When Franz Liszt’s parents realized that their son was a musical prodigy, they poured all their time and money into the development of his talents. Liszt received piano lessons from the Austrian Carl Czerny and lessons in composition from Antonio Salieri. By the time Liszt was 12 years old, he was regularly performing for nobility. When the family’s money ran out, he began his first concert tour.
Unfortunately, like many child stars, the absence of a “normal” youth led Liszt down the wrong road. When his father died, the 15 year old Liszt began a lifelong struggle with depression and alcohol. He led a wild Paris life in the company of Eugene Delacroix, Victor Hugo, and many others. He began consorting with women who were far from virtuous. Women involved in his many affairs included the courtesan Marie Duplessis (the inspiration for Verdi’s La Traviata) and the Baroness Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin (better known by her penname George Sand).
Liszt, who had temporarily given up performing, earned his living by giving music lessons. At this time, he fell in love with Caroline de Saint-Circq, one of his students. When her father refused to let them marry, Liszt fell into a severe bout of depression that caused several suicide attempts. He wanted to take religious orders but his mother refused to give him permission.
His depression did not end until, on April 20, 1832, he met the legendary violinist Niccolo Paganini. Paganini inspired Liszt to take up performing again. Liszt then developed performance and showman techniques that are still used to this day.
In 1833, Liszt fell madly in love with the (married) Countess Marie d’Agoult. The romantic young woman returned his affection. For four years, Liszt and the Countess lived in sin. Their union yielded one son, Daniel, and two daughters, Blandine and Cosima.
However, love was not enough to keep the couple together. Their frequent fights eventually led to their separation. The Countess took her revenge by portraying Liszt in a bad light in her now forgotten novels.
After he was free of the Countess, Liszt began touring again. His virtuoso playing and showman skills made him one of the biggest celebrities of the 19th century. In 1847, while performing in Kiev, he met Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. The princess fell head-over-heels in love with the composer. In 1848, she left her husband and lived with Liszt for several years. The Princess would pursue Liszt for 40 years and repeatedly tried to convince him to marry her.
The marriage never took place partly because the Princess’ husband interfered with her plans for an annulment and partly because Liszt could no longer ignore his religious calling. His son, Daniel, had died of tuberculosis on December 13, 1859. Three years later, Blandine also passed away. The deaths of his two children served as a wakeup call for Liszt. On June 20, 1863, he disappeared into a monastery in Rome. He would remain there for several years. In 1865, he received a tonsure and the title Abbe (father). Although he never became a priest, he was an honorary canon as well as an exorcist and acolyte.
It was around this time that scandalous news about Cosima, his only surviving child, came to light. In 1857, Cosima had married Hans von Bulow, one of her father’s students. Liszt had introduced Bulow to composer Richard Wagner. Within a few years, Cosima had begun an affair with Wagner that would produce three children before she obtained a divorce from Bulow. It is not known if Liszt was aware of the situation before or during his stay at the Madonna del Rosario monastery.
After his conversion, Liszt composed some of his most beautiful scared works including the Via Crucis and Cantico del Sol di Franceso d’Assisi. In 1869, he began giving piano lessons again. From 1869 until his death, he divided his time between Rome, Weimar, Germany, and Budapest. Even though the prodigal son had made peace with his God, he still struggled with depression. Not long before his death, he told his biographer, Lina Ramann, “I carry a deep sadness of the heart which must now and then break out in song”.
While visiting the then widowed Cosima Wagner, Franz Liszt died of pneumonia on July 31, 1886.
Source: Machlis, Joseph “The Enjoyment of Music”