Franz Liszt’s Passionate Love of Music as a Child

Adam Liszt soon noticed those unmistakable signs of a mind stamped for music; he indeed watched them with intense interest, and with the joyful hope that his beloved Franz might live to be some day a talented and renowned musician. Franz had often openly expressed his wish to learn the piano, but before gratifying that wish, the father deemed it prudent to ascertain whether it was really the early manifestation of a vocation, or simply a whim such as children are wont to express. The boy’s entreaties were growing daily more urgent when one day he sang by ear correctly, and in a pure, clear voice, Ferdinand Ries’ theme of the Concerto in G flat, although he had only just heard his father play it for the first time. Adam Liszt then resolved to encourage his son’s aptitude and to give him lessons. A self taught man, Adam possessed no real musical method; he, however, succeeded in imparting the elements of music to his little pupil. Although but six years old, Franz soon made remarkable progress. He read his notes and found the keys with as much ease and confidence as though he had been practicing for years. He soon also displayed extraordinary delicacy and quickness of ear. His memory was astonishing. His attention and perseverance were remarkable, so much so that his father was often obliged to order him away from the piano, lest his health should get impaired through want of bodily exercise and mental recreation; for such, indeed, was now his love of music that he was neglecting his little playmates, whose society he formerly used to seek with eagerness.

His father having one day asked him what he wished to become, he, pointing to the picture of a master hung on the wall of the room, replied, with earnest and sparkling eyes: “Such an one as he.” That picture represented Beethoven.

All that related to music seems, indeed, to have had for Franz an especial attraction. If not sitting at the piano, he would scribble notes, which without instruction, he had learned to transcribe. He thus read musical notes long before he had mastered the letters of the alphabet and the rudiments of writing.

When a child his small hands were a source of  great trouble to him, as however he might stretch his small fingers, they failed to cover an octave. To attain his aim he would often resort to all kinds of comical expedients, such for instance as playing the extra notes with the tip of his nose, to the great amusement of his parents. When intent upon mastering some musical difficulty his ingenuity knew, indeed, no bounds.

Adam Liszt was at first delighted by so precocious a talent, and left his son entirely free to play as much and in such manner as he liked. He, however, noticed that the passionate love for music seemed to have a pernicious effect on the child’s highly nervous temperament, and though it prudent to check it by temporarily withdrawing his instruction. That, indeed, was not of much avail, for the boy only studied with more ardor, and his passion for music went on increasing daily. His frail and excitable nature could not, however, withstand the strain of his musical emotions, and of his anxiety for proficiency. Franz had now been studying music for some years. He was just entering upon the critical transitory period from childhood to boyhood. His body now appeared to pine, the bloom left his cheeks, and his strength declined visibly; he grew feverish, and although not displaying the symptoms of any definite disease, his legs soon grew too feeble to carry him and he had to lie. He was thus laid up for many weeks and months, during which he received every care and attention that fondly devoted parents and skilled doctors could devise; yet his malady seemed to baffle science. No improvement was taking place, and his distressed parents had almost given up the hope of saving him, their only son. Indeed, the rumor of his death had even been spread in the village. Suddenly, however, and when least expected, nature conquered the disease, health returned, and the boy rapidly and thoroughly recovered; so much so, indeed, that he never thereafter felt and consequence of that long illness. He also grew stronger, and with health regained his cheerful temper. His love of music was also undiminished; he soon resumed his studies; “his little musical inventions”, as he used to call his youthful attempts at composition.

Despite the forced idleness of his long months of illness, he had not forgotten anything; his musical aptitudes now seemed indeed more apparent than before. He would play duets with his father, and eagerly try his hand with every piece of music he could get hold of. His character had now acquired the bent which it was to preserve in after life. One of its most prominent features was the marked love of the boy for truth, which always caused him frankly to confess his little follies. Another of his characteristics that much influenced his success through life was the stubborn perseverance and unwonted energy with which he would pursue the execution of whatever scheme he set his heart upon.

Brought up, as it were, to the tune of Beethoven’s music, he always showed a special partiality for the works of the great master, whose powerful and soul stirring music he was destined to render with the artistic power and finish peculiar to his own genius. The music of the gypsies, too, so much in harmony with his own warm and passionate nature, seems to have exercised on his mind a sort of mysterious and irrepressible charm. He would often, when a boy, listen to their unruly and frenzied outbursts, silent and motionless as if spell bound by the magic power of the wild romances of those wandering songs of the plain. Like Beethoven’s music, that of the gypsies left on his mind a lasting impression easily detected in his manner and productions.

Although encouraging the musical aptitudes of his son, Adam Liszt did not neglect his general education. Franz was sent to the village priest, who taught him reading, writing and arithmetic. Strange to say, though born a Hungarian, the young boy was never taught to speak his native tongue, which, indeed, was only used by the peasantry in like manner as Welsh or Gaelic are now used in Wales and in some parts of Scotland. This was also perhaps due to the fact of his mother’s nationality; at all events, Franz’s father spoke Hungarian only with the village folk, in connection with his duties as steward. German, which, indeed, was the polite language of the land, was alone spoken in Franz’s home.

Young Franz used often now to accompany his father to the neighboring towns, chiefly to Eisenstadt and Oldenburg, where Adam Liszt had occasion to go on business connected with his duties. The father’s pride could not refrain from speaking of his boy’s talent, so that at various times young Franz, who was already known under the name of Der Kunstler (the artist), had been invited to play before some distinguished musicians, who, far from dissuading Adam Liszt from encouraging the child’s disposition, had strongly urged him to place Franz under the guidance of some efficient tutor. Adam was still, however, hesitating as to his son’s future career, when an unexpected event soon enabled him to make up his mind in that respect. A young blind nobleman, Baron von Braun, whom the loss of his fortune had reduced to turn to account his musical talent, having heard some of his confreres speak most favorably of young Franz’s playing, requested Adam Liszt to allow his son to play at a concert which was about to be given in Oldenburg.

Inwardly flattered by the compliment, and delighted at having thus the opportunity of putting Franz’s talent to the test, the father readily consented.