Some thoughts on Franz Liszt

According to, the Hungarian Gypsy scale is like a harmonic minor except that the 4th is raised. The Harmonic minor sounds strange and exotic because of the large gap between the sixth and seventh scale degrees. The Hungarian Gypsy scale has another large gap: the pattern of semitones between notes of the scale is 2, 1, 3, 1, 1, 3, 1.

Accorging to, this scale is identical to a ragam in Indian classical music called Simhendramadhyamam. It’s now known that the ancestors of the Romani people (“gypsies”) are from Northern India.
<blockquote>Europe’s largest minority group, the Romani, migrated from northwest India 1,500 years ago, new genetic study finds.</blockquote>

Here is an example of a song based on Simhendramadhyamam


I was curious to hear what Romani music sounds like. Here is a world famous group called Taraf de Haïdouks giving a surprise concert.

I spent the afternoon listening to Dr. Robert Greenberg’s lectures on Liszt (part of his “Great Masters” series of lectures). Here is a flying overview:

Franz Liszt’s father Adam was a musician who had once worked with the Esterhase family, where Haydn was employed as court musician. Later Adam moved to Raiding in Hungary. Franz was born there in 1811 and always thought of himself as Hungarian (though his parents were Austrian and the family spoke German at home). Franz was immersed in music from an early age. When he was 5 years old he heard a concerto and later that day sang it back for his father, who realized that his son might be another child prodigy like Mozart had been. During his childhood Franz became fascinated with the gypsy musicians camped outside of Raiding. The music seemed both ancient yet also vibrant, spontaneous and full of improvisation — and made him feel “literally dizzy”. Later Liszt would say about himself that he was “half Franciscan, half gypsy”.

Adam Liszt taught his son until he was about 10 yrs old. He then uprooted the family and moved to Vienna (then the capital of the musical world) and arranged for Franz to have lessons with Carl Czerny (who had been a student of Beethoven). Franz also had lessons in composition with Antonio Salieri. He gave his first public performance when he was 11. His father took him on a performing tour — very stressful for someone so young, but unlike Beethoven and Mozart, Liszt seemed to have a good relationship with his father rather than an abusive one. When Franz’ father died unexpectedly, he was devastated and went into a depression for several years.

Franz and his mother moved to Paris. While they were there the July Revolution of 1830 took place. This woke Franz up from his depression and he began to compose and to play again. While in Paris, Liszt saw Paganini in concert and said afterward “not only does he play well, but as well as it’s possible to play”. Liszt realized that he could become the Paganini of the piano — someone who could take the piano to its limits. The piano had only recently evolved into an instrument that could stand up to that kind of treatment. The new invention of the cast-iron frame made it possible to have more strings, that were thicker and strung more tightly — so it was possible to play with a much greater range of dynamics. And Sébastien Érard invented a new kind of key action that enabled a musician to repeat a single note much more rapidly. Because of the wide range of tone colors it could produce, Liszt thought of the piano as orchestral — one instrument encompassing many. As Liszt explored what he could do with the piano, he created Études (studies) which showcased different techniques. He returned to and updated these throughout his life.

Liszt was also inspired by the romanticism of Chopin and the wildly expressive program music of Berlioz. Something I was pleased to learn about was that Liszt was a very loyal friend to Chopin, Berlioz and others; during his concert tours made a point of publicizing their music. Liszt thought that Berlioz deserved much more recognition, and transcribed several of Berlioz’ symphonies into piano scores. He also transcribed the symphonies of Beethoven (whom he revered) and brought that music back into the public eye. Many of Liszt’s transcriptions were not strictly literal but more of a “re-imagining” of the pieces they were based on.

One of my favorite anecdotes about Liszt mentioned in Dr. Greenberg’s lectures was that friends would give Liszt an orchestra score that he had never seen before; Liszt would then turn it upside down and sight read it — “with musicality” — while simultaneously giving commentary on what he was playing. This leaves me in awe of what the human brain can be capable of. I’m also amazed that Liszt was able to have such an extensive concert career, giving more than a thousand recitals. How was he able to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome? This makes me think of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who with his huge arms and short powerful legs seems genetically designed to swim. There was some incredibly rare combination of traits in Liszt’s brain and body that enabled him to achieve astounding feats of musicianship.

Here is an orchestral version