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Classical: World's first rock star Franz Liszt a man of many parts


Generous: Liszt gave much of his vast wealth to charity. Getty images

Generous: Liszt gave much of his vast wealth to charity. Getty images

Generous: Liszt gave much of his vast wealth to charity. Getty images

Today, we celebrate the anniversary of the birth of one of the great Romantic composers. Franz Liszt - a top name across the 19th century - was born 205 years ago today, in Hungary, where his father Adam, a musician himself, was on the staff of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. Haydn had run the house band at the Esterházy palace for many years, and Adam Liszt knew him, and Beethoven personally too.

Franz was a man of many contradictions. A pious child - the elder Liszt had been a Franciscan - with a keen interest in church music, he would become a flamboyant showman, the world's first rock star, you could say, who gave much of his vast wealth to charity.

He remained a religious man, and in later life took holy orders, living for a time in a monastery. Though he never became a priest, he was known as the Abbé Liszt.

His was certainly a colourful life. His father had brought him to Paris as a child to enrol in the conservatory there, but they wouldn't take him because he was a foreigner. The Liszts stayed, though, and Franz was taught privately.

When Adam died just three years later, Liszt lost interest in music. He was a young man when the first of a series of affairs got him started again.

He'd begun a relationship with a married French countess, Marie d'Agoult. With her in mind, he wrote what would become Années de Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage).

His concert career took off and he played to packed houses. He had the piano placed side-on to the audience so they could see him better.

He'd come on stage wearing green silk gloves with a pocket handkerchief to match, and during the performance he'd remove these with flamboyance - all part of the show. Fans would fight over them after he'd taken his bow.

He had three children with the countess, but there was also an affair with an Irish music-hall singer from Sligo who went by the name of Lola Montez.

He had a further relationship with a Polish princess, Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, whom he wanted to marry, but his plans were thwarted when her divorce fell through at the last moment.

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His son and one of his daughters died in their 20s. Their sister, Cosima, married one of Liszt's pupils - composer and pianist Hans von Bülow - but then embarked on an affair with Richard Wagner, with whom she had a child.

Liszt fell out with Wagner over this, but they made up eventually after Cosima and Wagner had wed, and it was in Bayreuth, where he'd come for Wagner's annual festival, that Liszt died in July 1886 at the age of 74.

Liszt is buried there. "I will not have any other place for my body," he had written to Carolyne, "than the cemetery in use in the place where I die."

Liszt was famous throughout Europe. He'd toured widely as a performer. In 1843, 1,200 people had packed the concert hall at the Rotunda - now the Gate Theatre in Dublin - to hear Liszt at a fundraiser for what was Europe's first maternity hospital.

At Carolyne's suggestion, he retired from the stage while still in his 30s to concentrate on composition. His is some of the most enduring Romantic music.

There are two piano concertos, and the stirring and vivid Hungarian Rhapsody No 2 - one of 19 in all. There's the simply gorgeous Liebestraum No 3 (from a set of four piano pieces - Dreams of Love), not to mention symphonic transcriptions for piano. It's an anniversary well worth celebrating.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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