Virtuosos: Liszt & Paganini


No one in the mid-1800s had seen or heard anything like these two virtuoso musicians. Franz Liszt dazzled listeners (and those swooning ladies) with his amazing keyboard technique and dramatic stage presence. Italian violinist Niccolo Paganini also raised eyebrows and pulses with playing so other-worldly that many thought he'd sold his soul to the Devil. Thankfully, both wrote their own mind-boggling music – which we'll sample in this Active Minds program. Prepare to be amazed!


These days, we tend to take virtuosity almost for granted, be it super-excellence in athletics or in the art of performing. Sports heroes who make dazzling, impossible plays show up nightly on ESPN highlights. The common clichéd reaction is “Are you kidding me?” Ho hum. In the concert hall, we expect amazing things also happen. It's common to witness soloists who churn through challenging works with the casualness they might display fixing breakfast. The old joke about getting to Carnegie Hall is true: practice, practice. But, it also takes fearlessness, an outgoing personality and a certain indefinable spirit of adventure – traveling to a new world of showmanship that matches hard-won technical perfection. Today's models for the superstar concert-hall virtuoso can be traced to a pair of giants from the 19th Century: Niccolo Paganini and Franz Liszt. The former, an Italian violinist, chose the role of mysterious genius, keeping the path to his extraordinary technique a secret, thus adding to the carefully crafted image of a creature not of this world (one audience member swore she saw the Devil sitting on Paganini's shoulder as he performed). Quite the opposite with Liszt, a Hungarian-born pianist who made himself an inescapable presence in mid-19th Century Europe's social scene – flirting with the ladies, playing at parties with little prodding from his hosts, perfecting his onstage act by matching facial expressions and body language with the music at hand. An astonishing player at a young age (Beethoven was very impressed), Liszt forged a concert career like no other. He's credited with inventing the solo piano recital, mixing his own show-off works with pieces by his predecessors, particularly Beethoven. Sadly, we have no recorded performances from either man. Paganini (1782-1840) was never photographed, though a famous shot purported to be him in mid-performance has been proven to be a fake. Liszt (1811-86) left us before the invention of the phonograph, but there are dozens of photos, ranging from a handsome, long-haired young man all the way up to the aged pianist, his long hair turned white, his face marked by warts and his expression revealing a world-weariness that comes from having lived a very busy life. He was wildly popular with concert audiences in the early days (creating a phenomenon known as Lisztomania), though a tour of the British Isles was a flop. Liszt had numerous love affairs, notably a lengthy relationship with Marie D'Agoult, with whom he fathered three children (one of his two daughters, Cosima, became almost as famous as her father, abandoning her husband for Richard Wagner). In 1848, the pianist amazed the concert world by retiring from performances at age 35, to focus on composing, conducting and, in his final years, to become an Abbé with the Franciscan order. Paganini also had his share of talked-about concert successes and gossip-inducing offstage dalliances. Like Liszt (who created his flashy performance style after attending a Paganini concert in 1823), the violinist broke new ground in technique, startling his fans with tricks, such as left-hand pizzicatos (string pluckings), incredibly high harmonics (notes created by barely touching the strings with the left hand) and numerous attacks on the strings with his bow. Today, the prodigious catalog of solo and concerto works by the two men (along with Liszt's impressive number of orchestral pieces) enjoy a place of prominence in concerts and recordings. They dazzle the eyes and ears. As for emotional depth and artistic expression, do we care?

Exploration Questions

  • Who are today's greatest interpreters of the showpieces by Liszt and Paganini?
  • What is “La Campanella” and why is it important for both composers?
  • In what ways did Liszt change the way pianists perform in concert and recital?

Reflective Questions

  • Is virtuosity more or less important than subtle artistic expression?
  • Who's more to your liking: Liszt or Paganini?
  • Do you prefer Liszt's piano works or his orchestral pieces?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Roth, Henry. Violin Virtuosos: From Paganini to the 21st Century. California Classics Books. 1997. 396 pages. As the name suggests, this is a thorough survey of the greatest violinists, past and present, offering valuable biographical information and keen insights into their technical mastery.
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  • Hilmes, Oliver. Franz Liszt: Musician, Celebrity, Superstar. Yale University Press. 2016. 368 pages. Yes, Liszt was all of those in the title – and more. Hilmes delves into the man behind the legend, offering a wonderful glimpse into the remarkable life of a remarkable man.
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