Who is history’s first rock star? Your first guesses may be your own favorite musicians from the ’70s or ’80s but I’m going to guess it wasn’t someone from the ’40s, let alone the 1840s! He was the kind of person with a stage presence that made women swoon, with long, flowing hair, who connected with audiences so deeply he changed the way music was played forever. Still no guesses on this 1840’s rocker?

Yes, before there were mega stadiums to fill, tour buses to ride in, or electric guitars to shred, there were audiences whipped into a frenzy that came to be called Lisztomania! We’re talking about Franz Liszt—a fiend on the piano, dubbed history’s first rock star!

Liszt groupies remain today and love him for his classics: Liebesträume, Ständchen in D Minor, or La Campanella. Now, the rest of us can delight in learning how he changed the way we enjoy music today and gave us the model for the modern rock star!

Image: Musicians singing and playing guitar on stage

Source: Pixabay

Alright, I know what you’re thinking: “Can you really call a classical pianist a rock star?” Well, when you hear about the way Liszt was able to command a room, the way audiences reacted to him, and the way he thwarted the rules of “conventional” classical music, your idea of “rock star” might expand a little.

Without Franz Liszt, megastars like Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, or Lady Gaga, who have the power to captivate audiences while seated at a piano, wouldn’t have a blueprint to work from.

Before Liszt, nobody believed it was possible for a solo pianist to command a room. It was looked down upon to play music without sheet music. He even… wait for it… flouted convention by striding onstage from the side of the stage after the curtain had come up as we know most musicians do today, instead of letting the curtain rise on him already seated at the piano! From being the first to sit in profile to the audience so he could turn, look, and engage with them, to changing the role of the composer, Liszt’s fingerprints are everywhere!

Without Liszt, modern musical performance as we know it would look very different. So, it’s no wonder the hysteria he induced in his audiences is something we now expect from the superfans of the world’s biggest pop stars.

What did Lisztomania look like? And who was Franz Liszt? Here’s a great piece from Great Big Story to fill us in!

‌Great Big Story is one of our favorite YouTube channels at Ever Widening Circles. Their videos explore the corners of the world and of history that often don’t get the spotlight. And each one is its own great adventure! Go check out their YouTube Channel for more!

You may have heard Liszt’s music in the cartoon, Tom and Jerry, but to see and hear it performed by a master (and Liszt enthusiast) is an entirely new experience!

Do you have Lisztomania now?

Pianist Lang Lang first became a Liszt fan when he saw that Tom and Jerry cartoon as a young child, and watching him play, you can see how Liszt would have broken more than a few pianos during his concerts back in the day. (It’s said that because of Liszt’s popularity, piano manufacturers had to better construct their pianos to keep up with the demand of his music and playing style. 2)

Take a look at Lang Lang performing Franz Liszt’s La Campanella on the stage at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, China. At some points, it’s hard to believe that human fingers are capable of such remarkable coordination!

Want to hear more from Lang Lang and learn a few more of Liszt’s secrets? Take a listen to this great piece from NPR’s Guy Raz commemorating Liszt’s 200th birthday in 2011.

For the Love of the Music

If there’s one thing that bridges cultures across the world, it’s music. From traditions that are being kept alive by masters to superstars that touch the lives of people all across the globe, music speaks to something fundamental in us.

Rockstars across the world transcend language with their performances.

One of the greatest feelings is swaying in time with a room, or stadium full of people being fully immersed in the presence of a great performer and their music. It’s a breathtaking, awe-inspiring experience that, quite literally, transforms us. (Check out our article on how that works.)

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Just as music transforms us, history transforms music. We have the breathtaking performance of beloved piano musicians like Ray Charles, Nina Simone, and Carole King because of the way Franz Liszt broke the mold and showed people what was possible. And now, we are captivated by the at-home concerts of musicians like John Legend who have brought us music during the COVID-19 pandemic that has made us feel, perhaps, a little sense of connectivity in times that can feel so distant.

Sometimes, it takes the perspective of history to see moments as groundbreaking. And sometimes, just like Lisztomania, you can feel the ripple effects of an incredible shift happening in real-time.

What groundbreakers are we seeing right now? Who will we look back on in the arc of history and recognize as people, or movements, that will shift the world in new, incredible, and awe-inspiring ways?

Stay beautiful & keep laughing!


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  1. Great Big Story. “Before Beatlemania, There Was Lisztomania.” YouTube, 2 Jan. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=3sjCA8OPobw. Accessed 4 Aug. 2020.
  2. “How Franz Liszt Became The World’s First Rock Star.” NPR.Org, 22 Oct. 2011, www.npr.org/2011/10/22/141617637/how-franz-liszt-became-the-worlds-first-rock-star. Accessed 6 Aug. 2020.
  3. Ludwig Czerny. “Lang Lang Franz Liszt – La Campanella 2012.” YouTube, 5 Mar. 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIxGUAnj46U&feature=emb_title. Accessed 4 Aug. 2020.
  4. “How Franz Liszt Became The World’s First Rock Star.” NPR.Org, 22 Oct. 2011, www.npr.org/2011/10/22/141617637/how-franz-liszt-became-the-worlds-first-rock-star. Accessed 6 Aug. 2020.

Liesl Ulrich-Verderber

CEO of Ever Widening Circles, Founder of EWCed

Since 2015, Liesl has been a writer, editor, and is now the CEO at Ever Widening Circles. She is a life-long camera-toting traveler, a global story seeker, and an aspiring—but more often root-tripping—outdoor enthusiast. She can be found on Instagram @Liesl.UV