Writings by Eric Himy
Homage To Liszt - CD Notes
Franz Liszt (Hungarian: Liszt Ferenc)
Born October 22, 1811 in Raiding, (Hungarian: Doborján), Hungary
Died July 31, 1886 in Bayreuth, Germany
“Art is Heaven on earth, to which one never appeals in vain when faced with the oppressions of this world.”
To speak of Liszt is to speak of an immense force of nature. His music has been described as powerful, radical, enigmatic and spellbinding. With his music Liszt seems to have captured the very spirit, heart, soul and genuineness of humanity.
His talent showed itself very early as a child-prodigy pianist and his father, a cellist in the local orchestra in Raiding, Hungary, took it upon himself to get help in developing his son’s obvious talent by going to Vienna. Having heard the young Liszt in a small concert, Antonio Salieri (Mozart’s old rival) offered to give him free composition lessons. In addition, he began studying piano with Carl Czerny (one of Beethoven’s teachers). Eventually they went to Paris for further studies at the famed Paris Conservatoire but then Liszt’s father died and he was left to look after his mother. Living in Paris as a piano teacher was difficult and he buried himself into literature, poetry and religion. Liszt was fluent in German, French, Italian and even spoke a little English, but ironically his knowledge of Hungarian was very poor.
His desire to experiment and make visionary statements is apparent at every stage of his life. At eighteen he was a voracious reader and had a passion for the theater. Authors such as Lamartine, Chateaubriand, and Rousseau filled his fervent imagination keeping him up all night. He also often went to see plays of Victor Hugo and opera performances of Rossini and Auber. His reputation as a formidable pianist was growing in the salons of Paris, and as Von Lenz, a noted music biographer of the time said amusingly: “…when Liszt appears, all other pianists disappear.” At these private soirées, some even organized by Rossini, all of the invited artists would perform their pieces in turn. Once the host had politely thanked them, they would leave and Rossini would then distribute the fees earned the next day among the artists.
But all was interrupted when in the spring of 1832 Paris was struck by cholera. Hundreds of people were dying every day. There is a documented account of Liszt visiting an asylum during this dark period and playing for a sick old insane woman who would immediately be captivated by the sounds she heard him produce at the piano. In a sense these are the first recorded cases of attempt to use music as therapy.
Liszt in this period was deeply absorbed and inspired by the French writer Louis de Rouvroy Saint-Simon (1675-1755) and his work Lettre d’un habitant de Genève which put forth a “theory of life” as follows:
1. to improve the quality of human life through the dissemination of scientific knowledge
2. to organize society in order that one’s work, not one’s birth would determine one’s place in the social hierarchy
3. to work for the emancipation of women
4. to prohibit idleness
5. to distribute wealth equitably
6. to “humanize” religion
It is clear that these tenets made a profound impression on Liszt throughout his life as he refers very often to them in various writings.
In this period, Liszt also became friends with Mendelssohn, Chopin, and his appetite for life, literature, and painting was insatiable. Ironically despite the presence of many formidable pianists in Paris at the time, the real virtuoso in town at the time was Paganini, a violinist! On April 20, 1832, Liszt attended a charity concert given by Niccolò Paganini for the victims of the Parisian cholera epidemic. There were moments in Paganini’s legendary performance that were of such supreme virtuosity that it seemed to some the Devil was present. It was a “blinding flash” to Liszt and he experienced a sort of artistic awakening. He became determined to become as great a virtuoso on the piano as Paganini was on the violin. According to a letter to Pierre Wolff of May 2, 1832:
“I practice four to five hours a day, thirds, sixths, octaves, tremolos, repetitions of notes, cadenzas, etc… Ah! Provided I don’t go mad you will find in me an artist!”
From this point then he literally pioneered a new kind of piano playing, a kind that had never been seen or heard of before. Creating new repertoire based on Paganini’s Studies for violin set about for Liszt to find creative solutions at the keyboard and eventually represented an important milestone in piano technique.
Interestingly however, later in life, Liszt conceded that his youthful zeal and passion for Paganini’s diabolical virtuosity had been misplaced and that despite the evident excitement of it, it remained a product of a large ego. Only twenty-eight, Liszt wrote with wisdom beyond his years these sentiments:
“May the artist of the future gladly and readily decline to play the conceited and egotistical role which we hope has had in Paganini its last brilliant representative? May he set his goal within, and not outside, himself, and be the means of virtuosity, and not its end. May he constantly keep in mind that, though the saying is Noblesse oblige!, in a far degree than nobility- Génie oblige!”
It was also at this time that Liszt was swept away by the power of the premiere of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Liszt actually transcribed this monumental work to piano trying to defy the impossible limits of acoustics with ten fingers. But the real reason in doing this was to help the impoverished Berlioz who was still unknown and unpublished, but clearly a genius of the future recognized by Liszt.
An interruption to his early career occurred when Liszt met the unhappily married Countess Marie d’Agoult in one of the famous Parisian salons, a gathering place for writers, artists and such. Liszt was the main event but soon he was focused on Marie. They then eventually escaped the public eye and scandal in total secrecy for several years in the mid-1830s on an extended tour of Switzerland reveling in the beauties of nature and art. He created a sort of musical diary, or travelogue, based on his impressions of the sights along the way. These took their final form in two volumes of colorfully descriptive piano pieces called Années de Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage).
Their “Years of Pilgrimage” continued as they visited Italy and Liszt composed many virtuosic pieces inspired by paintings that he had seen in Florence and Rome. He was also taken by the writings of two of medieval Italy’s literary masters, Petrarch and Dante. The Italian word "sonetto," means "little song.” In their solo keyboard form, the three Sonetti de Petrarca reveal their origin as vocal pieces in their deep lyricism. They also reveal Liszt’s special genius for exploiting keyboard sonorities and using the sounds of his instrument to suggest romantic yearning. Inspired by the romantic love poems of the Italian poet Petrarch (written for his beloved Laura), Liszt set to music the Sonneto 123:
Yes, I beheld on earth angelic grace,
And charms divine which mortals rarely see,
Such as both glad and pain the memory;
Vain, light, unreal is all I trace:
Tears I saw shower’d from those fine eyes apace,
Of which the sun ofttimes might envious be;
Accents I heard sighed forth so movingly
As to stay floods, or mountains to displace.
Love and good sense, firmness, with pity join’d
And a wailful grief, a sweeter concert made
Than ever yet was poured on human ear.
And heaven unto the music so inclined
That not a leaf was seen to stir the shade,
Such melody had fraught the winds, the atmosphere.
Liszt parted from Marie d’Agoult not long after their journey through Switzerland and Italy and began what has become known as his “years of transcendental execution” conquering Europe by storm. Alone he conceived the piano recital, performing entirely from memory everything from Bach to Chopin which was novel and placing the piano as it is done today for the best sound and visual effect. Until then the audience and performers shared the same stage as was the practice often in the palaces and salons. Liszt drove audiences to hysteria as ladies fought over his handkerchiefs or even his discarded cigar butts! Many witnesses even talk about a “mystical ecstasy” falling over his listeners.
New advances in piano technology lead to some groundbreaking performances. Pianos were fragile and still in a transitional period so often Liszt would perform with two pianos on stage, in the event that one went out of tune. Virtuosos were beginning to require more powerful instruments and Liszt lead this whole new direction for improvement. His orchestrally conceived sounds on the keyboard were far in advance of any other composer of his time. His range and color were unparalleled and he unleashed demons and angels at concerts, provoking powerful sweeping emotions from fear to ecstasy.
For the next eight years Liszt gave legendary performances traveling thousands of miles ranging from Glasgow, Edinburgh, London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna to Madrid, Lisbon, Gibraltar, Rome, Naples in the south to Warsaw, Budapest, Prague then to Constantinople in the East and finally to Moscow and Saint Petersburg in the north to name but a few. In all gave more that 250 concerts performing more than eighty different works. He was effectively the first modern concert pianist.
At one of his Russian concerts Liszt found a new love with Princess Carolyn of Sayn-Wittgenstein, a very rich landowner, whom he met in Kiev. Then in 1848, Liszt abruptly retired from his whirlwind concert tours as a pianist and composer and from the fame and fortune to settle down with Princess Carolyn in the quaint German village of Weimar. This was the city of writer/poets Goethe and Schiller and it had a rich cultural and artistic legacy. Here Liszt was offered a conductor’s post which gave him thus the opportunity to introduce a great deal of his own music and also that of Berlioz and Wagner. He also introduced new conducting techniques which were much more expressive and fluid.
It is here that Liszt created the symphonic poem – a single movement form which many composers like Saint-Saëns and Richard Strauss used later as well. Musical forms up until that time were usually structured into several movements. Works such as symphonies, concertos, suites were divided into generally three to five different movements, each with varying tempos and themes which complimented each other, but were ultimately single entities. Liszt thus presented the listener with a single, sweeping movement that carried him from beginning to end without pauses. These innovative tone poems were based upon the theme transformation which would become his trademark. The work would begin with a small idea which would metamorphose through ingenious transformations, each time presenting a different face of the same idea thereby evoking completely contrasting emotions.
A symphonic poem for piano, the Dante Sonata was originally a small piece entitled Fragment after Dante which Liszt composed in the late 1830’s. He gave the first public performance in Vienna, during November 1839. When Liszt finally settled in Weimar in 1849, he revised the work and gave it its present title derived from Victor Hugo’s own work entitled the same Après une Lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata (After a Reading of Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata). The title of a poem by Victor Hugo begins with the line “the poet who paints Hell, paints his own life.”
The opening theme of the Dante Fantasia is based on tritones, an interval called during the Middle Ages diabolus in musica (the devil in music) and was designated as a “dangerous interval” forbidden to be used. According to one of Liszt’s pupil, August Stradal, it does not represent the inscription above Dante’s Gate of Hell but should be understood as a call to the Spirits of the Damned to rise.
“Step out shadows from the realm of misery and distress.”An agitated chromatic theme then suggests the approaching and wailing of the shadows, their contours appropriately blurred by Liszt’s direction to maintain a continuous 5-bar pedal. The first appearance of a third theme, a chorale, in F-sharp Major, triple forte, in double octaves, has been called a portrait of Lucifer by another of Liszt’s pupils Walter Beche. After the return of the rousing tritones, the music depicts the Francesca da Rimini episode: “There is no greater sorrow than to remember happy times while in misery.” Francesca da Rimini was a Florentine known to the young Dante, and because of family politics, she was married to a proud, but deformed man, Gianciotto da Verrucchio, son of the lord of Rimini. She fell in love with his handsome younger brother, Paola, and they slowly drew closer while reading together the story of Sir Lancelot and Guinevere until they became lovers. Her husband found them and stabbed them to death, ensuring their damnation.
Later on, in the frenzy of the final pages, the Damned mock, split up and try to trivialize their grief. The Dante Fantasia is as near to Berlioz as anything Liszt ever wrote, yet remains strikingly original. Interestingly this monumental work is subtitled Fantasia quasi Sonata, and not Sonata quasi una Fantasia as used by Beethoven for his “Moonlight” Sonata. Thus while still relating to the familiar forms of structure (exposition, development, recapitulation) the concept of the Fantasy remains free, and makes liberal use of the motives, questioning, tearing them apart and even combining several at once. It would not be until his greatest masterpiece, the b-minor Sonata, that Liszt would write another large-scale work in which the psychological unity is matched by the cohesion of musical structure.
Funérailles (October 1849) is subtitled "October 1849" and no.7 in the piano cycle Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. Liszt conceived this piece as a tribute to the memory of three very close friends who gave their lives in an act of patriotism during the Hungarian War of Independence of 1848-1849. They were Prince Felix Lichnowsky, Count László Teleki and the Hungarian Prime Minister, Count Lajos Batthyány. Batthyány was executed on October 6, 1849 for his part in this failed Hungarian uprising against the Habsburg rule. The subtitle may symbolize as well an elegy for Liszt's friend Frédéric Chopin, who died on October 17, 1849, and maybe due to the fact that the piece's left-hand octaves, a military–like evocation seem to echo a similar section of Chopin's Heroic Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53. It is a great emotional outpouring of grief and pain standing out as one Liszt’s most powerful works.
Liebesträume (Dreams of Love) is a set of three piano works published in 1850 and is the most famous of the three. Originally there were set as songs based on the poems by Ludwig Uhland and Ferdinand Freiligrath. The poems describe three different forms of Love. The first Hohe Liebe (Exalted Love), speaks of a pure, spiritual love: the "martyr" renounces worldly love and "heaven has opened its gates." The second song is an erotic love: "Gestorben war ich": "I was dead from love’s bliss; I lay buried in her arms; I was wakened by her kisses; I saw heaven in her eyes" (the word “dead" is used as a metaphor and refers to what is known as "le petit mort" in French – a term that has generally been interpreted to describe the post-orgasmic fainting spells or unconsciousness some lovers experience). The last poem for the famous third Liebesträume heard here describes an unconditional love: "Love as long as you can! The hour will come when you will stand at the grave and mourn". ("O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst").
Mephisto Waltz no.1 was conceived in this period (1859-62) with the title Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke(The Dance in the Village Inn), and was written both for orchestra and as a piano work. This music is programatic and narrates an episode from Faust not by Goethe, but by Nikolaus Lenau (1802-50). The diabolical love of Mephisto Waltz is based on the immortal legend of Faust where he sells his soul to the Devil Mephistopheles in exchange for everlasting youth. In Lenau's account the scene opens with Faust and Mephistopheles wandering the countryside, when they are suddenly attracted by some music emanating from a nearby inn. Disguised as hunters they enter the inn where a wedding party is being held. Upon entering Mephisto seizes one of the violins and begins tuning it. You can actually hear him tuning the violin (listen to the 5ths build up at the opening of the piece) and begins to play a frantic waltz. It’s the devil, so everyone is instantly mesmerized by the most beguiling music.
The music evolves into a slow amorous waltz of a rather erotic nature which then casts a magic spell on the village peasants: Even the "echoing walls of the inn lament, pale with jealousy, because they cannot join in the dancing."(Lenau). And this facilitates matters as Faust has his eye on the innkeeper’s daughter, and dances with the bride to be. Yet even when the music is tender and intimate, we can sense the devil ever present. After Faust entreaties and wooing, he elopes into the woods with the young girl. Swept away by the music they dance until dawn into the fields and finally at the end a nightingale can be heard singing, and then suddenly the music builds to an unstoppable climax when the pair is "swallowed up by the impetuous waves of amorous rapture." Liszt dedicated the piece to the pianist Carl Tausig, one of his favorite pupils.
In 1860 Liszt wanted to marry Carolyne in Rome but sadly on the eve of their marriage, they were stopped due to some divorce papers which had not been properly submitted. There is much controversy regarding this Papal rejection and many years later Carolyne would claim that it was all due to “scheming Russian intrigues from her past.” Eventually though the setback had an effect and they separated ways, but retained deep feelings for one another for the rest of their lives. In 1865, sensing a need for renewed strength; Liszt took minor Holy Orders in the Catholic Church. This entitled him to being addressed formally as "Abbé Liszt" and while he entered four minor orders of the priesthood – doorkeeper, lector, exorcist and acolyte, he undertook no vows of celibacy as he wanted to preserve his freedom. At the time he was basically living in three cities, Rome, Weimar and Budapest. Later he helped to establish the Conservatory of Music in Budapest and was appointed its first president.
Among compositional projects from this period, he produced a third set of “Années de Pèlerinage,” subtitled “Rome”. Its contents, some religiously inspired, reveal the constant evolution of his harmonic genius and his continuing skill with tone-painting.Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este(The fountain of the Villa d’Este) is one of the 19th century’s most brilliant demonstrations of pictorial music, and one of the most virtuosic pieces Liszt ever wrote, without ever putting virtuosity first.
This work is a true pianistic tone poem, in the mode of the symphonic tone poems that Richard Strauss would later create for orchestra. Brilliant, rippling figures show us the fountain in sparkling sunshine. We hear brief passages of staccato that suggest bouncing water droplets and dancing jets of water in sunlight. A new thematic variant is presented in the piano’s highest register, then the fountain totally opens up with powerful chords and runs that exploit the entire range of the keyboard. You can almost see the colors of the spectrum as the sun shines through the jets of water. Sparkling high notes and rippling bass patterns lead to a subsiding of the waters into a gentle repose. Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este had a powerful influence on later composers such as Debussy. He evokes water sounds in the preludes La Cathédrale engloutie and Ondine. This work was also a source of inspiration for Ravel who even used the same title Jeux d’eau for his musical fountain twenty five years later.
The theme of La Campanella (The Bell) is taken from the final movement of Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 2 in B minor, a rondo in which the harmonics are heard with the ringing of a hand bell. This version was championed by many of the legendary turn-of-the century pianists such as Josef Lhevinne (founder of The Juilliard School) and others. In this version made by one of Liszt’s most devoted followers, Feruccio Busoni, we find ingenious variants of canonic devices employed. Busoni did more for Liszt than perhaps Liszt's actual students. In 1909, after playing the Liszt Sonata for Sgambati - a Liszt's pupil - Busoni wrote:
"..he kissed my head and said I quite reminded him of the master, more so than his real pupils."
Liszt's life and personality had decidedly influenced Busoni in his own desire to be the complete man and artist. Busoni wrote that "Liszt lifted the piano to a princely position in order that it might be worthy of himself."
In 1911 in Berlin, Busoni performed six monumental all-Liszt recitals for the Liszt centenary which included over seventy works. In his biography of Busoni, Edward J. Dent wrote:
"The greater works of Liszt, which minor pianists turn into mere displays for virtuosity because their technique is inadequate beyond anything beyond that, often sounded strangely easy and simple when they were played by Busoni. The glittering scales and arpeggios became what Liszt intended them to be - a dimly suggested background - while the themes in massive chords or singing melodies stood out clear."
In 1885, a little-known moment in music history occurred when Liszt, now 74 and living in Rome at the Villa Medici, invited to dinner a young man of 23, who was also in Rome accepting a prize in composition, Le Prix de Rome. That young man’s name was Claude Debussy and Liszt played for him Au bord d’une Source(Beside a Spring), from his Années de Pélerinage, Première année: Suisse (Years of Pilgrimage, First year: Switzerland). With this gentle beautiful lyrical fluid work, a sort of Romantic-Impressionism, Liszt confirmed his place as a visionary of what was to come in the 20th Century. Debussy said later in life that Liszt was the greatest pianist he had ever heard and recalled that he used the pedal “like a form of breathing.”
In Liszt’s later years it is said that he was working on a book called Sketches for a Harmony of the Future but it has never been found. Fortunately however there is sufficient music from this late period to give us an idea and Nuages Gris (Grey Clouds) is a good example of this, bleak music of despair with an ending that drifts into keylessness foretelling of what was to come as though Liszt were peering in the 20th century. It almost defies tonal analysis and could have been written by Debussy or Scriabin. His Hungarian compatriot Bartok said that “of all of the Romantics, Liszt had hurled the spear the farthest into the 20th century.”
Also in late period Liszt composed works which he referred to as his “forgotten” pieces, in other words compositions which were forgotten before they had been played. Valse Oublieé no.1 (Forgotten Waltz) is such a work of lost nostalgic romantic memories remembered with tender melancholy. And finally, a dreamy nocturne En Rêve(Dreaming) which Liszt composed in the winter of 1885, a year before died in Bayreuth. It is a sort of farewell to a rich and overflowing life, having sought out the many mysteries of life and now perhaps giving a final sigh of content and resignation as the softest sounds rise, fluttering trills and transparent chords fading away upwards to the heavens into infinity.
“Mournful and yet grand is the destiny of the artist.”
Homage to Liszt Cd
2) Valse Oublieé no. 1
3) Les Jeux d'eau à la Villa d'Este
4) Après une Lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata
5) Nuage Gris
7) Au bord d’une source
8) Sonetto de Petrarca 123
9) La Campanella (Paganini/ Busoni)
10) En Rêve
11) Mephisto Waltz no.1