There was one famous name in Sopron that could not be avoided, Ferenc Liszt or as he is known to much of the western world, Franz List. Liszt, world famous composer and pianist, grew up 30 kilometers east of Sopron in the small village of Raiding (Doberling in Hungarian) in what was then the Kingdom of Hungary and is now part of Lower Austria. As such, Liszt’s ethnic background is open to interpretation, if not question. His native language was German, but later in life he would self-identify as a Hungarian. Some scholars have went so far as theorize that Liszt was ethnically Croatian or Slovak. The literature on Liszt’s ethnicity is quite voluminous. From what I read, it sounds like he was a self-Magyarized German. Even along the peaceful and prosperous borderland of Hungary and Austria in the 21st century, it is difficult to escape the ethnic disputes that gave rise to nationalistic fervor in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Famous Facets – A Prodigy & Popularity
One facet of Liszt’s life that is not disputed, he was a child prodigy who performed his first concert at what was then the Sopron Casino. Today the building is home to the Ferenc Liszt Conference and Cultural Center. This cream colored neo-classical edifice can be found on one end of Sopron’s Belvaros (Inner City). Along one side, the Cultural Center is bordered by Ferenc Liszt utca. Lending Liszt’s name to this street and building was understandable. He was as close to a superstar as Sopron can claim as its own. I came across a plaque that was attached to the Cultural Center. It noted Liszt’s performance there in October 1820. This was the first of countless numbers of concerts the budding piano virtuoso would give across Europe in a life that began and ended with concerts in casinos (casinos in the 19th century were more social establishments than gambling houses). His public performances spanned a period of six and a half decades during which time he attained great fame and name recognition.
The first concert in Sopron was particularly notable since Liszt was only nine years old at the time. To great acclaim he played a concerto by the German composer Ferdinand Ries, managing to add in an improvisation of his own. It was a precocious beginning that showcased Liszt’s otherworldly skills on the piano. In this early performance Liszt relied heavily on talent, but he was no stranger to hard work despite his age. Liszt’s father, Adam, a musician who had been employed at nearby Eszterhaza Palace working with Joseph Haydn, managed to acquire an incredible amount of music which his son eagerly devoured. Documentary evidence shows that Adam Liszt bought 8,800 pages of written music by the greatest masters. In a two-year period leading up to his first performance young Ferenc blazed through these works, many of them from such musical luminaries as Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.
Realizing Potential – From Gushing Praise To Near Riots
There was little doubt that Ferenc Liszt would soon be heard far beyond Sopron. Liszt’s next public performance would serve as a major stepping stone in his career. Just a month after the Sopron recital, Liszt was back in front of an audience. This time it was the political elite of Hungary. In the city of Pozsony (present day Bratislava, Slovakia), where the Hungarian Diet (Parliament) was meeting for the first time in over a decade, Liszt performed for a group of politically and culturally connected aristocrats at one of the Eszterhazy Palaces. This audience was so impressed with the young Liszt’s prodigious piano playing abilities that money was soon raised among them for Liszt to study music abroad. This led him to Vienna where his instructors included Carl Czerny, who had been tutored by Beethoven and Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s weaker rival. Both were impressed with Liszt’s talent, but knew that he would need formal training to realize his potential as one of the greatest musical forces of all time. Under Czerny and Salieri’s tutelage he grew as a musician. To the point that after his first public concert in Vienna, it was said that Beethoven was gushing in his praise. Before he hit puberty, the twelve-year old had become a known talent in the musical world of Central Europe.
His family would soon move from Vienna to Paris where a teenage Liszt would continue to cultivate his talent. It would not be long before Liszt graduated from prodigy to rock star status. He became increasingly famous, not just for his skill on the piano, but also his style. Liszt was known to dramatically toss his gloves to the floor before he began playing. With his shoulder length flowing hair, charismatic flourishes and otherworldly talent he became the most in demand musician of his time. Yet he never forgot his Hungarian roots. In one notable incident, Liszt started a near riot during his performance at the Bezeredj House at Sopron in 1832. Several women in attendance viciously fought for one of the gloves Liszt dropped to the floor. For women, Liszt’s charisma was just as irresistible as his piano playing was mesmerizing. The adulation showered upon Liszt led to many romantic trysts, some little more than one-night stands, others would last longer.
A Place In Hungarian Hearts – The Legacy Of Liszt
Perhaps the most enduring romance of Liszt’s life was with Hungary. He grew to prominence during an era of national revival. Hungarians saw in Liszt a representative of high culture for their homeland. He accepted their adoration and repaid it by making Budapest the centerpiece of his instructional efforts during the latter part of his life. Budapest, along with Rome and Weimar, was one of three cities he called home during this time. He would spend part of each year teaching at the Hungarian Conservatoire in Budapest. Liszt may have been master of the piano, but he was never able to attain anything other than a very low level proficiency in the Hungarian language. Yet Liszt’s efforts to try and learn the language were a sign of his endearing love for a nation that accepted him with open arms. In his life and career, Liszt moved from the Kingdom of Hungary’s western fringes near Sopron to its center in Budapest. There was always a place in Hungarian hearts for him and there still is today. In Sopron that place still exists in the building where he gave his first public performance.