Born 200 years ago on Oct. 22, Franz Liszt changed music history. Even if the Hungarian-born pianist/composer had not done so, people would probably still remember him, if only for his romances.
There was the dancer, Lola, who got so mad when Liszt tired of her that she followed him from city to city, finally crashing a banquet given in his honor and boogieing on a table in front of a startled crowd.
And Olga, who, likewise faced with Liszt's waning affections, disguised herself as a gardener and burst into his villa ready to stab him. She settled for one more bout of lovemaking that night, but soon hounded him again, this time with a revolver and poison.
Oh, yes, one more thing: In between his amorous pursuits, Liszt studied for the priesthood. He got pretty close to becoming one, too.
But it's Liszt the musician who deserves the attention, which he will get this week at the Liszt-Garrison Festival and International Piano Competition at Notre Dame of Maryland University, presented by the Baltimore-Washington Chapter of the American Liszt Society.
"The problem is that people know about Liszt's love affairs, and about how women fainted at his concerts," said pianist and teacher Nancy Roldan, co-director of the festival. "But they don't always acknowledge the revolution he started in music."
A great deal of Liszt's music will be heard during competition rounds and recitals by the judges. A vocal and instrumental concert held at Grace United Methodist Church will add more examples of his creativity. In between all of that, Liszt experts will address various aspects of the composer's legacy in round table discussions. And it's quite a legacy.
"It was Liszt who really created the piano recital as we know it," Roldan said. "He was the first to play from memory and to play works by other composers. His piano transcriptions helped other composers become better known."
In addition to brilliant, often fiendishly difficult keyboard pieces, Liszt also created the "symphonic poem," an orchestral work that depicts a narrative.
Liszt inventively expanded ways of organizing music structurally. He stretched harmony in many new directions, taking it to the point where it could be further developed by Richard Wagner (who hooked up with one of Liszt's illegitimate daughters, by the way).
The list of Liszt's compositions is long, varied and colorful.
"But 200 years after his birth, people are still divided about its quality," Roldan said.
That includes people involved in the Liszt-Garrison Festival. As pianist Ernest Ragogini, the festival's other director, acknowledged, "To be perfectly honest, we are not all of the same opinion about Liszt's music."
But Ragogini, a longtime faculty member at Notre Dame, was quick to praise Liszt's personal philosophy, summed up in a French phrase: "Génie oblige" — "Genius has obligations."
"Liszt believed in giving back to people," Ragogini said. "He was one of the first musicians to give of his time and money to help people hurt in floods and earthquakes. Not all composers were like that then."
That sort of generous spirit is behind the Baltimore festival that now bears Liszt's name. The event started in 2005 as the William Garrison Festival and Piano Competition.
"Bill was a fine pianist and a great piano technician we dearly miss," Ragogini said. "When he got cancer in 2004, we organized a benefit concert to help with his expenses, but he died before the concert, which turned into a memorial."
Added Roldan: "Bill's wife did not want $20,000 we raised. She suggested we do something to help young pianists."
From that suggestion, a festival and competition emerged in 2005, held that first year at Grace United Methodist Church and since 2006 at Notre Dame. The now-biennial event brings in contestants and judges from around the world. The top prize of $2,000 is not as grand as some, but that has not limited applicants.
"This is not a back-stabbing competition at all," Ragogini said. "The climate is different. People who have won, and people who didn't win, have come back as volunteers. The camaraderie is amazing."
Although the economy has added to the pressure of funding the enterprise, the organizers have put together an extensive array of activities lasting five days.
"It's like a big banquet," Roldan said. "All we need is for people to come and enjoy the menu."
If you go
The Liszt-Garrison Festival and International Piano Competition runs Wednesday through Sunday. Most events are at Notre Dame of Maryland University, 4701 N. Charles St. Tickets are $30-$150. Call 410-833-5782 or go to lisztgarrisoncompetition.org