On 9 June 1840, a year or so into his European tour, Liszt hosted the first of two London concerts – advertised as ‘Liszt’s Pianoforte Recitals’ – at the Hanover Square Rooms in Mayfair. The musical recital was born...


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Who first used the term musical recital?

This was the first time the word recital had been used in terms of music. Until then, the word ‘recital’ had only been used to describe dramatic readings, which is perhaps why Liszt was drawn to the word: in the past, his solo concerts bore the curious name ‘musical soliloquies’.

Liszt was back on the touring circuit as a pianist in 1839 to help fundraise for a statue of Beethoven in Bonn. He had just emerged from an intense period of composition and was alarmed to hear that plans for the statue were under threat through lack of financial support.

For his London appearance, Liszt put together a programme that combined his own works with transcriptions of well-known masterpieces, including his own arrangements of Beethoven symphonies and Schubert songs. He also included Hexameron, a collaborative work pieced together from music by Chopin, Czerny, Thalberg, Pixis, Herz and Liszt himself.

Following his time in London, Liszt took a short break before returning to England in August to start a nationwide tour. The schedule was punishing: 50 concerts in six weeks. ‘My travelling circus begins today’, he wrote to his lover Marie d’Agoult from the first stop on the tour, Chichester. The ‘circus’ continued for about eight years – by the time he’d finished, Liszt had given 1,000 concerts right across Europe.

What were these first musical recitals like?

Liszt turned the usual form of a concert on its head, interacting with the audience and speaking to them in between pieces. He often arranged the audience’s seats so he could move between them and chat to his fans.

The programmed works would be used as the basis for spontaneous improvisations too, which became something of a party trick and had a tendency to whip the the crowd up into a frenzy. And to give his audience a better view and sound, he positioned the piano sideways on stage.

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Not only could he then be seen in profile, but with the lid up, the piano sound carried more easily into the room.

Were Liszt's piano recitals popular?

All of this turned Liszt into a rockstar, and a new trend began to sweep across Europe. The term ‘Lisztomania’ was coined by the writer Heinrich Heine in 1844 in his report on the hysteria surrounding Liszt in concert: ‘How convulsively his mere appearance affected them! How boisterous was the applause which rang to meet him! A veritable insanity’.

If Paganini had blazed a trail in the 1820s and ’30s, it was Liszt who was now considered the greatest living virtuoso. Caricatures from the time depict him with long, spindly fingers, playing without music – something audiences weren’t used to seeing. But he wasn’t just a showman – he was also something of a sex symbol, with female admirers collecting his cigar butts, coffee grounds from his cups and locks of his hair.

Liszt’s impact on live performance was permanent – after his London performance, the concept of a musical ‘recital’ began to be used to describe any solo concert. Piano manufacturers were soon sponsoring soloists, which helped give musicians an aura of celebrity, and that in turn paved the way for the piano’s golden age.

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