Great Masters: Liszt-His Life and Music

Course No. 758
Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
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Course No. 758
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Course Overview

Musically, Franz Liszt (1811–1886) is one of the most written about but least understood composers of the 19th century. As for his life—Felix Mendelssohn observed that Liszt's character was "a continual alternation between scandal and apotheosis." "Scandal and apotheosis"? What could that possibly mean? Join music professor Robert Greenberg for these lectures, and go on a fascinating journey in search of the truth about both. "Franz Liszt, Both Sides Now," you might call it.

Lisztomania! or A Portrait of the Artist as Hero

More than anyone before him—more than Beethoven, Byron, even the preternatural Paganini—it was Liszt who created one of the most enduring archetypes of the Romantic era: that of the artist "who walks with God and brings down fire from heaven in order to kindle the hearts of humankind."

After experiencing Professor Greenberg's lectures, you will know—really know—what "Lisztomania" is all about. That word is not just the title of a quirky 1975 Ken Russell movie, but a term invented by Liszt's contemporaries.

You'll learn why it made sense to so many at the time, and why it drove others, Brahms and his friend Clara Schumann among them, up the proverbial wall.

Liszt was without a doubt the greatest pianist of his time. He may well be the greatest of all time. Traveling arduously all over Europe on mail coaches, playing whatever instrument was available in whatever hall he could find, he stunned even the most jaded critics and listeners everywhere he went with his sheer virtuosity and almost unbelievable musical gifts.

Two Sides of a Virtuoso

Liszt was an innovative composer both for his own instrument and on an orchestral scale, a visionary about the future of art, a big-hearted developer of young talent who frequently taught for no pay, and a sincere lover of gypsy freedom as well as Franciscan faith and charity.

Liszt also had many sides to his personal life. He was a lover of adulation and women, sleeping with everyone from countesses and princesses to wild-eyed young groupies; a well-meaning but absent and rather indifferent father to three out-of-wedlock children; and a Hungarian patriot who spent most of his time in Paris, Germany, and Rome.

Additionally, Liszt was a self-conscious artiste, damaging his own reputation by insisting on publishing just about every piece of music that came from his pen and a proud meritocrat from peasant stock who nonetheless had a weakness for what struck some observers as pseudo-aristocratic posturing.

The Gypsy Franciscan

On stage—he was the first pianist ever to play a solo concert—he was a shameless showoff. But he had the talent to display, and this attention-loving side of Liszt was inseparable from his apotheosis as a veritable deity of the keyboard who could sight-read even the most difficult and illegible score with the pages turned upside down—all the while playing the piece flawlessly and commenting on it as he played!

As Professor Greenberg observes, Liszt would hardly have reached "legend" status if his chosen instrument had been the oboe.

As Liszt himself said of his zest for living, "In life one must decide whether to conjugate the verb to have or the verb to be."

For all his reputation (much of it very well earned) as a lady-killer, a high-society bon vivant, and something of a 19th-century rock star, Liszt was also a man of warm, heartfelt Catholic piety and moving personal generosity.

He held many benefit concerts—among his causes were construction of a monument to Beethoven and flood relief in Hungary—and the stories of his acts of kindness are legion.

Liszt: A Brief Biography

Liszt was born into a musical family in 1811. His father, Adam, recognized his musical gifts when Franz was about 5 and gave him piano lessons. The family moved to Vienna when Franz was 11 to continue his musical education. In a subsequent tour of Europe, nobles, stunned by the prodigy's abilities, offered letters of introduction to the next stop on the tour.

Finally, the Liszt family landed in Paris, where Franz performed almost nonstop. The aristocrats of the city loved Franz, and he absorbed their language, culture, and sophistication. During these years, Liszt wrote his Etudes en douze exercices, which he would rewrite as the Grand Etudes in 1838 and as the Transcendental Etudes in 1851.

After his father died in 1827, and he had a breakdown over the ending of a love affair, he stopped practicing the piano and did not write any music. For three years he was depressed, ill, and apathetic. Finally, the July Revolution of 1830 in Paris blasted Liszt out of his lethargy and reignited his creative energies.

After the revolution, Liszt became a popular figure at Parisian salons and met Nicolo Paganini and Hector Berlioz, two men who would help shape his vision of himself as a composer and pianist.

In 1847, Liszt met Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, who would become his soulmate and mistress. Liszt took up conducting and composing for the orchestra in Weimar, ultimately turning out his "symphonic poems," and Faust and Dante symphonies.

After considering the priesthood following the deaths of two of his children, Liszt's final years were filled with music, traveling, honors, and a few disappointments. He divided his living arrangements among Rome; Weimar, where he taught extensively; and Budapest, where he was honored as a national hero. He died of a heart attack on July 31, 1886.

"A Talented Humbug"?

Some critics, then and now, have felt that Liszt, while incomparable at the keyboard, was derivative and seriously uneven as a composer. The conductor Hermann Levi even called him "a talented humbug."

Professor Greenberg weighs this charge, explains its grounds (as we have seen, Liszt, unlike Brahms, did tend to publish indiscriminately), and then shows you—concretely and with specific examples from Liszt's works—the grounds for his own belief about the merits of this claim.

What is the truth about Liszt as a composer? Does he belong in the first flight with Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart? How should his avant-garde risk-taking—his invention of the "symphonic poem," for instance—affect his reputation?

And how should Liszt's truly extraordinary performance innovations affect our answer?

Works you'll hear in the lectures are excerpted from:

Etude in 12 Exercises, no. 10 in F Minor (1826)
Grande Fantasie de Bravoure sur La Clochette, variations (1832)
Transcendental Etude no. 10 in F Minor (1851)
Totentanz (1849, revised 1853–1859)
Sonata in B Minor for Piano (1853)
Piano Concerto no. 2 in A Major (1849, revised 1861)
Faust Symphony (1854)
Mephisto Waltz no. 1 (1860)
Christus (1866)
Hungarian Rhapsody no. 19 in D Minor (1885)
Transcendental Etude no. 8, Wilde Jagd (Wild Chase) (1838/1851)
Variation on a Theme by Diabelli (1822)
Arrangement of "Scaffold March" from Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (1833)
Divertissement on the cavatina, "I tuoi frequenti palpiti" from Puccini's La Niobe (1833)
From Six Grand Etudes after Paganini: no. 5, "The Chase," and no. 3, "La Campanella" (1838/1851)
Funerailles (1849)
Piano Concerto no. 1 in E-flat Major (1849, revised 1856)
Franciscan Legend no. 1 from St. Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds from Franciscan Legend (1863)

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8 lectures
 |  Average 46 minutes each
  • 1
    Le Concert, C'est Moi—The Concert is Me
    Franz Liszt was an outrageous showman and a performer of musical "firsts." He was a legend before he turned 30, the embodiment of the Romantic era's vision of the artist as god. To understand Liszt, we must first learn a little history of the piano, the instrument he uniquely exploited. x
  • 2
    A Born Pianist
    Liszt was surrounded by music from infancy and began to reveal his musical gifts at about age five. He stunned his teachers and, at his first performance at age 11, astonished reviewers and his audience. When Liszt was 15, his father died, sending Franz into depression and apathy for three years. He was finally blasted out of his lethargy by the July Revolution of 1830. x
  • 3
    Writers, musicians, artists, and intellectuals flocked to Paris after the July Revolution of 1830. Liszt was a stellar attraction in the Paris salons. In 1833, Liszt met and fell in love with the beautiful, married, and neurotic Countess Marie d'Agoult; they had three children together. A devastating flood in Hungary prompted Liszt to go to Vienna and give a series of benefit concerts. The experience reminded him of what his life had been like before Marie and released him from the trap that he felt his domestic life had become. x
  • 4
    Liszt had been immersed in practicing and composing. His approach to composition created a technique of interchangeable fingerings, interlocking hands, and crossed hands that revolutionized piano playing in the 19th century. He had attained a level of virtuosity at the piano that would soon take Europe by storm when he went on tour. His concerts became major events, and he proved himself to be the consummate showman. x
  • 5
    Marie believed that Liszt had abandoned her, and she spent the rest of her life trying to blacken his reputation. Liszt retired as a touring concert pianist in 1847, after he met Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein. He took over the orchestra in Weimar and aimed to recreate the city as the hub of European culture. Liszt and Carolyne lived in a spacious house in Weimar and hosted a circle of friends in the arts. Among this "Music of the Future" group was Richard Wagner, whom Liszt assisted personally and professionally. x
  • 6
    The Music at Weimar
    Although Liszt was conducting and learning to compose for the orchestra, his heart still belonged to the piano. During this time, he composed one of the greatest keyboard works of the 19th century, the B Minor Sonata for Piano. Liszt's orchestral masterwork of these years is the Faust Symphony, which has modern themes to depict the story of Faust's struggle for his soul. With its completion in 1857, Liszt became the patriarch of the new music. x
  • 7
    By the 1850s, Liszt became the focal point of a debate concerning program music versus absolute music and expression versus structure. Twenty years before, Liszt and his fellow young Romantic musicians had a common goal: to create a new music based on individual expression. As they grew older, many became conservative, but Liszt never lost his revolutionary spirit. But brokenhearted by the death of his daughter, he turned to the Catholic Church to find solace. x
  • 8
    A Life Well Lived
    Liszt's last 12 years were filled with music, traveling, honors, and a few disappointments. He was hailed as a genius in Hungary and divided his living arrangements among Rome, Weimar, and Budapest. He spent much time teaching and helped to found the Hungarian Royal Academy of Music. His health and energy began to fail him in 1881 and he died in Bayreuth, Bavaria, on July 31, 1886. x

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Your professor

Robert Greenberg

About Your Professor

Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. A graduate of Princeton University, Professor Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, Berkeley. He has seen his compositions—which include more than 45 works for a wide variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles—performed all over the world, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles,...
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Great Masters: Liszt-His Life and Music is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 51.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Get to know Liszt I have been gradually acquiring all of professor Greenberg's lectures. They are both entertaining and educational and a good introduction to classical music.
Date published: 2020-05-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from High on my Liszt of favorites Greenberg once again puts pizzazz into his lectures, making the music, the man and the mood always interesting. History and humor meet with this guy to perfection. Keep them coming!
Date published: 2020-04-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another winner from Professor Greenberg! I've listened to almost all the other "Great Masters" courses and this one is fantastic, just like the rest. Professor Greenberg does an amazing job of telling an interesting story without devolving into cute anecdotes or boring minutia. Selections from LIszt's music are interspersed at reasonable and enjoyable intervals. Nothing can match Prof. Greenberg's enthusiasm. He loves music and it that feeling is contagious. My only critique is that he really could spend a few minutes brushing up on his French and Hungarian pronunciation, they are pretty dreadful.
Date published: 2019-11-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of music's most fascinating figures This one is really more biography than music, and I think it may be in part because Professor Greenberg doesn’t consider Liszt a truly great composer on par with Brahms, Mozart, etc (also my opinion). However, Liszt was a truly gigantic figure in 19th Century music—first to really capitalize on the new metal-framed pianos, first to give a complete all-piano concert (“recital”), inventor of the master class, center of one of the 2 opposite camps in German Romanticism—and an extraordinary person in numerous respects. Dr Greenberg does a great job of telling his story, and I really enjoyed it. The last 2 lectures are particularly good.
Date published: 2019-04-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good title What was great was able to learn and hear the great music and the naughty details of his life.
Date published: 2019-03-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I have listened to several of Dr. G's lectures, all of them great, but Liszt--now, there is a fascinating story to say the very, very least. 8 Lectures on 8 CDs. Totally worth it. It is nothing short of astonishing how Dr. Greenberg can keep producing lecture after lecture on subject after subject, all at such high levels of expertise. Each presentation represents an enormous amount of research and preparation. These productions are a genuine gift to the musical community worldwide. It seems no matter how much a person may already know on a given composer or musical subject, Dr. G is still able to offer additional information, insights, and connections to make each subject even more complete. For example, the time spent offering the detailed information on the technical development of the piano is so helpful and so relevant here, especially when we consider that the construction of the piano was nearing the end of its evolution just in time for the Romantic Era and Chopin, the first pianistic composer, and Franz Liszt, the greatest pianist of the era and perhaps of all time. Other important influential information of this sort included the effect of the French Revolution, the impact of Chopin and Berlioz, and Liszt's friendship with Paganini on his development as a musician. Liszt is well-portrayed here as the anomaly he is, achieving a well-deserved fame for his performing skill, and yet at the great cost of a complicated and convoluted personal life, full of many painful episodes, some of which were brought on by himself - some not so. Dr. G explores every nook and cranny of Listzt's amazing life. In addition to Liszt's music and all things connected to it, Dr. G really outdoes himself in giving us a full view of Liszt the man who, among innumerable other misfortunes, certainly had bad luck with women, (In 1871 Olga's Janina's life's ambition was to kill Liszt, and she gave it a good try.) It's amazing that he even survived his life, let alone became a musical icon to boot. And what about these gems---?---Franz Liszt, a priest??? Unbelievable. Best of all, it was no joke! And the Wagner/Cosima/Hans von Bulow triangle and its aftermath leaves one speechless. Liszt's swift switch from performer to composer is remarkable, and Dr. G's in-depth examinations of the B Minor Piano Sonata and the Faust Symphony are particularly appreciated. Speaking personally, for all his faults, I have to say that a few character traits particularly attract me to Liszt, the first of which is his generosity. In the book Composers On Music, edited by Sam Morgenstern, the editor says of Liszt, "Scarcely any young composer of worth who came to his notice--and few failed to--was not encouraged, and his music keenly analyzed and criticized. What is more, it was brought to performance and helped toward publication through Liszt's immense influence. Similarly, performers were helped forward in their careers. Liszt offered them his invaluable, free instruction and undertook to procure them engagements on an almost wholesale basis, acting as agent or manager in the best sense of the word. He drew a clear line of demarcation between genius and talent: men like Wagner, Berlioz and Schumann he accepted as they were; he tried to improve, through suggestion and advice, the creations of lessers composers; the truly bad was never cut to pieces--it was correctly ignored." I was also impressed with the way Liszt handled the severest criticism, incorrect and motivated by envy as it was, by making dignified and generous statements such as, "Despite these words, (Joseph) Joachim remains a great artist and a noble spirit." And one more thing in his favor--Liszt's excellent fatherly advice to his daughter Cosima was right on the money. Plus, Dr. G's clever humor once again always hits the bullseye and makes my wife and me Iaugh out loud. Subtitle: The Great One, by a great teacher. P.S. Yes, Virginia, Liszt's critics were not right, as so many critics of so many composers and performers through the centuries were also not right. Upon reading what a few others have to say about Dr. Greenberg's teaching, I am saddened to see that the spirits of Eduard Hanslick, George Bernard Shaw, Harold Schonberg and Virgil Thomson are alive and well.
Date published: 2018-12-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So Much to Learn I only started to listen to classical music in earnest about three or four years ago. I can't believe I wasted so much of my life before discovering it. I took this course as just another step to expand my understanding and appreciation of the art. As usual, the professor's presentation is excellent. Though Liszt is not my favorite, I still gained a much better appreciation of both Liszt and classical/romantic era music.
Date published: 2018-10-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting Lively Interesting and revealing insights xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Date published: 2018-09-10
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