How Franz Liszt Revolutionized Piano and Classical Music

Franz Liszt was a Hungarian composer and pianist. I don’t think you can talk about Liszt without talking first about the evolution of the piano. The piano you see today in concerts hall or in private homes was not always like that. Though the earlier instrument had a similar shape and had a keyboard, its interior plumbing was completely different. In fact it was called a harpsicord – think of it as a harp (wooden frame with stretched strings) with a keyboard.

Around 1700 the harpsichord gradually transformed into a pianoforte, which had the same look as the harpsicord, but instead of the strings being plucked they were hit by little leather-wrapped hammers. The frame that held the strings was still wooden, and the strings were held at low tension. This is the instrument used by Mozart and the young Beethoven. The sound of the pianoforte is different from the sound we accustomed to hearing today: it is lighter, and the instrument did not have a double escape mechanism and thus could not repeat sounds rapidly – it speaks instead of signing. Each note is very clear and distinct, and the pianoforte has still not completely lost the sound of the harpsicord. Think of Mozart’s piano concertos or sonatas, which were written for pianoforte.

Mozart died in 1791, just as the fortepiano (or simply, piano), the instrument we are all familiar with, was starting to emerge. But from the late 1700s to the early 1800s the piano underwent a significant transformation. This transformation had a major impact on the music that was composed; and, in a musical feedback loop, composers impacted the instrument. Beethoven was one of the early adopters and beneficiaries of the piano’s evolution and played an important role in the evolution of the instrument. At one point he had broken 78% of the strings in his piano. He complained to the piano manufacturer that pianos wore out very fast.

The biggest differences between the pianoforte and fortepiano (the modern piano) are, first, that the frame the harp strings are tied to is not wooden but metal; the low-tension strings have been replaced with high-tension ones; the instrument has a range of two additional octaves (14 extra white keys); and the hammers are covered with tightly compacted felt instead of leather. These changes transformed a delicate instrument into an incredibly powerful beast that can replace an orchestra but that at the same time retains the gentleness of its ancestors.

This brings us to Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Liszt was born sixteen years before Beethoven’s death. He was a child prodigy and a virtuoso pianist. He was the first rockstar of Europe – he was Michael Jackson before Michael Jackson was Michael Jackson.

As luck would have it, on a trip to Paris, Franz Liszt stayed in a hotel right across the street from Erard Piano – a trailblazing piano maker that invented the double escapement movement that sped up the piano and significantly reduced the limitations of previous generations of pianos. Erard was also the first piano maker to fit pedals under the piano.

As the story goes, young Franz wandered into the Erard store and started playing on one of the instruments. Mssr. Erard smitten by the boy’s genius and also recognized a unique marketing opportunity. He made an endorsement deal with young Franz, providing pianos for all of Liszt’s performances. Liszt went on a three-year tour, giving several performances a day. No town was too small – he loved the attention and the applause. However, this tour was suddenly interrupted by his father’s untimely death.

In 1832 Liszt attended a concert of the Italian violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini. The violin had undergone its most dramatic improvements two hundreds years before the piano did, and it was a mature instrument by that time. After Liszt heard Paganni he remarked, “What wonderful things might be done with the piano if its technical possibilities were developed as those of the violin have been by Paganini.” He decided to become the Paganini of piano. For three years he stopped appearing in public and practiced non-stop (putting in Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours).

Liebestraum No. 3

Today I wanted to share with you a short solo piano piece by Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, called “Liebestraum No. 3” (“Dream of Love”).  I almost (almost) want to issue a personal guarantee that this piece will grab your soul, squeeze it, turn it inside out, and put it back together.  This is probably one of the most popular pieces of music composed by Liszt, and thus it is easy to find performances by the who’s who of the music world.

  • Evgeny Kissin

  • Lang Lang

  • Arthur Rubenstein

  • Liberace

As a bonus I want to introduce you to Daniil Trifonov – a 25-year-old Russian pianist.  In 2011, a few weeks after he won the Arthur Rubenstein competition in Tel Aviv he was awarded First Prize, Gold Medal, and Grand Prix at the Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow (this is like the Olympics for musicians).

I’ve never seen anyone be hijacked this thoroughly by music and to internalize it as much Daniil does.  Just watch his face – he laughs and cries, experiences physical pain and joy, and in some moments his face looks like that of Gollum from Lord of the Rings. 

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1

There is a great lesson that we all can learn from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto Number 1. It was common at the time to dedicate a piece of music to the musician whom you wanted to perform the music, usually a famous performer. Dedication insured that a piece of music would see the light of day and also provided an endorsement of the piece. Tchaikovsky dedicated his first piano concerto to Nikolai Rubenstein. Nikolai was considered to be one of the greatest pianists of his time, and he and his brother Anton Rubenstein were important figures in Russian musical culture. In fact, Anton was Tchaikovsky’s composition teacher. (There is no relation between the Rubenstein brothers and Arthur Rubenstein, the twentieth-century Polish pianist I told you about previously).

Evgeny+Kissin+kissingiovane01

So Tchaikovsky dedicates his concerto to Nikolai. Excited, he plays it for Nikolai, who listens in silence … and then he tells Tchaikovsky what he thinks of it. Here is what Tchaikovsky wrote about this scene to his pen pal Nadezhda Von Meck:

It turned out that my concerto was worthless and unplayable; passages were so fragmented, so clumsy, so badly written that they were beyond rescue; the work itself was bad, vulgar; in places I had stolen from other composers; only two or three pages were worth preserving; the rest must be thrown away or completely rewritten. “Here, for instance, this – now what’s all that?” (he caricatured my music on the piano) “And this? How can anyone …” etc., etc.

Just imagine someone you respect and admire, who has incredible influence, just called two years of your work “pathetic.” Tchaikovsky was genuinely hurt, but he pledged that he would not change a single note. He reached out to a famous German pianist, Hans von Bulow, and asked if he could dedicate this concerto to him. At the time, Von Bulow was preparing to go on tour to the United States. He loved the concerto! And thus Tchaikovsky’s First was first performed in Boston in 1875. It was a great success. Music critics still found a lot of faults in it. It did not fit the established framework: the introduction, the part that makes this concerto so grand, is almost a self-contained piece of music that is attached to the concerto.

Here is the punchline. Later that year, a few months after the Boston performance, the concerto premiered in St Petersburg and then in Moscow. Nikolai Rubenstein conducted the Moscow premier. Rubenstein performed the piano solo many times and even asked to premier Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto. Tchaikovsky would have consented if Rubenstein have not died.

What is the lesson here? Even people you respect make mistakes. Believe in yourself. I could go on and on, but I won’t. Here is 23-year-old Evgeny Kissin performing this great concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra 110 years later.

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