Born on this day in 1811 in the Hapsburg Kingdom of Hungary, Franz Liszt would go on to make a name for himself not only as an important composer in the Romantic era, but also as one of the greatest pianists who ever lived. In a career that spanned five eventful decades in classical-music history, his professional accomplishments alone would have made him a figure of historical significance, but his good looks and charisma, his effect on female audiences and his gossip-worthy romantic entanglements made him a figure somewhat larger than life. If it weren’t for the fact that rock and roll was still 140-plus years off in the future, it would be reasonable to call Franz Liszt the biggest rock star of his era.
Born to a musician father employed in the service of a Hungarian prince, Liszt learned piano by the age of seven and was recognized shortly thereafter as a budding virtuoso. His musical education, paid for by a group of Hungarian noblemen, took place in Vienna. It was in Paris during his teens and early 20s, however, that Liszt first gained widespread public attention as a performer. Though his stature as a composer continued to grow throughout his long career, his reputation as a pianist both preceded and exceeded it. Influenced most heavily not by another pianist but by the violinist Niccolò Paganini, Liszt developed a style that helped shape the future of piano technique, and he developed a following—particularly among women—that made him a massive concert draw throughout Europe at the height of his career in the 1840s and 50s. (It was no accident that director Ken Russell cast lead singer Roger Daltry of the Who in the role of Liszt in his 1975 film Lisztomania.)
Away from the piano, Liszt also conducted a number of high-profile and often controversial affairs over course of his career, beginning with a student who was also the daughter of high-ranking French government official and continuing through several famous dancers, a French countess and a Polish princess. Widely believed to have fathered many children out of wedlock, Liszt famously denied one such paternity claim by writing, “I know his mother only by correspondence, and one cannot arrange that sort of thing by correspondence.”
Franz Liszt died of pneumonia on July 31, 1886, in Bayreuth, Bavaria.