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How Franz Liszt Became The World's First Rock Star

Illustration of Franz Liszt. The Hungarian composer and pianist revolutionized the art of performance. (Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

When you think of rock n' roll, Franz Liszt might not be the first name that comes to mind. But the classical pianist, born 200 years ago today, was in many ways the first rock star of all time.

In the mid-19th century, Liszt was tearing up the polite salons and concert halls of Europe with his virtuoso performances. Women would literally attack him: tear bits of his clothing, fight over broken piano strings and locks of his shoulder-length hair. Europe had never seen anything like it. It was a phenomenon the great German poet Heinrich Heine dubbed "Lisztomania."

"We hear about women throwing their clothes onto the stage and taking his cigar butts and placing them in their cleavages," says Stephen Hough, a world-renowned concert pianist.

Like many contemporary classical pianists, Hough is obsessed with Liszt — not only because he was really good, but also because he revolutionized the art of performance.

"Liszt was a very dynamic personality," Hough says. "He was someone who seduced people — not just in a sexual way, but in a dramatic way. He was someone who, like a great speaker, was able to capture an audience."

Before Franz Liszt, no one thought a solo pianist could hold anyone's attention, let alone captivate an audience. Liszt set out across Europe in 1839 to prove the conventional wisdom wrong. As part of that mission, he made a radical decision to never bring his scores onstage.

"Before Liszt, it was considered almost in bad taste to play from memory," Hough explains. "Chopin once chided a student: It looked almost arrogant, as if you were pretending that the piece you were playing was by you. Liszt saw that playing the piano, especially for a whole evening in front of an audience, it was a theatrical event that needed not just musical things happening but physical things on the stage."

Liszt deliberately placed the piano in profile to the audience so they could see his face. He'd whip his head around while he played, his long hair flying, beads of sweat shooting into the crowd. He was the first performer to stride out from the wings of the concert hall to take his seat at the piano. Everything we recognize about the modern piano recital — think Keith Jarrett, Glenn Gould, Tori Amos or Elton John — Liszt did first. Even the name "recital" was his invention.

But although his life was the kind many musicians dream of, Liszt walked away from it all in his 30s.

"He wasn't someone who thought life just consisted of food, drink and all the pleasure you could wring out of it. He was someone who was always searching," Hough says. "I mean, he even considered the priesthood in his teens. So, he was never going to be satisfied just with pleasing the countesses. I think he also realized how superficial a lot of audiences' appreciation might be, and he wanted to retire and to do something more meaningful."

Later on in his life, Liszt became interested in conducting, and he re-defined that role as well: He started to work with individual musicians to help them shape the sounds that he was after.

"Before Liszt, a conductor was someone who just facilitated the performance, who would keep people together or beat the time, indicate the entries," Hough says. "After Liszt, that was no longer the case; a conductor was someone who shaped the music in an intense musical way, who played the orchestra as an instrument."

And, of course, Liszt would go on to compose around 1,400 works. He died in 1886, but all through the 20th century, his influence could be heard — in the works of fellow Hungarian composers Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly, as well as in the writing of his son-in-law, Richard Wagner.

The cultural impact of Lisztomania continues to take various forms today. In 1975, Ken Russell directed a film called Lisztomania, starring The Who's Roger Daltrey as Franz Liszt. (It was a bit over the top, anachronistically adding pyrotechnics and gunplay to Liszt's already-flamboyant stage show.) Then, just a couple years ago, modern rock fans fell in love with the song "Lisztomania" by the French band Phoenix.

"I love classical piano, so I have to love Liszt," says Thomas Mars, Phoenix's lead singer. Mars says he wanted to write an homage to Liszt; the band even recorded the video for the song outside Liszt's home in Bayreuth, Germany.

"He was exotic, he was different, he was pure in a way," says Mars. "It seemed that everyone wanted to get something out of him, so when people go ecstatic ... he's totally embracing that.

Tonight, on the 200th anniversary of Franz Liszt's birth, the Philadelphia Orchestra is performing his First Symphony. The orchestra will have a very special guest: Lang Lang, another world-renowned pianist and perhaps the closest thing we have today to a classical rock star.

Lang Lang's love of Liszt is well-known — in fact, his newest album is called Liszt: My Piano Hero. Weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz spoke with Lang Lang earlier in the week, between rehearsals in Philadelphia. The pianist said he first heard Liszt's music as a 2-year-old.

"I was watching Tom and Jerry, and they were playing Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2," Lang Lang says. "And I was fascinated."

For the full version of this story, including Guy Raz's complete interview with Lang Lang, click the audio link at the top of the page.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Phoenix's "Lisztomania" video.
Transcript

GUY RAZ, host: Time now for music, and the music of the first rock star of all time born on this day, 200 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Now, this may not sound like rock 'n' roll, but in the mid-19th century, the man behind this music, Franz Liszt, well, he was tearing up the polite salons and concert halls of Europe with his virtuoso performances. Women would literally attack him - tear bits of his clothing, fight over broken strings and locks of Liszt's shoulder-length hair.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Europe had never seen anything like it. In fact, the great German poet Heinrich Heine dubbed the phenomenon Lisztomania.

STEPHEN HOUGH: We hear about women, you know, throwing their clothes onto the stage and taking his cigar butts and placing them in their cleavages.

RAZ: That's Stephen Hough, who's played Liszt's music around the world. And like many classical pianists, Hough's obsessed with Liszt not only because he was really good, but because he revolutionized the art of performance. You could say the guy had serious stage presence.

HOUGH: Liszt was a very dynamic personality. He was someone who seduced people not just in a sexual way, but in a dramatic way. He was someone who, like a great speaker, was able to capture an audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Now, you have to divide the classical world into before Franz Liszt and after, because before, no one thought a solo pianist could hold anyone's attention let alone captivate an audience. But Liszt gambled on the idea that he could. And so in 1839, he set out across Europe to prove it. And he did one other thing: He didn't bring sheet music.

HOUGH: Before Liszt, it was considered almost in bad taste to play from memory. Chopin once chided a student: It looked almost arrogant, as if you were pretending that the piece you were playing was by you. Liszt saw that playing the piano, especially for a whole evening in front of an audience, it was a theatrical event that needed not just musical things happening, but physical things on the stage.

RAZ: Liszt would deliberately place the piano in profile to the audience so they could see his face. He'd whip his head around while he played, his long hair would fly, beads of sweat would shoot into the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: He was the first performer to stride out from the wings of the concert hall to take his seat at the piano. Everything we recognize about the modern piano recital - think Keith Jarrett or Glenn Gould or Tori Amos or Elton John - well, Liszt did it first. Even the name recital - that was a Liszt invention. And quite possibly, the most rock star thing he ever did? He walked away from it all - in his 30s. Again, here's Stephen Hough.

HOUGH: He wasn't someone who thought life just consisted of food, drink and all the pleasure you could wring out of it. He was someone who was always searching. I mean, he even considered the priesthood in his teens. So he was never going to be satisfied just with pleasing the countesses. I think he also realized how superficial a lot of audiences' appreciation might be, and he wanted to retire and to do something more meaningful.

RAZ: Later on in his life, Liszt became interested in conducting, and he redefined that role as well. He started to work with individual musicians to help them shape the sounds that he was after.

HOUGH: And this is a tremendous change. Because really before Liszt, a conductor was someone who just facilitated the performance, who would keep people together or beat the time, indicate the entries. After Liszt, that was no longer the case; a conductor was someone who shaped the music in an intense musical way, who played the orchestra as if an instrument.

RAZ: And Liszt himself would go on to compose around 1,400 works.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Franz Liszt died in 1886, but his influence carried on right through the 20th century in the works of fellow Hungarian composers like Bartok and Kodaly, as well as in the writing of his son-in-law, Richard Wagner - even in film.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LISZTOMANIA")

ROGER DALTREY: (as Franz Liszt) (Singing) (Unintelligible)...

RAZ: In 1975, Ken Russell directed a movie called "Lisztomania," a rock opera, no less, starring The Who's Roger Daltrey as Franz Liszt. And then just a couple of years ago, modern rock fans fell in love with this:

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LISZTOMANIA")

PHOENIX: (Singing) Lisztomania, think less but see it grow. Like a riot, like a riot, oh.

RAZ: This is the French band Phoenix with their song "Lisztomania." Thomas Mars is their lead singer.

THOMAS MARS: I love classical piano, so I have to love Liszt.

RAZ: Thomas Mars says he wanted to write an homage to Liszt. The band even recorded the video outside Liszt's home in Bayreuth, Germany.

MARS: He was exotic, he was different, he was pure in a way. It seemed that everyone wanted to get something out of him. So I think that's when people go ecstatic and hysterical reactions in the crowd because he's playing with this, and he had a sense, he was totally embracing that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LISZTOMANIA")

PHOENIX: (Singing) From a mess to the masses.

RAZ: Tonight, on the 200th anniversary of Franz Liszt's birth, the Philadelphia Orchestra is performing his Piano Concerto No. 1 with a very special guest pianist.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Lang Lang is a world-renowned concert pianist, and his love of Liszt is well-known. As a matter of fact, his new album is called "Liszt: My Piano Hero." I spoke with Lang Lang earlier in the week in between rehearsals in Philadelphia. And he told me he first heard Liszt's music as a 2-year-old while watching a famous television duo.

LANG LANG: "Tom and Jerry," and they were playing the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, and I got fascinated.

RAZ: So you're watching "Tom and Jerry" play Liszt.

LANG: Yeah.

RAZ: Oh, actually, Liszt was playing behind them rather.

LANG: Yeah, and I thought it was such exciting music. So he really lead me into a professional pianist.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: What is it about Liszt's style that appeals to you so much as a performer?

LANG: He is a real piano god, so he make piano sound like entire orchestra. And he has this amazing technique like nobody else. At the same time, he brings passion and love and heart.

RAZ: You have said, Lang Lang, that as a composer, Liszt actually opened the door to modern music. How so?

LANG: The piano as an instrument was pretty weak that time. So Liszt is totally a monster at the piano. You know, he create such difficult pieces. So he always destroy pianos during the concerts.

RAZ: He actually destroyed them? He broke them?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LANG: Yeah. And because of his technique and his incredible power, piano as an instrument had a revolution and became much better instrument and much more solid.

RAZ: It's rare that Liszt comes up in, you know, top 10 lists of great composers of all time or - and I'm wondering why you think that is?

LANG: He focus a lot on piano music, not on many other instruments. Not like Beethoven or Mozart or Tchaikovsky, you know? They are more - they grow not only great piano work, but also symphonic work, tremor music - a bit like Paganini, you know? I mean, Paganini is famous for violin only, and Liszt is that type of composer - for piano

RAZ: And Paganini influenced Liszt's playing as well, right?

LANG: Absolutely. Liszt - when Liszt was a kid, he saw Paganini playing at violin, and he said that I'd like to be the Paganini on a piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Some of this music sounds like actually - sounds like a workout. Does playing Liszt actually take a physical toll on you?

LANG: Absolutely. Playing Liszt, you need to put all your emotions and also very physical. I mean, his music - Paganini - it used La Campanella. It's very, very demanding. I mean, I exercise before I record this album.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Lang Lang, I know you're performing Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Philadelphia Orchestra tonight. And I'm looking through your - the liner notes of your new CD, and there's a photograph of you at the piano looking pretty good, man. You got like lasers coming out of your fingers at the piano. So I'm wondering, do you expect any Lang Lang-o-mania to break out tonight?

LANG: It will be quite hard, and the piece is very hard. So maybe you will see laser light but through music.

RAZ: You got any bodyguards on stage, or are there going to be, you know, audience members jumping up on stage to get locks of your hair?

LANG: Well, you know, for Philadelphia, I think we are pretty safe.

RAZ: That's Lang Lang. He's one of the most in demand concert pianists in the world. His new album is called "Liszt: My Piano Hero." And his hero, Franz Liszt, was born 200 years ago today. Lang Lang, thank you so much.

LANG: Thank you. Thank you, Guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcast, the best of weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at iTunes or at npr.org/weekendatc. And for audio outtakes from interviews on this program and previews of what's coming up, you can follow me on Twitter: @nprguyraz, spelled G-U-Y R-A-Z. We're back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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