Franz Liszt was “the greatest pianist who ever lived.” His first notes in concert sent the audience into an ecstatic frenzy, and his antics off-stage were even wilder. Franz Liszt’s bitter tantrums, illicit affairs, and dark genius turned him into an icon overnight, but few people know the true, tragic story of the tormented composer who scandalized a generation. Get ready for some Lisztomania.
Franz Liszt may have been destined for greatness from the start. Born in 1811 in the Austrian empire, Liszt’s father was an accomplished musician who worked for a Hungarian prince. Little Franz took after him almost immediately, listening attentively to his father playing the piano when he was just six, and starting to compose music at age eight. It was only up from there.
By the time he was 12 years old, Liszt had already become a music sensation in the opulent Austrian courts. He learned piano under Carl Czerny, who had himself learned from Beethoven, and even earned the patronage of some of the court’s most powerful music lovers. Sadly, it all came crashing down in a matter of months.
In 1823, a series of tragic events started to plague the boy prodigy. First, Liszt’s father lost his royal patronage—and four years later, the patriarch was dead. Suddenly, the teenaged Liszt and his mother had to jump off the lap of luxury, move into a small apartment in Paris, and try to make ends meet. Unfortunately, this is where Liszt picked up some very bad habits.
This change in circumstances hit Liszt hard. He not only had to stop touring to scores of adoring audiences, he also had to schlep around teaching students in all parts of Paris, putting in grueling workdays from dawn until midnight. To cope, Liszt took up smoking and drinking, beginning his bad-boy reputation at the tender age of 16. But he was just getting started…
Strapping and intelligent, it wasn’t long before Liszt found himself head over heels for one of his students, the beautiful and gentile Caroline de Saint-Cricq. They were doomed to a heartbreaking end. Caroline’s father, a powerful political minister, was staunchly against the match, and forced the young couple to split up. Liszt’s response was nothing short of drastic.
After his fairy tale turned into a tragedy, Liszt did what any heartsick young man would do: He nearly killed himself. Plunged into utter despair, he became so sick that a Paris newspaper printed his obituary. During this dark time, he also considered becoming a religious devotee, a strict path his own mother convinced him not to take. But when he rebounded from the angst, it was with a vengeance.
After years of turmoil, Liszt finally turned his attention back to music—and he went in hard. He decided he was going to be as good a virtuoso on the piano as his famed contemporary Niccolo Paganini was on the violin. Well, he succeeded all right. The next phase of his career kicked off a frenzy unlike anything people had seen before.
Sometime around the late 1830s, a strange thing started happening to Liszt’s audiences: They were moved to absolute ecstasy, and Heinrich Heine coined the term “Lisztomania” to describe the paroxysms the pianist sent his crowds into. People even believed Liszt’s effect was contagious, with fainting spells sweeping over Europe as he toured.
At first, crowds just admired Liszt's ability. But their respect soon turned ravenous. Women would mob him and brawl over mere scraps from his handkerchiefs or gloves, all while legions of his fans wore his portraits on cameos as if he were their lover. But wait, it gets a whole lot weirder than that.
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If you were a Liszt Super Fan, you went to even more extreme lengths than handkerchiefs and brooches. Some women picked up his coffee dregs, others turned his broken piano strings into bracelets, but the most disturbing fan of all went to the next level. She picked up a stub of his cigar, put it in a locket encrusted with diamonds, and wore it absolutely everywhere, “unaware of the sickly odor it gave forth.” Girl, you’ve got it bad.
In many ways, it’s no wonder people were falling all over themselves for Liszt. To put it mildly, the man was a stone-cold fox. Tall and slim with cheekbones that could cut like a knife, Liszt also knew how to use his physicality to his advantage, thrashing and coiling around his piano. As one reviewer put it, "How powerful, how shattering was his mere physical appearance." And well, Liszt was also using some of that physicality in the bedroom…
In 1833, while Liszt was just on the tip of his fame, he met the beautiful Countess Marie d’Agoult. Though she was a full six years older than his 22 years, he fell into passionate love with her. There was just one scandalous problem. The aristocratic Marie was already very much married. Did this stop the couple? Not by a long shot.
Just two years after meeting Liszt, Marie d’Agoult blew up her entire life to be with him, leaving her husband, her cushy allowance, and her young daughter to go live with the composer in Geneva, Switzerland. Independent and headstrong, Marie might not have cared that she was flouting polite society…but she was also carrying a big secret.
When the Countess d’Agoult entered Geneva, she was very pregnant with Liszt’s baby. Their love child, a little girl they named Blandine, was born there on December 18, 1835. They would have two more children together, a girl named Cosima and a boy named Daniel. It was a big happy family—that is, until it wasn’t.
Liszt and Marie had utterly scandalized French society, and Marie’s mother wanted nothing to do with the children, which was particularly bad considering the couple wanted to gallivant around town without their babies in tow. Their solution? Dump them with Liszt’s mother and various wet nurses. Is it any wonder there was trouble in paradise?
Soon after their son Daniel was born in 1839, Liszt and the Countess Marie found themselves falling out of love with each other, and the results were nasty. Marie once dubbed Liszt a “Don Juan parvenu,” and they both likely started engaging in numerous affairs at this time. Really though, that was just the start of their bitter feud.
By the end of 1845, the Liszt homestead had become a hostile battlefield. The couple became so fed up with each other, they insisted on using the classic “Broken Home” tactic: Getting third parties like friends and family members to pass on their messages, all while staunchly refusing to speak to each other. And then Liszt got truly cruel.
Neither the Countess nor Liszt went gently into the goodnight of their relationship, and soon Liszt forbade his daughters from contacting their mother in any way. Marie claimed he was trying to take "the fruits of a mother's womb"—which, uh, he was—but it was all in vain. She fought like heck, but didn’t see her girls for five full years, despite living in the same city as them. Sadly, Liszt’s possessiveness didn’t let up.
Liszt controlled his daughters down to the very last detail, and when he found out in 1850 that his girls had been seeing their mother behind his back, his response was swift and brutal. He pulled them out of school and placed them with a governess, who was the only person aside from him allowed to make decisions for them. As we’ll see, this did not work out well for him.
One of the composer’s rumored lovers during this was the celebrated female writer George Sand, who was the toast of many chic Parisian circles. Yet Liszt dealt her a cruel betrayal. When whispers got out that they were together, Sand begged Liszt to proclaim her innocence. Instead, he stopped responding to her letters entirely and skipped town for months. And that wasn’t even his most infamous behavior.
For all that Liszt put women into a frenzy, critics weren’t always so kind to him. In fact, they could be downright cruel. Writers mocked him for his impassioned facial expressions and gestures during his concerts, and his slim frame and intense profile were ripe for caricature and snide comments, particularly when he was starting out.
In 1847, Liszt had a date with destiny. That year, he played a concert in Kiev and met the polish Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. Like so many women before her, Liszt’s playing enraptured Carolyne, and she started up a fling…despite the fact that she was also married, and her husband was the powerful Prince Nicholas Sayn-Wittgenstein. Not that it mattered—their romance moved at lightning speed.
Princess Carolyne was a brash woman who knew exactly what she wanted, and she made no secret of wanting Liszt in a very serious way. For their first “date,” she invited him back to her daughter’s 10th birthday party, which seems like the exact opposite of “let’s see where things go.” Their flame burned fast, bright, and violent.
For a time, Carolyne exerted incredible influence over Liszt. The pianist even halted his touring career at the tender age of 35, mostly because Carolyne advised him to go out at the height of his powers. She even helped him pen several of his written works, and encouraged him to focus more on composition to achieve immortality. Yet it wasn’t enough.
Both the princess and the composer were intensely devout Catholics, and eventually, they were desperate to marry each other under the eyes of God. They were destined for disappointment. Although Carolyne had separated from her husband, the Catholic Church still considered her very much taken. It would take a miracle to get them to the altar.
In September 1860, after years of struggle, persuasion, and every trick the clever pair knew, Carolyne and Liszt finally succeeded in getting the Vatican to recognize that the princess’s previous marriage had never been valid, allowing them to marry. Ecstatic, they started planning the wedding—only to suffer a devastating blow.
Certain they belonged together and wanting to celebrate their love the right way, Princess Caroylne and Liszt planned to have their wedding ceremony on October 22, 1861, which fell on Liszt’s 50th birthday. True to their wild, romantic natures, they also wanted to declare their eternal love in The Eternal City, Rome. But fate had other, crueler plans.
On the very eve of their wedding, Liszt arrived in Rome. It was supposed to be both the last day he was a bachelor and the last day he was 49 years old. Only one of those things happened. When he reached the Princess, he found her beside herself and unable to marry him. The reasons she gave must have chilled him to the very bone.
Princess Carolyne’s not-so-ex-husband Prince Nicholas apparently never forgave her for humiliating him, so he got a brutal revenge. With the help of no less than the Tsar of Russia, he had reportedly squashed the wedding and revoked the Vatican’s permission at the eleventh hour. In the blink of an eye, Liszt’s life fell apart. But Nicholas wasn’t done yet…
Just to rub salt in the lovers’ wounds, Prince Nicholas also made sure Carolyne could never marry anyone else ever again. The Russian Empire seized her estates along with much of her wealth, which made her unlikely to attract any man to marry in the future, either. Sadly, the effect it had on her relationship with Liszt was even more tragic.
Liszt and Carolyne never recovered from this vicious blow. To the devout pair, it must have been as if God himself was telling them it would never work out. Accordingly, their relationship lapsed from fervent passion into something completely platonic, though they remained connected for the rest of their lives. And Liszt’s nightmare was just beginning.
Around this time, Liszt suffered through an absolute ordeal of other tragedies, including the death of his only son Daniel in 1859, and then the passing of his daughter Blandine in 1862, when both children were just entering into adulthood. The sensitive, dramatic composer was at the edge of his very sanity, but he had more coming at him.
During his time with Princess Carolyne, Liszt took to championing many causes and composers that were near to his heart, particularly the visionary musician Richard Wagner. The two men had a deep bond with one another, and Liszt did everything he could to raise Wagner’s profile. Which is about when Wagner threw it right back in his face.
In 1870, Liszt finally got a taste of rebellion from his children. That year, his only surviving daughter Cosima caused a scandal when she divorced her husband and married none other than Liszt’s beloved Richard Wagner in a secret ceremony. It was enough to make Liszt apoplectic, but it was how he found out that really set him off.
Richard Wagner and Cosima were deeply in love, but they also knew Liszt would never approve of their scandalous union—which is ironic, given the pianist’s own escapades. Instead, they simply never told him, and Liszt had to read about his daughter’s messy second nuptials in the tabloids like everybody else. That one had to hurt.
What Liszt did, he had to do with his entire heart. One of his most extreme choices was the culmination of a lifetime of pain and contemplation—but that didn’t make it any less desperate. In 1863, after his ruined marriage and personal losses, he announced to all his friends he was retiring from public life. The life he chose instead was much less glamorous.
The great, enigmatic Franz Liszt then reinvented himself as none other than a Franciscan monk. For two years starting in 1863, he lived in a monastery just outside Rome in a bare little room, and in April 1865, he made the mid-life crisis official by taking orders and becoming Abbe Liszt, a title some people called him until the day he passed.
The sheer amount of performances that Liszt gave throughout his life is staggering. During his heyday as a touring musician in the 1840s, he often appeared three or four times a week for almost eight years, resulting in hundreds if not thousands of shows. Even as he grew older, he traveled constantly between countries. Eventually, though, his healthy days came to a dark end.
On July 2, 1881, Liszt had a horrific accident. He fell down a set of stairs while staying at a hotel in Weimar, and didn’t mend for an unsettling eight weeks. Up until then, the composer had been fit and hale, astounding even his youngest fans with his energy. His friends were surprised at his injuries, but the red flags had been there all along…
Just a month before the accident, people close to Liszt had started noticing strange symptoms in the great man. Most prominently, he had swelling in his feet and legs. This discomfort was small enough to dismiss, but it actually indicated a much more serious problem: Congestive heart failure. Within weeks of his fall, then, Liszt started falling apart.
Soon enough, Liszt was suffering from a whole host of problems, including dropsy, asthma, insomnia, and a cataract. His legendary vigor began to crumble, and his artwork turned to despair. As Liszt once told a fellow composer, “I carry a deep sadness of the heart which must now and then break out in sound.” Sadly, his end would be more tragic than anyone imagined.
As a teacher of music, Liszt was one strange animal. He mostly refused to give his students any practical or technical advice, instead enigmatically telling them to “wash their dirty linen at home.” That wasn’t his only bizarre phrase either—other favorites included, “Do not chop beefsteak for us” and “There you go, mixing salad again.” Uh, thanks, Yoda.
Although people considered him one of the greatest pianists of his day, Liszt had a crippling insecurity about his education. Because of his roaming childhood and prodigious playing, Liszt never had a formal education growing up. To make up for it, as an adolescent, he once took years off just to catch up on his reading.
Liszt had a surprising and little-known side underneath his rock star image. The composer didn’t just give frequently to charities, practically all he did was give away his money. After 1857, he had already amassed so much wealth for himself, the majority of his proceeds after this point went directly to those in need of it most.
People were so obsessed with and anxious about “Lisztomania” that many of Franz Liszt’s contemporaries spent their lives trying to explain the symptoms behind the hysteria. Their conclusions included everything from mysticism to electricity to politics, but many settled on the simple magnetism of the man himself. Could have told you that one, guys.
In 1886, the aging Liszt was still trying to go strong, and he played one final private concert with Claude Debussy. In July of that year, he even attended his daughter Cosima’s music festival—but it was here that his life ended. After attending a performance, Liszt collapsed and was rushed to the hospital, where he passed on July 31. It was not a peaceful end.
Upon hearing of her father’s passing, Cosima showed a cruel side. She absolutely refused to have any memorial service for Liszt, and buried him against his wishes in a municipal cemetery of Bayreuth. Why? She didn’t want her famous father’s death to compete with her festival. It was an ignominious end for such a great man.
We haven't yet covered the most dramatic chapter of Franz Liszt's life: Around 1844, he met the notorious seductress Lola Montez, and they embarked on a torrid affair to end all torrid affairs. Both Liszt and Montez had enormous egos, and after a few electric weeks, they started to argue, with Liszt flying off the handle when Montez interrupted his work, and Montez becoming enraged when he looked at other women. Then one day, it came to an infamous climax.
Liszt was continually attending lavish Parisian soiree after lavish Parisian soiree, often without his new side-piece Lola. So one day, nursing her bitterness about not being invited out yet again, his mistress got a scandalous revenge. Lola crashed the party anyway, making sure to dance on tables in front of everyone for good measure. Then again, Liszt’s retaliation wasn’t any better.
According to one story, Liszt left Lola Montez in the lurch. Reportedly, he woke up beside her one morning and realized he could no longer stand his lover. So, like any self-respecting Don Juan, he simply locked Lola in their hotel room—it was safer for him that way—and took off, never to visit her bed again. Real nice, Franz.
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