To say that Franz Liszt was one of the first rock stars is perhaps a bit simplistic, but it seems like the one of best modern descriptions. It’s a testament to the sheer magnitude of hype surrounding this 19th century giant that the term Lisztomania came into existence simply to describe it. The word was first used by the poet Heinrich Heine after Liszt’s debut in Berlin where, upon his exit, he was escorted from the city in a coach drawn by six white horses with a grand parade following behind – truly the royal treatment! But not only did Liszt change the persona of a performing musician, he changed the art of performing itself. Before him it was basically assumed that no single player could hold the audience’s attention throughout an entire concert. After touring Europe he proved everyone wrong. “Le concert, ces’t moi (I am the concert)”, said Liszt. If you think about a modern piano recital whether it be Evgeny Kissin, Keith Jarrett, Elton John, Ben Folds or Tori Amos, Liszt is responsible for most things about that performance – the theatrical qualities – entering from the side of the stage to take his seat at the keyboard, he was the first person to play from memory, he was the first to turn the piano sideways so that people could see his profile and the rapturous emotions which played across his face, they saw his fingers in action, his hair flying, the sweat pouring off his face, even the audience sitting in rapt attention was something unusual. Liszt commanded the stage – before him concerts were often more of a social event where people mingled and talked during the performance with maybe one or two headliners that people actually listened to. Not Liszt. When Tsar Nicholas I of Russia spoke loudly during his performance Liszt stopped playing and bowed his head. When Nicholas inquired why he had stopped, his cutting response was, “Music herself is silent when Nicholas speaks.” This remark was soon echoed all over Europe. Even the term ‘recital’ itself was a creation of Liszt’s.
As one of his greatest biographers, Alan Walker, pointed out, “Everywhere he went Liszt lived out his life in a blaze of publicity. People clamored for literature about him. And so the biographies came first; the hard evidence turned up later.” Let’s make no mistake, Liszt was a true genius. The very event that started the so called ‘Lisztomania’ was ample proof of that, for Liszt’s Berlin debut was not just one, but a series of 21 concerts throughout the course of six weeks – eighty works in total amounting to over 15 hours worth of the most difficult music all performed from memory! And that was just his skill as a performer. He was, in addition to being one of the greatest virtuosos of all time, a profoundly influential composer, one of the founders of the modern school of conducting, a teacher and mentor to whom almost all modern pianists can trace their musical lineage and, later in life, an Abbé, as he took the four lower orders of the Catholic Church.
In my on-going quest to bring classical music to a wider audience, much of whom would not normally attend a classical performance, I have created a more "dramatic" version of my all-Liszt program wherein I dress up in period costume as Franz Liszt and relate events from his life and career in the first person. Although not an original idea of mine - there have been others who have done the same to varying degrees of melodrama - I have found this to be highly entertaining for general audiences and quite amusing for musicians and regular concert goers alike! You can find a video preview here under "A Hungarian Rhapsody."