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Superstar, ladies' man: Happy 200th Franz Liszt

BUDAPEST (Reuters Life!) - He was the world's first musical superstar, a bigger-than-life personality with a wild mane of hair who seated adoring women around his piano onstage and had his own "mania" cult long before the Beatles.
/ Source: Reuters

BUDAPEST (Reuters Life!) - He was the world's first musical superstar, a bigger-than-life personality with a wild mane of hair who seated adoring women around his piano onstage and had his own "mania" cult long before the Beatles.

This year marks the 200th birthday of Franz Liszt, that demon of the keyboard who made women swoon, men gape and rivals jealous. But his music is often deemed second rate, and while his piano works and concertos are played, many casual listeners may know him best from Tom & Jerry television cartoons ("Cat Concerto").

"I think he's criticized too many times considering that he was one of the most influential composers of the 19th century," said pianist and conductor Zoltan Kocsis, music director of Hungary's National Philharmonic Orchestra and the country's Liszt year "ambassador."

Liszt, the grand man of Hungarian music, who in Hungary goes by the first name Ferenc, was born in the then-Hungarian, now Austrian, village of Doborjan, on Oct 22, 1811.

Kocsis, who has performed Liszt's music for decades and orchestrated some of his piano works, is perfectly aware of Liszt's reputation as a grandmaster flash of the 19th century.

Contemporary caricatures of him, legs akimbo, fingers flashing, have an echo today in the style of the Chinese pianist Lang Lang. The caricatures say "showman," not deep thinker.

"They say he didn't really write masterpieces, he didn't reach the height of Wagner or other composers, but I think a composer's value should be established from the peaks, not the valleys," Kocsis said.

This year, anyone with the remotest interest in Liszt will have every opportunity to test out Kocsis's, and other musicians', opinion that Liszt not only invented the modern piano recital, he also paved the way for Debussy, Bartok and even Wagner -- who, among other things, was Liszt's son in law.

"Liszt was ahead of his era at least by 30 years, so of course his contemporaries didn't really understand him," said pianist Jeno Jando, playing an excerpt from a Liszt rhapsody for Reuters Television on one of Liszt's own pianos in Budapest's Liszt Museum.

The museum is a treasure trove for anyone trying to understand the "Lisztomania" that gripped Europe, including a solid-silver piano music stand dripping with silvery violins and horns that is so over the top it could only have been Liszt's.

"He was an extraordinary personality, pointing forward, not only by developing piano technique to where Rachmaninov continued it but he used the piano as if it was a symphonic orchestra," Jando said.


From Seoul to Beijing to the concert halls of Europe and the U.S., this is the year to hear not only Liszt's famous Faust Symphony, Mephisto Waltz and Hungarian Rhapsodies, but also little-known church works and more rarely heard showpieces like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony he transcribed for the piano.

Hungary will re-enact a famous "piano duel" between Liszt and a rival (the rival was deemed the better pianist but the main woman judge concluded "there is only one Liszt").

There will be a dramatization of the life of this globe trotter, ladies' man (he fathered three children out of wedlock, with another man's wife), and religious mystic who in later life wore priestly robes and had a private audience with the Pope.

It all comes to a head on Oct 22, which the Hungarians have declared "World Liszt Day," an occasion for orchestras and choirs across the globe to perform his infrequently heard Christus Oratorio. Seoul and Beijing have signed up, as have a half dozen Hungarian cities, but anyone else is welcome.

"It's not closed," said Orsolya Erdody, a violinist and the office director of Hungarofest, the organizing body, who wants as many choruses and orchestras as possible to participate.

Erdody, a Liszt booster if ever there was one, says she originated a plan that could, if not entirely close off debate over Liszt's ambiguous heritage, at least make everyone flying to Hungary think he's Hungarian: name the airport after him.

"It's important to have something from the Liszt year which will be there, will remain for a long time, for our children and that's why I think it would be an important act to give the Budapest airport another name, which is even an international name, so everybody in the world knows Liszt Ferenc," she said.

There's more to this than simple national pride.

Liszt's father, though a German speaker, was Hungarian. But his mother was Austrian, his mother tongue was German, his best language was French, he never really learned Hungarian and his hometown became part of Austria after World War One and was renamed Raiding. To top it off, he is buried in Bayreuth, that musical temple to his son-in-law, the ultra-German Wagner.


"For us he was an Austro-Hungarian," said Sigrid Weiss, who handles media relations for the Liszt events in Raiding.

It's not a debate that the naming of one airport is going to resolve. Nor does it end with the famous quote from Liszt: "Je suis Hongrois" -- his way of saying "I am a Hungarian" in French, possibly because he didn't know the Hungarian.

What may prove the point, though, is Liszt's music.

"Liszt did not live in Hungary but he felt homesick all the time," said Petra Kiss, a piano student at Budapest's Liszt Academy. "As a Hungarian I feel he is close to me and I can understand his personality."

"He had a very diverse character, his late religious works that he wrote after his daughter died and his love left him are very he must have been a very extreme person."