Franz Liszt: The Kanye West of the 19th century?

Haters gon' hate

19th-century rockstar

Each century gives birth to a musical virtuoso who shakes things up a bit. Seeing as the internet has spent most of 2016 waiting, tweeting and obsessing over one very delayed album, we can certainly say that Kanye West has established himself as the musical force of the 21st century so far.

But step back 200 years and you’ll find a musician not too dissimilar to Mr West. Introducing Franz Liszt: composer, pianist and womanizer. Liszt possessed all the elements that would whip any of today’s music tabloids into a frenzy. Here’s why.

1. The greatest rock star on the planet

The word hysteria often comes to mind when Kanye’s around. Not only does every single music publication eagerly release a story the moment Kanye coughs, but fans and haters all have to comment on every single tweet, hoping to be part of the show.

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However, neither Kanye, Elvis nor The Beatles were the first musicians in history to provoke this type of public hysteria  Franz Liszt got his fair share, too. As soon as he started touring in 1839, word of his mesmerising performances spread across Europe. Heinrich Heine coined the term ‘Lisztomania’, a type of hysteria characterised by fans wrestling over his handkerchiefs, collecting locks of his hair, wearing his portrait in brooches and fighting to get their hands on one broken piano string. With such levels of admiration, Liszt was definitely in a position to pre-empt Kanye’s proclamation at Glastonbury (the 21st century version of a piano recital) and scream ‘I’m the greatest living rock star on the planet’.

2. Haters gon’ hate…

Today, Liszt is seen one of the most influential composers of the 19th century. Yet much like Kanye, his music polarised people. When Liszt wrote his iconic Sonata in B minor, the intensity and length of the piece met with mixed reviews. The wife of the composer Schumann called it ‘merely a blind noise’, Brahms famously fell asleep several times during Liszt’s live performance and critic Eduard Hanslaick claimed that ‘anyone who has heard it and finds it beautiful is beyond help’. On the other hand, Richard Wagner loved the sonata and called it ‘beautiful beyond compare’.

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Radicals like Kanye and Liszt have the ability to create musical Marmite. Still, what this rapper and composer have in common is their ability to create a web that time after time captures our attention. Liszt did it with his iconic sonata and Kanye has managed the same feat with the two-year build up to his new album. Love it or hate it, you still have to admit that they’re geniuses for making you care.

3. Late orchestration

We all know how Yeezy started his career as a producer for Roc-A-Fella Records, digging up old soul tracks and sampling them to create some of the most iconic beats of the 21st century. Well, Liszt spent a lot of his time transcribing (read: producing) the work of other composers, including Beethoven’s symphonies. He rewrote bass lines, reimagined melodies and transcribed hundreds of orchestral pieces, making them more accessible so they could reach audiences outside the European capitals.

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Both Kanye and Liszt use a back catalogue of influences in order to create modern music. They share the skill of recomposing and shaping those melodies in a way that opens up them up to a bigger audience.

4. Keeping Up with the Liszts

The composer Felix Mendelssohn described Liszt’s life as ‘a continual alternation between scandal and apotheosis’. Just like a well-known rapper, Liszt’s family members dragged him into what can reasonably described as a classical soap opera. The most drama-packed episode in Liszt’s life took place as his masterpiece Sonata in B minor entered the universe. Here’s what happened:

  • The first performance of the sonata was given by Hans von Bülow, one of Liszt’s favourite students
  • Bülow was also married to Liszt’s daughter, Cosima
  • After the performance, Cosima called for a divorce and left Hans for Wagner (who, incidentally, was a protégé and great admirer of Liszt)
  • Liszt was left to sort it out. What a classical mess.

This type of drama wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians  though probably slightly less fortissimo, and with more letter-writing.

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5. I am your OC (original composer) and I will be respected as such

Liszt’s approach to music was remarkable. His work was a cornerstone for the art form and inspired a new generation of pianists. He was famous for his commitment to his students and invented a new way of teaching, creating group sessions in which collaboration and live performance were key to a successful lesson. Students travelled across the world to take part in these sessions and longed to be taught by the OC himself.

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Yet, as Liszt’s motto went: ‘genius has obligations’. Kanye has followed suit and has taken a number of protégées under his wing. In the same way that Liszt kept the door open for his teaching sessions, Kanye has repeatedly invited new blood into the studio and signed upcoming rappers to his G.O.O.D. Music imprint.

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Franz Liszt wrote some of the most forward thinking music of the 19 century. He led a life that might have been radical in the establishment’s eyes, but today we value the side of the composer that his contemporaries struggled to understand. We’re probably Bound 2 never make any sense of Kanye during our own time, but learning from Liszt might give us some help along the way.

Perhaps this piece pulled a classic Kanye and didn’t get the title right the first time around:

Kanye West: the Franz Liszt of the 21st century?

Classical Music Reimagined is on YouTube, too. Check out these five fascinating short films of renowned pianist Stephen Hough talking us through Liszt’s iconic Sonata in B Minor – and don’t forget to subscribe.
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