How Franz Liszt Revolutionized Piano and Classical Music

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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 harpsichord – 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 harpsichord, 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 harpsichord. 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 Paganini 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).

Liszt invented solo recitals – before Liszt it was unheard for an artist to give a solo performance (doing so was probably perceived as immodest). Liszt changed the way the piano is positioned on the stage, placing it to the right of the stage and opening the lid toward the audience.

To me – and this is the extremely uneducated opinion of an amateur classical music aficionado – Liszt pushed the boundaries of what was possible on the now-evolved, much more powerful instrument, where the player’s technique was the only limitation. To do this he had to write his own music for the new instrument and vastly improve performance technique.

Imagine that Intel had just created a new processor that was 100 times better than the old ones, and let’s say Microsoft wrote a new operating system that vastly improved the capabilities of that new processor. But to truly shine the new system would need new programs. The old ones might still run just fine, but to truly showcase the new box’s abilities, it would need to be loaded with brand new apps.

Liszt did not create the new hardware, but his technique (the new operating system) removed a lot of limitations and released the power of the new instrument.

To me, Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor is the new software. Liszt made a solo piano sound, at times, like a full orchestra – something that I don’t think had been done before him (though I’d be happy to be proven wrong). Liszt’s contribution to classical music is incredible and immeasurable. It spans much further than his amazing music, because Liszt showed the likes of Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Grieg, and many others what the piano could do.

Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor, performed by:

Sviatoslav Richter

Evgeny Kissin

Valentina Lisitsa

Khatia Buniatishvili

Vladimir Horowitz

P.S. See phenomenal lecture by Robert Greenberg’s about Franz Liszt

Article Categories:
Franz Liszt


  • Adam says:

    Beethoven died in 1827, Liszt was born in 1811, making him 15 years and 5 months at the time of Beethoven’s death – just correcting the “Liszt was born nine years before Beethoven’s death.”

  • Concert Fantasia - My Favorite Classical Music by Vitaliy Katsenelson says:

    […] I discussed Franz Liszt’s contribution to the modern piano – mainly his transformation of piano technique and creation of new, more technically demanding […]

  • Katherine says:

    I really enjoyed your article which somehow landed in my work inbox. I signed up for your investment blog as well. Thanks!

  • The Two Sides of Chopin - My Favorite Classical Music by Vitaliy Katsenelson says:

    […] This discussion is a follow-up to previous articles I wrote about two Franzes – Franz Schubert and Franz Liszt. […]

  • Ovidio De Ferrari says:

    I see beyond the errors. The needs of these articles these days are crucial. Although important is the proper lecture, Hollywood does speculates all the times.
    Thank you for your article. I certainly enjoy this sonata very much. Each time I listening to it I discover something new.

  • Rick says:

    Truly excellent article re: Liszt! Bm has always been one of my favs, and the brief history lesson was well-written and quite formative.

  • Benching says:

    Love your website on Classical music. Many Thanks! Any comments or articles on female Classical composers?

  • Gary Molina says:

    In the middle of a sophisticated opinion about certain financial issue comes this jewel of an article. VERY refreshing and enlightening.
    Love your short stories or commentary about a particular composer or piece. Keep them coming and THANK YOU!!

  • Stephen Lines says:

    Quite brilliant. Listened to Evgeny Kissin performance – utterly riveting, what a piece and what a performer. Fabulous and thanks for posting.

  • Paul Cummings says:

    As much as i like liszt,i have come to theconclusion that
    Chopin influenced liszt and was a better composer par excellance. Chopin’s harmonies was much more advanced, both
    Rhythmically and musically.I say this
    After i heard almost all of liszts piano work.i think that liszt left paris in 1836 to tour europe
    And to get away from chopins gigantic influence
    I guess it was a question of chopins genius versus liszts
    Super talented
    I worship lisztit is very exciting nonetheless. But musically chopin is very advanced and beleive it or not
    Rather unpianistic
    If that makes any sense

  • Peter says:

    I love that you write these articles. They are intellectually stimulating and a pleasure to read. It seems the words pianoforte and fortepiano are reversed in the discussion. The fortepiano is the instrument of Mozart’s age and the pianoforte is the modern piano.

  • Rashmikant Dave says:

    It was very interesting to read the way you traced the development of new capabilities in the piano forte things like escapement being added yes I can hear an orchestra when I heard Fantasia in D.It is interesting to see that some of these capabilities are now see in Digital pianos like string resonance and escapement.loved all the other Listz pieces you included.

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