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Franz Liszt the Teacher

Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt was a legendary pianist, famous for his overwhelming technical prowess and expressive power. Many today do not realize that as a teacher he had a lasting effect upon piano playing throughout Europe and even in the United States. Most of the great pianists of the nineteenth century came under his influence, whether or not they attended his classes. 

Liszt's own musical education began when he was a child. He studied first with his father, Adam, who was a steward on the Esterházy estates in Hungary and also a fine amateur musician. The family was poor, but there was frequent music making in their home.When Adam Liszt realized that his son was unusually musical, he took the boy to Vienna to meet Carl Czerny. Czerny wrote about the encounter in his memoirs: 

One morning in 1819…a man brought a small boy about eight years of age to me and asked me to let that little fellow play for me. He was a pale, delicate-looking child and while playing swayed on the chair as if drunk so that I often thought he would fall to the floor. Moreover, his playing was completely irregular, careless, and confused, and he had so little knowledge of correct fingering that he threw his fingers over the keyboard in an altogether arbitrary fashion. Nevertheless, I was amazed by the talent with which Nature had equipped him.… The father told me that his name was Liszt….1

About a year later Liszt and his son came to Vienna and moved to the same street where we lived… Never before had I had so eager, talented, or industrious a student.… Within a short time he played the scales in all keys with a masterful fluency made possible by a natural digital equipment especially well suited for pianoplaying. Through intensive study of Clementi's sonatas… I instilled in him for the first time a firm feeling for rhythm and taught him beautiful touch and tone, correct fingering, and proper musical phrasing, even though these compositions at first struck the lively and always extremely alert boy as rather dry.…The young Liszt's unvarying liveliness and good humor, together with the extraordinary development of his talent, made us love him as if he were a member of our family, and I not only taught him completely free of charge, but also gave him all the necessary music….2

Liszt never forgot Czerny's generosity, never charging for lessons once he had established his fortune. A few years later Adam Liszt lost his position with the Esterházy court and decided to make a living by taking young Franz on tour. Czerny was not happy with this idea, but the father and son set off, first returning to Hungary. Following multiple concerts in Germany and Austria, they arrived in Paris where young Franz became the pet of society, in demand at all the best salons. 

When Liszt was sixteen, his father became seriously ill and died. His mother moved to Paris to stay with her son. Franz taught piano lessons to support them. Because of his reputation he attracted several aristocratic students. Valérie Boissier, later to become the Comtesse de Gasparin, was among his pupils in 1832. Her mother, a pianist and composer, attended the lessons and reported on them to her family. Mme. Boissier published her notes as a book, Liszt as Pedagogue. Her account reveals what was important to the young Liszt in teaching. He first stressed posture and position: 

Liszt wants the body held straight, with the head bent slightly backward rather than forward. There must be nothing suggestive of tension in the way the hands are held, but they can move with grace when the musical text warrants it. However, one must never play from the arms and the shoulders. He insists very much on these points.3

Liszt thinks it unwise to have beginners take up scales too soon. They might develop wrong habits by doing so. It is wiser to leave them on five finger exercises for some time as preparation. Even in these the tone at first may be thin, tinny, constricted. It must be improved before the passing under of the thumb is considered.4

Liszt had Valérie develop a firm touch and independence of the fingers by meticulous practice early in their work: 

"When you think you are practicing very slowly…slow down some more," he said. "You spoil everything if you want to cut corners. Nature itself works quietly. Do likewise. Take it easy. If conducted wisely, your efforts will be crowned with success. If you hurry, they will be wasted and you will fail."5

Then he had Valérie play the elementary exercise: do—re— mi—fa—sol—fa—mi—re—do, striking each note six, eight, or twelve times while holding down the notes not involved.… Liszt then asked her to play the exercise as fast as she could and without holding down any keys. "Can you hear how uneven it is? You need much work here. Somehow your fingers are entangled. They must be freed."6

Concerning touch, he does not want pressure from the fingertips near the nails but from the "palm" of the finger because this little cushion is soft and resilient, which helps to give the tone a lovely mellowness. 

One must play from the wrist, using what is called "la main morte" (dead hand) without interference from the arm, the hand falling onto the keys in a motion of total elasticity. Again and again, he requires an impeccable evenness in scale playing. His sensitive ears perceive the tiniest unequality. All tones must be rich and full.7

Practicing octaves was also a part of Valérie's work.

Liszt started this lesson with an emphasis on the importance of octave study.… "You must give more time to octave practice. Your hands are rather weak. In order to strengthen them I want you to drill your wrists every day, striking octaves on the same note while lifting the hand high. Start slowly. Hand and wrist must remain relaxed without the slightest contraction or 'cramping up.' Then get faster gradually but with no excess. 

"Later on you will go through major and minor scales not only in plain octaves but also in broken octaves," he continued. "Repeated chords of four notes and five notes in diminished sevenths will soon increase the power of your fingers and hands."8

Liszt also stressed dynamic shading:

This time Liszt has Valérie concentrate on dynamics. He has in mind a goal of ideal perfection and is never satisfied with half measures. Valérie had to play some exercises with constant modification of the shadings. At one point he took his pencil and wrote down the following:

Excerpt 1

"These are only a few," he said. "Invent all kinds of shadings and if you can, some new combinations. One must develop the mind as well as the fingers."9

Liszt advocated the flexibility in rhythm that was typical of his time and especially his own playing: 

Today Liszt commented on keeping time.… "Keeping time in a musical sense is similar to the rhythm one keeps in the declamation of verses. The latter must be free from the heavy, unyielding meter which would weigh improperly upon the cadence of the caesura. In music, likewise, the rhythm must not be inflexible and uniformity is out of order. At times one increases the pace slightly, at other times one holds back. It ought to be done according to the significance of what one plays. Of course it applies principally to our contemporary music, which is very romantic. The classics must be treated with more reserve."10

Liszt's playing and teaching in these early lessons was apparently free of the exaggerations that were later criticized in his performances: 

Regarding feeling and expression in interpretation Liszt banishes anything that is overdone. He insists on sincerity and simplicity with no distortions of any kind.… "You should also scrutinize your text in order to discover which inner notes have a special value and ought to be brought out. Thus you would avoid monotony in tone production and your performance would become more interesting and effective. 

"Musical interpretation must always have variety; the same shadings, accents, expressions ought not to repeat themselves.…" 

As to such mannerisms as the high raising or low diving of hands and arms, motions of the body, and other gesticulations, he considers them theatrical and unworthy of genuine artists. The same applies to exaggerated contrasts and sentimentality. Liszt's own expression is always simple because it is not motivated by a desire to show off at the expense of good taste. He does not play for others but for himself. He depicts his own feelings, he expresses his own soul, and it is probably the best way to reach that of his listeners.11

Liszt gave Valérie Boissier some daily exercises at her last lesson with him. These are to be practiced in all keys, up and down the chromatic scale.

Excerpt 2: Liszt Daily Exercises.

He stressed the great need of flexing and relaxing the fingers in all directions by multiple exercises for at least three hours a day; these exercises would include varied scales in octaves, thirds, arpeggios in all their inversions, trills, chords, and finally, everything that one is capable of doing.When one has perfectly flexible and strong fingers, one has conquered the greatest difficulties of the piano.12

Later in his life Liszt taught in master classes and rarely gave private lessons. In the classes, a wide variety of music was performed, from Bach to the latest compositions. American pianist William Mason reported on his first lesson: 

What I had heard in regard to Liszt's method of teaching proved to be absolutely correct. He never taught in the ordinary sense of the word. During the entire time that I was with him I did not see him give a regular lesson in the pedagogical sense…. I remember very well the first time I played to him after I had been accepted as a pupil.…

After I was well started he began to get excited. He made audible suggestions, inciting me to put more enthusiasm into my playing, and occasionally he would push me gently off the chair and sit down at the piano and play a phrase or two himself by way of illustration. He gradually got me worked up to such a pitch of enthusiasm that I put all the grit that was in me into my playing. 

I found at this first lesson that he was very fond of strong accents in order to mark off periods and phrases, and he talked so much about strong accentuation that one might have supposed that he would abuse it, but he never did. 

While I was playing to him for the first time, he said on one of the occasions when he pushed me from the chair: "Don't play it that way. Play it like this." Evidently I had been playing ahead in a steady, uniform way. He sat down, and gave the same phrases with an accentuated, elastic movement, which let in a flood of light upon me. From that one experience I learned to bring out the same effect, where it was appropriate, in almost every piece that I played. It eradicated much that was mechanical, stilted, and unmusical in my playing, and developed an elasticity of touch which has lasted all my life, and which I have always tried to impart to my pupils.13

Arthur Friedheim discussed the master class procedure:

Having invented the class system of teaching, Liszt believed in it implicitly, on the ground that the teacher does not have to play the same piece over and over for different pupils and repeat endlessly his suggestions for fingerings, phrasings, pedaling and the like; that if the pupil who is only a listener knows the work that is being played he has the same advantage as the performer, and if he does not know it, he becomes better prepared to study it later.… Its best aspect is, of course, the chance the pupils have to play for critical listeners and so rid themselves of nervousness and gain confidence.14

Liszt continued to play for his pupils in the classes, demonstrating at the piano, rather than using verbal explanations. Amy Fay joined the class in 1873. She was overwhelmed:

All playing sounds barren by the side of Liszt, for his is the living, breathing impersonation of poetry, passion, grace, wit, coquetry, daring, tenderness, and every other fascinating attribute that you can think of! 

Everything that Liszt says is so striking. For instance, in one place where V. was playing the melody rather feebly, Liszt suddenly took his seat at the piano and said, "When I play, I always play for the people in the gallery… so that those persons who pay only five groschens for their seat also hear something." Then he began, and I wish you could have heard him! The sound didn't seem to be very loud, but it was penetrating and far-reaching.When he had finished, he raised one hand in the air, and you seemed to see all the people in the gallery drinking in the sound. That is the way Liszt teaches you. He presents an idea to you, and it takes fast hold of your mind and sticks there. Music is such a real, visible thing to him, that he always has a symbol, instantly, in the material world to express his idea. One day, when I was playing, I made too much movement with my hand in a rotatory sort of a passage where it was difficult to avoid it. "Keep your hand still, Fräulein," said Liszt; "don't make omelette." I couldn't help laughing, it hit me on the head so nicely.…15

Franz Lizst’s piano

In Liszt's mind, technique was always in the service of the music. German pianist Pauline Fichtner wrote: 

Study with Liszt was mostly concentrated on the spiritual and intellectual element of the music, on its shaping as a work of art. Mastery of technique was taken for granted…He did no more than guide us fervently towards a freer, more natural position of the hands, elasticity of the wrist, and the practice of large-scale studies in passagework and octaves—plus the advice to practice anything difficult in all keys.16

The better prepared a student was, the more he or she got from the study. Alexander Siloti wrote:

Liszt's lessons were a totally different order to the common run. As a rule he sat beside, or stood opposite to, the pupil who was playing, and indicated by the expression of his face the nuances he wished to have brought out in the music.… No one else in the world could show musical phrasing as he did, merely by the expression of his face. If a pupil understood these fine shades, so much the better for him; if not, so much the worse!17

Liszt's teaching was summed up by Carl Lachmund: 

Barring a few exceptions, he did not accept pupils whose technic was insufficiently developed. While he occasionally gave advice in matters of technic, his followers came to Weimar to acquire maturity in the highest musical sense, and no other of the great masters could have given this to them as did Liszt. 

While he would pass an inaccuracy resulting from nervousness or insufficient time for study, he censured severely any carelessness. If neglect or carelessness was flagrant he would cry: "I do not take in soiled linen here; you must do your washing at home!"18

Although anything but pedantic, Liszt was particular as to one's position at the piano, or quick to check any mannerism. "Sit upright"—"Do not look at the keys"— "Sit still"—were repeatedly emphasized.19

Late in his life, Liszt wrote a three-volume set of Technische Studien that was published posthumously. At the beginning of the first volume is the note, 

It is useful to exercise the fingers, the ears and the intelligence simultaneously and to study, together with the mechanism dynamics and rhythm inherent in music as well. Consequently, these first exercises should be practised with all degrees of intensity: crescendo, from pianissimo to fortissimo, diminuendo, from fortissimo to pianissimo.20 

The Studies show that Liszt was concerned about piano technique even late in life. In most of his teaching, however, he concentrated on inspiring his students. Carl Lachmund wrote: 

From a pianistic standpoint, as also from the musical, Liszt was the greatest teacher history can name. It has been said, and this not only by the jealous, that Liszt was not a teacher. And he was not—in the ordinary sense. He himself wished this understood. In truth, he was infinitely more than a teacher. With his wonderful glow of genius, he inspired his pupils in a way that their talents, to the extent of their individual abilities, seemed to radiate with contagious enthusiasm…21 

Carl Czerny, "Recollections from My Life," The Musical Quarterly XLII, no. 3 (1956): 314–15. 

Ibid., 315-16. Salieri also taught composition to Liszt free of charge. 

Auguste Boissier, "Liszt as Pedagogue," The Piano Teacher 3, no. 5, 6 (1961). Translated by Maurice Dumesnil. 

Ibid. II, 14. 


Ibid. I, 13. 

Ibid. I, 13-14. 

Ibid. II, 14. 

Ibid. II, 14. 

10 Ibid. I, 13. 

11 Ibid. II, 14. 

12 Mach, Elyse, Ed. (1973). The Liszt Studies. New York: Associated Music Pulishers, p. xvii. 

13 Mason,William. (1901). Memories of a Musical Life. New York: The Century Company, pp. 97-100. 

14 Friedheim, Arthur. (1986). Life and Liszt. In M. Grant, (Ed.), Remembering Franz Liszt. New York: Limelight Editions, p. 51. 

15 Fay, Amy. (1965). Music-Study in Germany. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., pp. 222-3. 

16 Williams, Adrian. (1990). Portrait of Liszt by Himself and His Contemporaries. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 462. 

17 Siloti, Alexander. (1986). My Memories of Liszt. In M. Grant, (Ed.), Remembering Franz Liszt. New York: Limelight Editions, pp. 345-6. 

18 Walker, Alan, (Ed.) (1995). Living with Liszt: From the Diary of Carl Lachmund, an American Pupil of Liszt 1882-1884. Stuyvesant, N.Y.: Pendragon Press, pp. 47-8. 

19 Ibid., p. 51. 

20 Imre, Mezó, (Ed.). (1983).Translation in Ferenc Liszt, Technische Studien Für Klavier, Vol. III. Budapest: Editio Musica Budapest, p. 2. 

21 Walker, p. 47. SEPTEMBER/

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