Liszt studied and played at Vienna and Paris and for most of his life toured throughout Europe giving concerts.
Liszt was well respected as his virtuosity had been admired by composers and performers alike throughout Europe, especially for his exuberant piano transcriptions of both operas and famous symphonies of the time, reducing the cost of hearing such music. His great generosity with both money and time were also much appreciated.
Born in Hungary, Liszt displayed incredible talent at a young age, easily sight-reading multiple staves at once. He got his first lessons from his father Adam Liszt, who worked at the court of count Esterházy. Local aristocrats noticed his talent and paid him a scholarship, so that he went with his family to Vienna. As a result, Liszt never fully learned his native language of Hungarian; his later letters and diaries show that he came to regret this deeply. In one letter to his mother Liszt begins in faltering Hungarian, apologises and continues in French (his preferred language).
In Vienna he was educated in the technical domain by Carl Czerny. His father had wanted him to be taught by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778–1837), but Hummel's fees were too high. Antonio Salieri taught him the technique of improvisation. In April 13, 1823 he gave a concert and it is often said that the 53-year-old Beethoven gave him a kiss for his marvellous playing, although this is unlikely to be true as Beethoven was deaf by this time. A more reasonable account of the Beethoven kiss event is reported in the reminiscences of the pianist Ilka Horovitz-Barnay:
"The most memorable time I experienced with Liszt was when he told me of his meeting with Beethoven. 'I was about eleven years old' , he began 'when my highly esteemed teacher Czerny introduced me to Beethoven. He had long before told him about me and had asked him to hear me play. But Beethoven had aversions against prodigies and for a long time refused to hear me. Finally though he was persuaded by my indefatigable teacher Czerny and said: 'Then for God's sake - bring the little rascal'. It was one morning about ten o'clock when we entered the two small rooms of the Schwarzspanierhaus, where Beethoven lived. I was somewhat embarrassed - but Czerny kindly encouraged me. Beethoven was sitting by the window at a long narrow table working. For a moment he looked at us with a serious face, said a couple of quick words to Czerny but turned silent as my dear teacher signaled to me to go to the piano. First I played a small piece of [Ferdinand] Ries [another pupil of Beethoven]. When I had finished Beethoven asked if I could play a fugue by Bach. I chose the C minor fugue from Wohltemperiertes Klavier. 'Can you transpose this fugue', Beethoven asked. Fortunately I could. After the finishing chord I looked up. Beethoven's deep glowing eyes rested upon me - but suddenly a light smile flew over his otherwise serious face. He approached me and stroked me several times over my head with affection. 'Well - I'll be blowed' he whispered, 'such a little devil'. Suddenly my courage rose: 'May I play one of your pieces?' I asked with audacity. Beethoven nodded with a smile. I played the first movement of his C major piano concerto [nr. 1]. When I had finished Beethoven stretched out his arms, kissed me on my forehead and said in a soft voice: 'You go on ahead. You are one of the lucky ones! It will be your destiny to bring joy and delight to many people and that is the greatest happiness one can achieve'. Liszt told me this with great emotion; his voice trembled but you could feel what divine joy these simple words had given him. Never did Liszt - the human being - make a greater impression on me. The flamboyant man-of-the-world, the revered artist was gone; this great moment he had experienced in his childhood still resounded in his soul. For a little while he was silent - then he said quietly: 'This was the proudest moment in my life - the inauguration to my life as artist. I tell this very rarely - and only to special friends.'"
This story is somewhat more convincing, although Beethoven was just as deaf in 1822 as in 1823. And at the time it is meant to have occurred Beethoven was not residing in the Schwarzspanierhaus -- but when Liszt told this story he was in his latter years, and his memory may have been a little foggy.
He left Vienna in 1823 to travel.
In Paris, Liszt attended a concert by the virtuoso violinist Paganini and became motivated to become the greatest pianist of his day. He often took to seclusion in his room, and was heard practising for over 10 hours a day. In 1832 he wrote the Grande Fantaisie de Bravoure sur La Clochette de Paganini (Large Bravura Fantasy on Paganini's La Campanella). A shorter piece using the same thematic content was included in the 1838 Etudes d'Execution Transcendante d'apres Paganini (Etudes for Transcendental Technique after Paganini). Also composed in this period were the 12 Transcendental Etudes. He fraternized with such noted composers of his time as Frédéric Chopin, Robert Schumann, and Richard Wagner, the last of whom his daughter later married.
From 1835 to 1839 Franz Liszt lived with Marie Catherine Sophie de Flavigny, ex-wife of the Comte d'Agoult. She is better known by her pen name, "Daniel Stern". They had two daughters and one son.
In 1847 Liszt met Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein and he lived with her until his death. The Princess was an author, whose one work was published in 16 volumes, each having over 1600 pages. Her longwinded writing style had some effect on Liszt himself. His biography of Chopin and his chronology and analysis of Gypsy music (which later inspired Béla Bartók) were both written in the Princess' loquacious style. The couple had intended to marry at some point in 1860, but since the Princess had been married before to another, she and Liszt could not openly marry with the approval of the Roman Catholic authorities in the Vatican. Liszt never recovered from being unable to marry her although they remained friends.
In 1848, he gave up public performances on the piano and went to Weimar, remaining there until 1861. During this period he acted as conductor at court concerts and on special occasions at the theatre, gave lessons to a number of pianists, including the great virtuoso Hans von Bülow, who married Liszt's daughter Cosima in 1857. He also wrote articles championing Berlioz and Wagner, and produced those orchestral and choral pieces upon which his reputation as a composer mainly rests. His efforts on behalf of Wagner, who was then an exile in Switzerland, culminated in the first performance of Lohengrin in 1850.
The compositions belonging to the period of his residence at Weimar comprise two piano concertos, in E flat and in A, the Todtentanz, the Concerto pathetique for two pianos, the solo sonata An Robert Schumann, sundry Etudes, fifteen Rhapsodies Hongroises, twelve orchestral Poemes symphoniques, Eine Faust Symphonie, and Eine Symphonie zu Dantes Divina Commedia, the 13th Psalm for tenor solo, chorus and orchestra, the choruses to Herder's dramatic scenes Prometheus, and the Graner Fest Messe.
In 1851 he published a revised version of the 1838 Etudes d'Execution Transcendante d'apres Paganini, now titled Grande Etudes de Paganini (Grand etudes after Paganini), the most famous of which is La Campanella, a study in octaves, shakes and jumps.
Liszt retired to Rome in 1861, and joined the Franciscan order in 1865. From 1869 onwards Abbe Liszt divided his time between Rome and Weimar, where during the summer months he continued to receive pupils gratis, including Alexander Siloti. During this time, his relationship with Wagner grew more strained. Cosima left Bülow, who abused her, for Wagner in 1869. The intensely devout Catholic was personally repulsed by his new son-in-law, but continued to champion his music, and regularly attended the Bayreuth Festivals.
From 1876 up until his death at Bayreuth on July 31, 1886, he also taught for several months every year at the Hungarian Conservatoire of Budapest.