In 1848 he decided to make a career as a composer, and became musical director to the duke of Weimar. He remained at Weimar until 1859, and two years later went to Rome, where he became an abbé (1865). During the years between 1880 and 1885, in Rome, Weimar, and Budapest, he taught most of the famous pianists of the succeeding generation. In his compositions he favored program music over traditional musical forms.
Liszt originated the symphonic poem, and although he wrote symphonies, such as the Faust Symphony (1857), most of his orchestral pieces, including Les Préludes and Mazeppa (both 1854), are symphonic poems. In his Sonata in B Minor (1853) he developed the technique of transformation of themes, which completely altered the concept of sonata construction. This technique, together with his chromatic harmony, strongly influenced both Wagner and Richard Strauss.
For the piano Liszt composed prolifically in addition to transcribing many works of other composers. His most outstanding works for the piano include Années de pèlerinage (1855-83), Douze Études d'exécution transcendante (final version, 1852), Six Paganini Études (final version, 1851), concertos in E Flat (1855) and A (1848-61), and 20 Hungarian Rhapsodies (of which he published 19). Some of his most popular pieces, including Liebestraüme (c.1850), are characterized by lyrical, romantic sentiment; many of his later compositions are somber in tone, full of dissonance and unusual harmonic effects that foreshadow 20th-century music.
See his correspondence with Wagner, ed. by F. Hueffer (2 vol., rev. ed. 1969); his letters, ed. by La Mara (2 vol., 1968); biographies by S. Sitwell (rev. ed. 1966), E. Newman (1935, repr. 1970), D. Watson (1989), and A. Walker (2 vol., 1983-87); study by H. Searle (2d ed. 1966).
The traumatic impact of the Black Death inspired a rich tradition of "Totentanz", "Danse Macabre", or "Triumph of Death", paintings; and since the Middle Ages, throughout the Renaissance until today, painters, such as Bosch, Brueghel, Holbein, and many others, have ritually cleansed our subconscious of this archetypal fear with fantastic, and sometimes humorously horrible, images of dancing corpses and armies of skeletons. Those images contained a moral message as well: they were to remind us of how fragile our bodies were and how vain the glories of earthly life are.
Another source of inspiration for the young Liszt was the famous fresco "Triumph of Death" by Francesco Traini (at Liszt's time attributed to Andrea Orcagna and today also to Buonamico Buffalmacco) in the Campo Santo, Pisa. Liszt had eloped to Italy with his mistress, the Countess d’Agoult, and in 1838 he visited Pisa. Only ten years later, Liszt’s first sketches materialized into a complete version of his Totentanz. Revisions followed in 1853 and 1859, and its final form was first performed at The Hague on 15 April 1865 by Liszt’s student Hans von Bülow, to whom the work is dedicated.