The Classical Roots of Musical Celebrity: Beethoven, Paganini, and Liszt

by EditorT

“Franz Liszt Fantasizing at the Piano,” 1840, by Josef Danhauser. The painting shows an imagined gathering of celebrities of the day, with Franz Liszt is seated at the keyboard, Paganini standing in the center background, and all gathered regarding a bust of Beethoven. State Museum of Berlin. (Public Domain)

By Andrew Benson Brown

It is no secret that music has a special attraction for young people. It is often an integral part of their identity and the primary source of their role models, for good or ill (with the “ill,” in particular, standing out). Rock stars and hip-hop artists become distant mentors that exacerbate negative emotions and create unrealistic expectations for life.

There was a time when musical celebrities were not all white noise and hot air. Rock stardom, in fact, has its roots in that politest of genres: classical music. The inspirations of these figures were quite different from what motivated the Rolling Stones, though, and their achievements were on a much larger scale as well.

Beethoven: The Creative Genius

Europe’s social order began to change in the 19th century. The Napoleonic Wars brought the demise of many small states and their aristocratic courts that patronized artists. As industrialization gave rise to a middle class, many musicians turned to the marketplace to make their living through teaching, performing, and composing on commission.

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“Beethoven,” 1820, by Karl Joseph Stieler. (Public Domain)

Beethoven capitalized on this shift. The onset of his deafness marked a personal crisis that forced him to stop performing. He contemplated suicide but resolved against it. Throwing himself into his music, he developed a heroic individual style that expressed his emotions and made him popular enough to sell his work to the highest bidder. The more introspective, difficult style of his later years further redefined what music could do. When he died, more than 10,000 people filled the streets of Vienna to witness his funeral procession.

Beethoven became a cultural hero after his death. As J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca note in “A History of Western Music” (W.W. Norton & Company, seventh edition, 2006): “His life story helped to define the Romantic view of the creative artist as a social outsider who suffers courageously to bring humanity a glimpse of the divine through art.”

Paganini: The Virtuoso

Another trend of the period was that musicians began to specialize in one instrument or genre. Prodigies honed their craft to unprecedented levels and astonished audiences with their technical prowess.

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A portrait of Niccolò Paganini, circa 1830, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Public Domain)

One of the most distinguished of these virtuosos was Niccolò Paganini, often cited as the greatest violinist of all time. So abundant was his skill—and his keenness to show it off—that during his most famous performance he broke first one string, then a second, and shortly later a third. With only one string left, he finished the piece flawlessly to thunderous applause. This was no accident: He composed some of his pieces so they could be played with only one string and filed the rest down so they would break during performance.

Paganini suffered from a host of ailments all his life. He probably had either Marfan syndrome or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, disorders that affect the body’s ability to produce connective tissue and gave him a skeletal appearance. In addition to this, it has been suggested that he suffered from tuberculosis and syphilis. To treat the syphilis, he was given mercury, which caused him to lose all his teeth.

Like Beethoven, Paganini transcended his health crises through art. According to his mother, an angel came to her while she was pregnant with him and said that her son would be fated for greatness—but at a cost. The syndrome affecting his connective tissue also gave him long, flexible fingers. As the sickly boy grew, he devoted all his spare time to mastering the violin until he could play 12 notes per second. His skill as a showman and dedication to his craft set the standard for violinists who came after him.

Liszt: The Rock Star

Franz Liszt epitomized the early musical celebrity. He idolized Beethoven, who after listening to Liszt play for him as a child, allegedly gave the boy a kiss on the forehead and told him that he would bring “joy and happiness to many.” Liszt was equally inspired by Paganini and sought to become the virtuoso of the piano. He began giving solo recitals in large halls across Europe at age 11, turning the piano sideways on stage and opening the lid to enhance the exhibition.

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A portrait Franz Liszt by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. (

His concerts were the stuff of legend. The poet Heinrich Heine described him playing a pianistic imitation: “We saw the lightning flashes cross his own face, his lips trembled as though in the stormwind, and his long locks of hair seemed to drip the thundershower he depicted.”

These performances caused states of hysteria that Heine called “Lisztomania.” People fainted. Audiences would rush the stage, tearing apart Liszt’s velvet gloves and silk handkerchiefs for mementos. Women put his locks of hair, coffee dregs, and even a cigar butt into vials or lockets to wear.

According to Heine, a physician explained the phenomenon by the “magnetism, galvanism, electricity” of perfumed, perspiring people crowded together under wax lights. Whatever the exact cause, the effect was real: Liszt was the first rock star.

Freedom in Form

What is the difference between the moody expression of Beethoven and the manic-depressive lyrics of an emo punk band? Or the dramatic showmanship of Liszt versus a pop star’s carnal dance routine?

Just this: that behind the outsized personalities, there was truth; behind the suffering, beauty. The histrionics of Paganini and Liszt displayed a virtuosity unmatched by anyone on earth. Each composed new, technically challenging pieces and shaped traditions of performance, such as the expectation that players memorize pieces instead of relying on sheet music.

Paganini’s 24 Caprices for Solo Violin pushed the instrument to its limit with his string-plucking (pizzicato) effects and harmonies, as well as his fingering and tuning methods. Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor reinvented the sonata form by eliminating breaks between movements, restructuring themes, and experimenting with tones. The choral ode that Beethoven wove into the climax of his Ninth Symphony built on tradition to create something strikingly new.

In his same series of “Musical Feuilletons” that discussed Liszt, Heine asks: “What is the highest in art? That which is also the highest in all other manifestations of life: self-conscious freedom of spirit.” He observes that this “projects to us that miraculous breath of eternity,” which places the interpreter on the same spiritual level as the composer.

Heine distinguishes, however, between freedom “in form” and freedom of “material,” cautioning against artists who lose themselves in the latter as being “usually limited and fettered in spirit.” The musicians who are willing to talk about anything will degenerate into, well, look around at the ones topping the charts for a moment before fading into obscurity forever.

In drawing a connection between freedom and eternity, Heine illustrates the paradox of freedom: that to be meaningful, it must tap into something objective. Beethoven, Paganini, and Liszt all combined their innovations with a reverence for the past, and in so doing created something timeless.


Andrew Benson Brown

Andrew Benson Brown is a Missouri-based poet, journalist, and writing coach. He is an editor at Bard Owl Publishing and Communications and the author of “Legends of Liberty,” an epic poem about the American Revolution. 

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