Liszt As Teacher

How did Liszt teach?

  • For the most part Liszt held large masterclasses, made up of 10-20 students at a time (Boise 322)
  • Classes were structured so that students would play from memory pieces they had practiced and Liszt would offer advice
    • "Liszt's teaching method, as exhibited on that occasion, was unique. He would ask someone to play a certain piece, but substitute another player as soon as anything occurred that did not suit him. If several in succession failed to produce the desired effect, he took the matter into his own hands. Timanoff and Max Pinner were the only ones who were allowed to complete their task without interruption." (Boise 323)
    • Though Liszt did not specifically assign pieces, most students would ask him what pieces they should prepare for the next class (Liszt was known to shut a student down for choosing a piece he himself disliked - Gervers 390)
  • Liszt habitually taught classes that lasted from 1.5 to 2 hours; lessons followed a late lunch and nap, often beginning around 4:30 PM (Lloyd-Jones 124)
    • For Liszt's full daily schedule see pages 120-121
  • "In his master classes, Liszt would talk about the work being performed, discussing its relation with other music by the same composer, and with previous and contemporary works. He would point out the form and proportions of the piece and its moments of climax. All playing was done from memory, and his pupils practiced six or seven hours a day." (Arthur Friedheim quoted in Gerves 390-1)
  • Liszt always taught Beethoven with the score, using von Bulow's edition. He divided Beethoven's works into two categories: those in which tradition and recognized form govern the thought, and those in which the thought stretches and remakes the form. He saw it as the eternal problem of authority versus liberty; but for Liszt, genius was the only authority." (W. von Lenz, quoted in Gerves 391)
  • Students piled their music at the front of the room, waited for Liszt to arrive, then he picked a piece and asked “Who plays this?” (Walker 229)
  • Disdain for parlor playing? “He discouraged his students from bringing… Chopin’s Scherzo in B-flat minor (which he called the ‘Governess’ Scherzo, because ‘every governess plays it’…)” (Walker 237)
  • Fay describes her first night with Liszt. The new students were gathered together sharing a meal when they were suddenly called upon to play. Fay hoped to slip out because she had not had access to a piano for a week but was followed by Liszt and asked, “Mademoiselle vous jouerez quelque-chose, n'est-ce pas?” or “Mademoiselle you play something, no?” Fay decided to play the A flat major Ballade of Chopin. Liszt called out “Bravo” numerous times throughout the performance. When Fay accounts other people playing for Liszt in Weimar he often called out accolades such as this. Upon finishing he often gave minor corrections and compliments. Rarely did he show his students how to play a piece. (Fay, 209)
  • Fay described that she attended classes of 5 people every other day. She only played twice a week because that was all that she felt she could prepare but was expected to observe others. His lessons were from 4-6 pm in Liszt’s salon. (Fay, 211)
  • Liszt apparently appreciated having his students perform before an audience. Once Fay brought a sonata to play for Liszt and there were three scholars in his salon. She asked them politely to leave because she was nervous but Liszt replied, “Oh, that is healthy for you…you have a choice audience now” (Fay, 212)
  • Liszt also taught in anecdotes. She describes how Liszt taught her colleague and quotes him, “When I play, I always play for the people in the gallery [by the gallery he meant the cock-loft, where the places cost next to nothing], so that those persons who pay only five groschens for their seat also hear something. “ Then he began, and I wish you cold had heard him! The sound didn’t seem to be very loud, but it was penetrating and far-reaching. When he had finished, he raised one hand in the air, and you seemed to see all the people in the gallery drinking in the sound. That is the way Liszt teaches you. He presents an idea to you, and it takes fast hold of your mind and sticks there.” (Fay, 223)

What were Liszt's pedagogical ideas?

  • Liszt believed that getting across the emotion and character of a piece of music was of the utmost importance (Lloyd-Jones 124)
    • Generally Liszt didn't teach technique; indeed most of his students were already proficient in this matter
    • Furthermore, Liszt didn't try to impose his mannerisms or methods of fingering, but would explain them if requested
  • Unlike in his earlier years, when he was still under the influence of Czerny (among others), Liszt did not subscribe to a specific methodological school (Gervers 386)
  • Not interested in teaching technique
    • “‘Wash your dirty linen at home,’ he used to tell those of his pupils who still required technical help.” (Walker 229)
    • “‘Do I care how fast you can play your octaves?’ he once thundered… ‘What I wish to hear is the canter of the horses of the Polish cavalry before they gather force and destroy the enemy.’” (Walker 229)
  • While other teachers of the day (Rudolf Breithaupt, Theodor Kullak, Ludwig Deppe, Kalkbrenner) advised strict position and little movement, Liszt disagreed with the methods used or encouraged by these teachers (including a surgery to cut the webbing between the fingers in order to increase stretching ability)
  • Taught to each student as an individual, did not attempt to create copies of himself or others
    • “[Liszt] stopped [William Mason] and said: ‘What fingering is that you are using?’ Mason hesitated, then replied: ‘Klindworth gave it to me.’ ‘Leave Klindworth’s fingering to Klindworth,’ Liszt retorted. ‘He can do very well with it; you must use this’… By itself the story is trivial, but it indicates Liszt’s belief that each hand is different…” (Walker 232)
  • Encouraged a connection between performance and composition (Walker 234)
  • He seemed to get angry only at poor performance; when students played poorly, he advised them to go study at the conservatory (Walker 236)
  • Fay often focused on the demeanor of Liszt, characterizing her lessons with him as feeling free. Also he did not seek to impose his own ideas, or possibly even technique onto his students. Fay says, “You feel so free with him, and he develops the very spirit of music in you. He doesn’t keep nagging at you all the time, but he leaves you your own conception. Now and then he will make a criticism, or play a passage, and with a few words give you enough to think of all the rest of your life. There is a delicate point to everything he says, as subtle as he is himself. He doesn’t tell you anything about the technique. That you must work out for yourself.” (Fay, 213)
  • Liszt cared about the visual as well as the aural in music. “Keep your had still, Fraulein…don’t make an omelette.” (Fay, 223)

Whom did he teach?

  • Liszt taught a variety of both men and women; most already had some skill on the piano
    • He was known for turning away students who displeased him or seemed to lack talent (see Boise 323 for one particularly disappointing prospective student!)
  • One of Liszt's favorite students was Vera Victorovna Timanova
  • Liszt's circle was somewhat difficult to get into, no doubt thanks in part to the efforts of the factotum Spiridon (Lloyd-Jones 124)
    • Don't miss a description of "Liszt's Leporello," to be found in Lloyd-Jones 121!
    • Once admitted however, students enjoyed many freedoms
  • Even though pianists made up the majority of his student body, Liszt also gave composition lessons
    • When analyzing compositions, Liszt again judged based on emotion, rather than strict adherence to musical forms (Boise 321)
  • All of Liszt's teaching was done gratis
  • Over four hundred in his lifetime, a variety of different nationalities: American, Austrian, Belgian, Bohemian, British, Canadian, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Monacan, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Swiss, and Turkish (Walker 249-52)
    • Walker points out that the definition of “pupil” may be varied - could be constant or could be a one-time deal (Walker, "Liszt as Teacher," Grove)
    • Student August Stradel tells a story about walking with Liszt and hearing a piece of Liszt’s being played poorly. Liszt knocked on the door and showed the young woman playing the piece some passages, working with her a bit. A week later Gille went to visit Liszt and told him that the woman had put a sign on her door: “H.J., pupil of Franz Liszt.” (Stradel, in Burger 295)
  • Several of his students from this later period lived long enough to make recordings of their playing
    • Moriz Rosenthal (1862-1946, recordings in the late 20s), Emil Sauer (1862-1942, recorded Liszt in 1938) , Eugène d’Albert (1864-1932, recorded Liszt in 1916), Arthur Friedheim (1859-1932, recordings around 1912)
  • Fay describes a variety of students living in Weimer, all there to study with Liszt. She was able to go to Weimar because of social connections she had made previously in Germany. Once at Weimar she was given a room and made arrangements to get a piano. It is reasonable to imagine that the rooms in Weimar were filled students and potential students practicing at all hours of the day and night. (Fay, 205-217)
  • Just because you made it to Weimar didn’t mean that you would have the privilege to study with Liszt. When Amy arrived at Weimar, she and seven others had a private meeting with Liszt. There were three men and four women. Three of the seven were American and five had studied with Liszt before. Fay often emphasized that this first meeting determined whether or not you would be invited to stay and study with Liszt, based on some impression you made on him. (Ibid)
  • As Fay’s time went on with Liszt the classes increased in size from five students to closer to a dozen and then to twenty students at a time. With the class size increase the length of lessons increased.

What was the nature of Liszt's relationships with his students?

  • In general Liszt was a paternal or grandfatherly figure to his students (Lloyd-Jones 124-5)
    • In lessons the environment was polite and friendly, and by no means intimidating
    • Though it was difficult to first be accepted as a pupil, once that was accomplished Liszt took a deep interest in the pupil's emotional/spiritual/material well-being
  • Rather informal relationships with his students; running into them on the street and inviting them over for the 19th-century version of “hanging out” - sitting in his music room playing name that tune; students threw parties for Liszt and showed him games; attending a concert and an after-party together; celebrating July 4 to please his American students in the 1880s; smoked and drank with students; gave students money (Walker 239-43)
    • Still required them to be knowledgable about music to be admitted to the circle; in discussion of this, however, Hungarian student Etelka Willheim refers to the entrance into the circle as “friendship” as opposed to apprenticeship or teacher-student relationship (Walker 241)
  • Many commentators remarked on Liszt's overall noble, kind, unimposing, unaffected nature
  • From the point of view of Fay the relationship was very personal. She sometimes studied with him alone or in small groups. She accompanied him on trips and fancy dinners. She often compares Liszt to a “monarch” with his students. No one speaks unless they are spoken, no one plays unless they are asked to, and no one asks Liszt to play. Fay also had the opportunity in their last lesson to play a piano concerto with Liszt. (Fay, 266)

I couldn't resist adding this description by Borodin (123), describing how Liszt was generally loathe to perform even in private: "In order to make him sit down at the piano it is often necessary to resort to small subterfuges; for example by asking him to recall some passage from a certain piece, asking him to show how a certain piece should be played, showing an interest in some musical novelty, sometimes even by just playing something badly. Then he will become angry, protest that one should not play like that, sit himself at the piano and show how it should be played."

Otis Boise, "An American Composer Visits Liszt"
An eyewitness account by composer Otis Boise, who visited Liszt in 1876 in order to obtain the latter's criticism/advice on a recent orchestral composition. Includes entertaining anecdotes related to Liszt (and smoking cigars), as well as a touching character sketch.

David Lloyd-Jones, "Borodin on Liszt"
An eyewitness account of Liszt's life as translated by Lloyd-Jones. Borodin initially wrote down his observations in a series of letters, later expanding these into a number of essays. This particular excerpt focuses on the nature of Liszt's home, connections, personality, and of course musical activities (including teaching), in the 70s.

Hilda Gervers, "Franz Liszt as Pedagogue"
An article which traces the development of Liszt's pedagogical technique from his teens through to the end of his life. Relies a great deal on the accounts of those who were present at Liszt's lessons, including for instance those of Borodin and Fay.

"Liszt's 125-Year-Old Academy of Music Antecedents, Influences, Traditions" by Mária Eckhardt

"The Liszt Tradition at the Moscow Conservatoire" by Konstantin Zenkin

Volume 52 of the Journal of the American Liszt Society, the first article is "Liszt as a Teacher" by Jose Antnio Bowen which includes a huge annotated bibliography on similar writings
from this article QUOTE OF THE DAY
"It was not uncommon for him to draw a girl who had just played form the piano-stool to his arms, kiss her repeatedly as a reward, and then turn some gentlemen present with a malicious smile and remark, 'Yes, Mr.___, you would like to be Liszt, wouldn't you? Go home and practice some more.'" Bowen p14

a student's bib assignment - detailed annotated bibliography on the Liszt's piano masterclasses. There are 33 entries!!

Recordings of Liszt’s students playing Liszt in the FSU library

  • Emil von Sauer (1862-1942)
    • Liszt, Franz, Emil von Sauer, Felix Weingartner, and Franz Liszt. Piano concerto no. 1 in E-flat major. Piano concerto no. 2 in A major. 1970. (Originally recorded in 1938, conducted by Liszt’s student Felix Weingartner) Rec 7857 SLP
      • No. 1: ?1853-6
      • No. 2: 1859
    • Liszt, Franz, Emil von Sauer, Felix Weingartner, and Franz Liszt. Emil von Sauer plays Liszt. Wadhurst, E. Sussex, England: Pearl, 1990. (Originally recorded in 1927-39, conducted by Weingartner) CD 2547
    • Sauer, Emil von, et al. The complete commercial recordings. [Swarthmore, Pa.]: Marston, 1998. (Originally recorded 1923-30, Liszt pieces conducted by Weingartner) CD 12756
  • Moriz Rosenthal (1862-1946)
    • Rosenthal, Moriz, et al. Ampico piano rolls Moriz Rosenthal. London, England: Editions de L'Oiseau-Lyre, 1984. (Originally recorded on piano rolls, Apr. 1924-March 1930; present recording was made in Kingsway Hall, London, March 1978; Chant polonaise in G flat major, op. 74, no. 5 / Chopin/Liszt) Rec 14365 SLP  
      • 1857–60; Six chants polonais [Chopin, from op.74]
    • Paderewski, Ignace Jan, et al. Keyboard giants of the past. New York: RCA Red Seal, 1962. (Chant polonais, no. 5 / Liszt) In Process
  • José Vianna da Motta (1868-1948)
    • Motta, José Vianna da, et al. José Vianna da Motta. 1973. (The solo works recorded probably in 1928-9; the Liszt work recorded during a live performance on 19 January 1945) Rec 7051 LP
      • Liszt. Eglogue (No. 7 of Années de pèlerinage, suite de compositions, 1re année, Suisse; 1848-55)
      • Schubert/ Liszt. Wohin? (#5 of Müllerlieder [Schubert]; 1846 - arranged for piano)
      • Liszt. Totentanz (1847-?62 for piano and orchestra; ded. von Bülow)
  • Arthur Friedheim (1859-1932)
    • Arthur Friedheim. Legendary pianists of the romantic era. Concert I. 1971. (Original date? Etude, no. 4, E major, by Paganini-Liszt) Rec 14083 SLP  


  • LISZT, F.: Piano Music (The Caswell Collection, Vol. 10: Piano Roll Recordings) (1905-1926).
    • Performers include: Eugene d’Albert (1864-1932), Konrad Ansorge, Richard Burmeister, Arthur Friedheim, Frederic Lamond (1868-1948), George Liebling, Alfred Reisenauer, Emil von Sauer, Alexander Siloti, Bernhard Stavenhagen, Vera Timanoff (1855-1942), Jose Vianna de Motta