A child prodigy, Liszt spent his first twenty years being paraded by his father and then parading himself around Europe as a pianistic phenomenon. He received little education, and his compositions were limited to variations on themes from opera, and on rhapsodic, episodic, repetitious show pieces. This is a life that can only go on so long; audiences are fickle and prodigies eventually lose their appeal. Liszt’s musical life was saved by the violinist, Niccolò Paganini, whose stage presence, cultivation and extension of violin technique, coupled with his intellectual depth, inspired Liszt to remake himself. At the age of 21 he went into seclusion where he painstakingly rebuilt his piano technique, educated himself in history, philosophy, literature, and poetry, and immersed himself in the music of J.S. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Acquiring a solid compositional foundation, he emerged from this personal confinement to become the Liszt whose works are performed today.
The first concerto took more than a decade to take shape and is one of the composer’s earliest compositions in the longer musical forms. On the surface it seems to be a rather thin, bombastic affair: random pieces of musical material linked by virtuosic piano passages and posing as a multi-movement piano concerto, the orchestra playing the role of accompanist. But Liszt’s self-education had taken him where he wanted to go, even beyond, for analysis shows the work is tightly constructed in very innovative ways.
The piano dominates the work, the soloist frequently interrupting the orchestra for the 19th century is the century of the individual, the hero overcoming fearful odds. Careful listening will also show that the opening motive is the seed from which the rest of the music blooms, organically transforming these first notes into a wide variety of melodies through a range of keys implied by the opening. Although slow in gestation, the concerto demonstrates how Liszt transformed his life from a mere touring virtuoso into a composer of enormous influence on the history of music.