disagree with me, but I would make the case that Liszt was not so much a great composer as an extraordinarily important composer.

MONTAGNE: Okay, interesting distinction. Please explain.

HOFFMAN: Well, I think the first thing I'd say is that I don't think of Liszt as a composer of masterpieces. When I listen to his piano work, for example, I - as much as I enjoy them and find them fascinating, I'm more struck by the virtuosity than by the beauty or the depth of the music itself.

I should probably make an exception, I suppose. The pianists otherwise would be very angry with me if I don't make an exception for Liszt's "B Minor Piano Sonata," because many people, especially the pianists, do consider this a masterpiece.


HOFFMAN: That's a section from Franz Liszt's "B Minor Piano Sonata," which lasts almost a half-hour.

And, Renee, I guess what's certainly is that Liszt was, in many ways, a very important pioneer as a composer.

MONTAGNE: Was he also a champion of others' works during his career?

HOFFMAN: That's one of the most important facets of Liszt's career, Renee, both because he championed composers who were alive at the time - Hector Berlioz, for example, and Wagner. But also because he championed the works of composers who had come before, composers whose genius Liszt felt it was terribly important for the whole world to recognize. I'm thinking of Schubert and of Beethoven.

And what he did was the way he championed these works, very often, was to transcribe the works of great composers for the piano, so that he could play the music in recital - in his recitals. I think this will sound familiar to you.


MONTAGNE: Beethoven's "Symphony Number 5."

HOFFMAN: Yeah...

MONTAGNE: I heard that coming a little bit. It's beautiful on piano, though.

HOFFMAN: It really was. That was Glenn Gould playing it, by the way. But Liszt transcribed all the Beethoven symphonies, all nine Beethoven symphonies for piano. This is a tremendous undertaking. And he was able to bring this music, through his piano recitals, to the attention of people who otherwise would never have heard it.

MONTAGNE: Do you have a personal favorite among the works of Franz Liszt?

HOFFMAN: There is one piece, and it's not flashy piano piece, and it's not a big symphonic poem. There is one work by Liszt that I particularly love, and it's a song. It's called "Ou Quand Je Dors," "Oh, When I Sleep." It's for voice and piano, and it really couldn't be more beautiful.


HOFFMAN: "Ou Quand Je Dors," "Oh, When I Sleep" by Franz Liszt. That's not bad music for the desert island, I think, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And we're spending the time this morning listening to music by Franz Liszt and talking about him, because we're celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth. And it's been a pleasure, Miles.

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renee. Always a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is the violist of the American Chamber Players, and he is author of the "NPR Classical Music Companion."



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