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1839-1847 The Virtuoso Tours

The years between 1839 and 1847 were unprecedented triumphs for Liszt the virtuoso and creator of modern solo recital. In a few years with dazzling speed, he travelled over nearly the whole of Europe, with the exceptions of Scandinavia and the area south of the Balkan peninsula.

From examining the map of his tours,10 we can see the incredible number of places he toured, including some he visited several times in Germany, Hungary, the Austrian Empire, France, Great Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, the Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, and the principality of Romania. These tours included cities outlining the vast regions he travelled: Glasgow, Copenhagen, Riga, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev, Odessa, Bucharest, Constantinople (Istanbul), Gibraltar, Lisbon, Limerick, and Dublin. Almost impossible to imagine, he toured for the most part in horse-drawn coaches and jolting post-chaises as well as, upon occasion, by ship. He also travelled in numerous regions where public security did not exist during those times.

Never before had an instrumental performer enjoyed such boundless celebration, approaching the star quality and cult following of popular musicians today. The “Liszt-mania” surpassed even that of the Baroque castrato singers a century before. This most attractive young man—a famous Don Juan—became the craze of the entire European continent. The press even suggested that “this man is obviously Satan himself, otherwise he would not be able to accomplish on a piece of wood . . . what he accomplishes.”” Serious musicians, like Robert Schumann, reported as well: “yesterday again he [Liszt] played in his concert like a God, and the furor is not to be described.” Liszt surpassed all the well known piano virtuosos of his time, including Ferdinand von Hiller, Johann Pixis, Alexander Dreyschock, Johann Baptist Cramer, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Heinrich Herz, Ignaz Moscheles, and Sigismond Thalberg. Liszt was a genial performer, musician, and improviser who produced miracles on his instrument that no other pianist could duplicate. The piano itself had to be reformed to suit his new orchestral and pianistic effects and colours, not to mention his incredible passages of octaves, chords, trills, staccato notes, and fast repeated notes. He would at times fall into ecstasy when playing, being demoniac or seraphic or thousands of emotions in between. He placed the piano with its open lid on the podium parallel to the public in order to get a reverberate sound. As early as 1839, he established the idea of the solo recital, “musical soliloquies,” as he wrote to Princess Cristina Belgiojoso: ” I have devised [them] specially for the Romans, and which I am quite capable of importing to Paris, so boundlessly impudent do I become! Imagine that, failing to concoct a programme which would have any kind of sense, I dared, for the sake of peace and quiet, to give a series of concerts entirely alone, affecting the style of Louis XIV and saying cavalierly to the public, ‘Le Concert—c’est moi.’ Because of his exuberant style of playing, he was called in the English musical world, a “giant,” “tiger-tamer,” “Aurora Borealis of musical refulgence,” and a “Niagara of thundering harmonies.”

The music he performed contained, in great part, concessions to public taste and included pieces of many insignificant composers. Among his own new works were brilliant fantasias on popular songs of several nations and tunes of well-known operas, as well as popular works like the Grand galop chromatique. He played, nonetheless, Preludes and Fugues from Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, the Goldberg Variations, as well as his own transcriptions of Bach’s organ works. In the 1830s when Beethoven was not popular in Paris, Liszt performed Beethoven’s sonatas, concerti, and chamber works in addition to his own transcriptions of Schubert’s Lieder, and works by Domenico Scarlatti, George Frideric Handel, Carl Maria von Weber, Felix Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Chopin, and Schumann.

During his glorious tours across Europe, he—in addition to giving concerts and taking part in soirees, balls, and receptions arranged in his honour—found time for composing. Beside many new transcriptions, arrangements, opera fantasias, and his first series of Hungarian national works, he turned to new forms in vocal and orchestral genres. During these eight hectic years he composed the so-called Malediction piano concerto with string accompaniment (S 121), his first secular and sacred choral works, his first Beethoven Cantata (S 67), and a great number of Lieder.

In this period of his career, Liszt visited numerous countries and cities where he met, in two instances, people who were to become important in his future life. The first was Carl Friedrich, Grand Duke of Weimar in whose court he gave his first concerts at the end of November 1841, and where, a year later, he was appointed as court conductor in extraordinary service. The second was Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein (1819-1887), an ultra-rich, Polish, fanatic Catholic landowner in the Ukraine, who was separated from her husband. The princess first heard Liszt in Kiev in February 1847. Liszt, tired of his virtuoso life, had for years sought a companion to settle down with, and longed for quiet work as a composer. The princess—quite different from the beautiful and elegant Parisian Countess d’Agoult—would not be his ideal partner. Her influence turned out to be injurious in many respects, including his relationship to his mother and children as well as his writings and essays. The princess actually wrote large portions of his essays from this period based upon his ideas. Yet, at the moment they met, it was this exceptionally literate, cultured woman of high intellect who succeeded to settle him down and encourage him to compose. It would be with the princess during their twelve years together in Weimar that Liszt composed the greatest part of his well-known, mature works.