1. Early childhood.
Liszt was born in that part of western Hungary which after World War I was ceded to Austria and became known as the Burgenland. German was his native tongue and he grew up unable to speak Hungarian. In this he was no different from many thousands of Magyars born at that time and place. Intensely patriotic, Liszt frequently declared himself for Hungarian causes, and in the 1840s he sometimes appeared on stage wearing Hungarian national costume in order to make his personal protest against Austrian domination of his country. His sense of national pride was shared by his ancestors, one of whom (his paternal grandfather, Georg Liszt) had ‘magyarized’ the family name by changing the spelling from ‘List’ to ‘Liszt’.
Liszt’s father, Adam Liszt (1776–1827), worked for many years as a clerk on the Esterházy estates in western Hungary. A gifted amateur singer, pianist and cellist, Adam often took part in the summer concerts at Eisenstadt, where he became acquainted with Joseph Haydn. Not long before his son's birth, Adam was transferred to the village of Raiding, one of the Esterházy sheep stations, where he was officially described as an ‘ovium rationista’ (sheep accountant). As a young man Adam had trained for the priesthood at the Franciscan monasteries of Malacka and Tyrnavia (in Slovakia) but had been dismissed ‘by reason of his inconstant and changeable nature’. Adam never forgot the Franciscans, however; he often visited their local monasteries and named his son Franciscus in their memory. Liszt's mother, Maria Anna Lager (1788–1866), came from a working-class family in Krems (lower Austria) and spent much of her adolescence in poverty, working as a chambermaid in Vienna. 12 years younger than Adam, she met him in Mattersdorf in the summer of 1810, and they married in January 1811. Franz was their only child.
The boy’s musical genius asserted itself in his sixth year. He overheard his father playing a concerto by Ferdinand Ries and was later able to sing one of its themes from memory. Thereafter Adam gave his son regular lessons, and the boy made such rapid progress that within 22 months he had mastered a large repertory of music by Mozart, Bach, Clementi, Hummel and others, and showed exceptional ability as an improviser. Adam presented his son to the public for the first time in Oedenburg, in November 1820, when the nine-year-old boy played the Concerto in E by Ries and extemporized on popular melodies. Such was the success of this concert that Adam arranged a more ambitious one in nearby Pressburg. It coincided with an assembly of the Hungarian Diet and the boy’s playing captured the attention of a number of Hungarian noblemen – including Counts Amadé, Szapáry, and Michael Esterházy – who later came forward with money to support the boy’s education abroad. The Pressburger Zeitung reported that his playing ‘was beyond admiration and justifies the highest hopes’ (28 November 1820).
Adam had already begun to seek out the best teachers for his son. Hummel was considered in Weimar, but his fee was prohibitive. So Adam turned to Carl Czerny in nearby Vienna. Many years later, Czerny recalled their first meeting in his autobiography:
One morning in the year 1819 … a man with a small boy of about eight years approached me with a request to let the youngster play something on the fortepiano. He was a pale, sickly looking child who, while playing, swayed about on the stool as if drunk, so that I often thought he would fall to the floor. His playing was also quite irregular, untidy, confused, and he had so little idea of fingering that he threw his fingers quite arbitrarily all over the keyboard. But that notwithstanding, I was astonished at the talent which Nature had bestowed on him. He played something which I gave him to sight-read, to be sure, like a pure ‘natural’; but for that very reason one saw that Nature herself had formed a pianist.
Not long after this scene took place, Czerny accepted the young Liszt as a pupil. In the early spring of 1822 Adam, having secured an unpaid leave of absence from Prince Nickolaus Esterházy, moved his family to Vienna. Since Czerny’s teaching day was already full, he arranged to instruct the boy every evening in his home and refused to accept a fee. For theory lessons Adam placed his son in the charge of Antonio Salieri, who taught him counterpoint and score-reading in all the clefs and likewise waived his fee.
Although Liszt was with Czerny for only 14 months the lessons laid the groundwork for an infallible technique. Under Czerny’s guidance the boy embarked on his first serious conquest of the keyboard and was soon able to play scales and arpeggios in all possible combinations ‘with masterful fluency’. ‘Never before had I had so eager, talented, or industrious a student’, wrote Czerny. The boy worked his way through Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum and Czerny’s own School of Velocity, and he studied works by Hummel, Moscheles, Bach and Beethoven. Since Czerny forced him to learn everything very quickly, and to commit it to memory, the youthful Liszt became a formidable sight-reader. He also published his first composition: a variation on a theme of Diabelli, one of a set of 50 commissioned by the publisher from composers then living in Austria. Within a year, Czerny had overcome his initial reluctance to the idea of presenting Liszt to the Viennese public and allowed Adam to arrange several concerts. At one of these (1 December 1822), the Allgemeine Zeitung reported that Liszt’s playing bordered on the incredible and referred to him as ‘a little Hercules … fallen from the clouds’. Emboldened by this reception, Adam conceived the idea of leaving Austria altogether and taking his son on tour to Paris. Czerny thought that such a move was premature and motivated by the pursuit of ‘pecuniary gain’, but a farewell concert was nonetheless announced for 13 April 1823.
Because of Czerny’s friendly relations with Beethoven, the master received Liszt and his father at the beginning of April 1823. Beethoven’s Conversation Books record a meeting during which Liszt (or his father) invited him to the farewell concert in the small Redoutensaal on 13 April. Beethoven was also asked for a theme on which Liszt might improvise. Legend later had it that Beethoven mounted the platform and bestowed a public Weihekuss on the young boy’s brow. However, the Conversation Books imply that Beethoven neither attended the concert nor provided the theme (Konversationenhefte, iii, 168, 199). The ‘kiss of consecration’, which became such an important memory for Liszt in later life, could not have taken place at the concert but may well have occurred in Beethoven’s lodgings.
Before setting out for Paris, Adam took his son back to Pest to show him off to the Hungarians. A ‘homecoming’ concert took place on 1 May 1823, and the placards carried the patriotic declaration: ‘I am Hungarian!’ As if to emphasize the point, Liszt appeared at the piano wearing a braided Hungarian national costume.