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Standing on its own two feet: The new Bogányi piano (photo: Tamas Bujnowski)

Around the time he turned 60, in 1871, Franz Liszt decided to divide the rest of his life between three homes. The Duke of Weimar had given him a former gardener’s lodge in lavish parkland at the heart of German culture. The Pope provided his Abbé with a suite of rooms in the Vatican. And the Hungarian Parliament, founding a Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, set aside an apartment within the school for the great musician to occupy at his leisure.

Not that Liszt was one for leisure. When he wasn’t making music, he taught. Students came from 23 countries to study piano with its lord and master. So many came to Weimar, practising day and night, that the council passed a byelaw, restricting piano playing to certain hours and with all windows shut. Liszt took no fee for his lessons and turned no one away. Weak students were allowed to sit around the studio walls, watching as future stars were instructed. Génie oblige was Liszt’s motto: genius has its obligations. The duty of an artist is the perpetuation of art.

The house in Weimar, when I last passed by, had little to commend it by way of bottled atmosphere. But the rooms at the Liszt Academy are steeped in Liszt’s values, at the hub of a teaching institution packed with students from all over the world, many nowadays from the Far East. Liszt’s living quarters are preserved as a museum. A brass sign in Hungarian and Gothic German informs us that Franz Liszt receives visits between three and four on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoons.

Inside, there is a small bedroom with a narrow bed and writing desk, portraits of his friends upon the walls. The teaching rooms are a clutter of grand pianos, sent to Liszt in search of endorsement. Two US-made Chickerings, the summit of 19th-century technology, still play thunderously well. An 1873 Bösendorfer, whose Viennese manufacturer was Liszt’s close friend, is distinctly more anaemic.

Concert grands aside, Liszt packed his rooms with every variety of keyboard: a groaning harmonium, for organ-like sonorities; a mute keyboard, for keeping the fingers supple on long journeys; a glass piano that pings out perfect pitch, never needing to be retuned. Best of all is a Bösendorfer keyboard that slides out of his desktop, relieving Liszt of the need to walk across the room to find a chord while writing a score. It is the prototype of the modern executive’s retractable computer keyboard, an ingenious romantic convenience. Liszt’s involvement with the development of the piano was immersive and unique. No other artist showed such interest in the mechanics of an instrument.

Violinists, playing archaic Cremona models, know no more of their upkeep and repair than how to change a string and rub rosin on a bow. Cellists obsess over the angle of their metal pin. Liszt alone challenged craftsmen to build him a better machine. From his early days in Paris, battering Érards and Pleyels, to his death in 1886 at Bayreuth among his son-in-law’s unresolved chords, Liszt was a beacon of progress and possibility. Between his 1867 Chickering and that of 1880, you can hear just how far the piano advanced in his prime.

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