Franz Liszt and Sight Reading Music

Born in 1811, Liszt is notably the best sight-reader ever to play the piano. The various accounts border on the incredible. When Grieg heard Liszt sight-read his then manuscript Concerto, the pianist rejoiced. “He was literally over the whole keyboard at once, without missing a note. And how he did play, with grandeur, beauty, genius, and unique comprehension. I think I laughed, laughed like an idiot.” Ferdinand Hiller told Mendelssohn, “I was with Liszt at Erard’s and showed him the manuscript of my concerto. He played it at sight - it is hardly legible - and with the utmost perfection. It simply can’t be played any better than he played it. It was miraculous.”

He could out-play Chopin on Chopin’s etudes. Chopin wrote, “Liszt is at this moment playing my Etudes and he transports me out of my proper senses – I should like to steal from him his way of playing my Etudes.” In his diary, Moscheles recorded that “Liszt sight read three of my studies. He has completed metamorphosed these pieces; they have become more his studies than mine.”

Piano Technique

Liszt entirely changed piano playing, musically, mentally, and physically. He was said to use the sustaining pedals as a sort of breathing apparatus. According to Rudolf Breithaupt, “What chiefly distinguished Liszt’s technique was the absolute freedom of the arms. The secret lay in the unconstrained swinging movements of the arm from the raised shoulder, the bringing out of the tone through the impact of the full elastic mass on the keys, a thorough command and use of the freely rolling arm, the springing hand, the springing finger. He played by weight – by a swinging and a hurling of weight from a loosened shoulder that had nothing in common with what is known as finger manipulation. It was by a direct transfer of strength from back and shoulders to fingers.”


Listz brought meody and accompaniment in the same hand to new heights of inventiveness. He divided between the hands colorful and daring chromatic passages. He laid out melodies in ringing resgisters, simulating the cello or French horn. He used the thumb as a melodic finger instead of only as a fulcrum. He created worlds of tremolos, vibratos through pedaling. His dense chordal masses were used for unprecedented dark coloring. He elevated octave technique to new heights, ranging in chromatic and diatonic scales, in broken chords, arpeggios and blind interlocking octaves. Listz formed cadenzas into a structural device. They form a preparation for the next material, or they act as transitional moments before the new action takes place. Berlioz hailed the pianist’s divine sensibilities and called Listz “the Pianist of the Future.” He added, “Listz created his must for himself. No one else in the world could flatter himself that he could approach being able to perform it.”

The technical breakthrough Listz achieved during the 1830s and 1840s was without precedent in the history of the piano. Listz is to piano playing what Euclid is to geometry. Pianists turn to his music in order to discover the natural laws governing the keyboard.

Following are reviews of the Listz Rhapsodies:

  1. Rhapsodie Espagnole: One of the earliest musical excursions into Spain, based on two Spanish themes, the Spanish Rhapsody is a grandiose piece which heralds pianists in the old heroic mold. At sixteen minutes, it is an impressive concert piece.

  2. The Nineteen Hungarian Rhapsodies: The Rhapsodies exhibit Liszt’s histrionic, virtuoso nature. They remain a unique literature, requiring from the pianist a high temperament, sense of color and gregariousness. Each Rhapsody is a show-piece which abounds in spine-tingling pianistic effects, and their gypsy flavor is irresistible in performance.

When sight-reading a Listz composition, keep these in mind:

  • Try to comprehend the overall composition without actually playing any part it.

  • Check for sharps or flats, key changes, or changes in the time signature.

  • Be aware of any large octave jumps.

  • Get a general idea of the chords and their structure and pattern.

  • Look for the trickiest part of the section, with difficult-to-digest parts.

  • Try not to stop and restart when you make a mistake. This is key to sight reading.