Canadian pianist André Laplante is a firmly established virtuoso of the great romantic repertoire. He garnered international attention after winning prizes at the Geneva and Sydney International Piano [...]
They spoke about it
B-Minor Sonata, S. 178
By common consent the B-Minor Sonata is considered to be Liszt’s pianistic masterwork. It represents one of the most successful solutions to the problem of sonata form to come out of the nineteenth century.
The Sonata, which unfolds nearly half-an-hour’s unbroken music, is really an immense “first movement” form; that is, its four contrasting movements are rolled into one; and are themselves composed against a background of a fullscale sonata structure — Exposition, Development, and Recapitulation — in a masterly fashion.
In short, Franz Liszt (1811-1886) has created a double structure, “a sonata across a sonata,” the first such example in the history of the form. Other composers had linked the contrasting movements of their sonatas and symphonies, of course; one thinks immediately of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata and his Fifth Symphony.
But the B-Minor Sonata is different. Not only do its four movements flow into and out of one another with magisterial ease, but each of them assumes an organic function within the greater sonata structure of which it is a part. The material, that is to say, is constantly making contributions to two sonata forms simultaneously — a local one and a total one. Moreover, Liszt employs the so-called “metamorphosis of themes” technique (a device he invented) to splendid effect. Most of the contrasting themes of the work are “metamorphosed” from three basic ideas heard in the Introduction.
Despite its complexity we know that the B-Minor Sonata was composed very quickly — within the space of a few weeks. The manuscript bears the date “February 1853,” and it was published the following year with a dedication to Robert Schumann. Then followed a long silence. The work appeared to have been born neglected. Nearly four years elapsed before it received its first public performance by Liszt’s great pupil Hans von Bülow on January 22, 1857, in Berlin. We shall return to that important event in a moment. Naturally there had been some scattered private performances, and two of them call for special mention. In June 1853 Liszt himself had played the B-Minor Sonata from manuscript in the music room of The Altenburg (his Weimar home during this period) to a gathering of friends, pupils and colleagues. Their number included the young Johannes Brahms who was touring Germany with the violinist Eduard Reményi, one of Liszt’s compatriots. At a particularly magical moment Liszt’s gaze had wandered across the room to Brahms, who had fallen asleep. Liszt finished the performance, got up silently, and left the room. It was one of those turning-points in musical history at which one wishes a camera had been present. All his life Brahms was to remain metaphorically asleep to Liszt’s music.
A few years after this incident, Brahms signed the famous “Manifesto” (1860) in which the New German School of Liszt and Wagner was publicly condemned, and which marked the official declaration of the “War of the Romantics.” The other performance took place in London on the evening of April 5, 1855, when Liszt’s pupil Karl Klindworth played the Sonata to an enraptured Richard Wagner. “Dearest Franz! you were with me,” wrote Wagner. “The Sonata is beautiful beyond compare; great, sweet, deep and noble, sublime as you are yourself.” Clearly, on the basis of these two performances alone we must infer that the lines of division has already been drawn in what the Germans call Rezeptionsgeschichte, or “reception history.” And the work had still not received its public premiere.
All of which brings us back to Bülow’s recital. Almost to a man the critics lambasted the work. Otto Gumprecht of the National-Zeitung described it as an invitation to “hissing and stamping.” Gustav Engel of the Spener-schen Zeitung declared that “it conflicted with nature and logic” — whatever that meant. The mercurial Bülow was livid with rage and started a letter-writing campaign against both critics, until Liszt intervened and told Bülow to desist, saying that he should not take the press so seriously. “I can wait”, was his lifelong watchword. The critics were so busy fighting Bülow and the Liszt sonata they overlooked something else of importance that evening. It was the first occasion that Carl Bechstein unveiled his firm’s new grand piano, an instrument that soon became a legend in keyboard history.
Thereafter, Bülow became a “Bechstein artist,” and in the years that followed Carl Bechstein also saw to it that Liszt’s teaching studio in Weimar was equipped with one of his grands, which he regularly installed free of charge. The piano on view today in Weimar’s Liszt Museum was given to Liszt by Bechstein in 1886, the last year of the composer’s life. After the Berlin fiasco the Sonata had no more than four or five performances until the end of the nineteenth century. When as late as 1881 Bülow played the work in Vienna, the arch-conservative critic Eduard Hanslick wrote of it: “Whoever has heard that, and finds it beautiful, is beyond help.” As Peter Raabe later observed, such judgements make one ashamed for Liszt’s contemporaries, that they allowed themselves to be led for so long by a man who was both blind and deaf to the beauties of the new music.
There have been many attempts to read an extra-musical “meaning” into the B-Minor Sonata. Some experts claim that it is a musical portrait of the Faust legend, with “Faust,” “Gretchen,” and “Mephistophelian” themes to symbolize the main characters. Others believe the work to be based on Milton’s Paradise Lost. Closely allied to these rich speculations is the attempt to view the work as an allegory set in the Garden of Eden; according to this theory the Sonata deals with the Fall of Man, and contains “God,” “Lucifer,” “Serpent,” and “Adam” and “Eve” themes. Needless to say, not one of these ideas was sanctioned by Liszt himself. Nor did they come from his contemporaries. They are modern creations by theorists with time on their hands. Liszt was content to offer his work to the world under the inscrutable title “Sonata.” Let us heed his example. If we divest it of those programmatic trappings with which it has lately been encumbered, and listen to it as absolute music, its meaning will run all the deeper for doing so.
Petrarch Sonnet No. 104
Two other pieces in this recital also date from the Weimar years. They show Liszt’s skill as a transcriber. It is rarely remarked that both the Petrarch Sonnet No. 104 (1849) and the Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (1860) are arrangements of works that he first composed for different media. This arouses our astonishment, for these compositions lie so naturally on the keyboard that we are tempted to conclude they were born there.
Yet the Petrarch Sonnet was originally a setting for tenor and piano of the Italian poet’s famous love lines, which may be summarized: “I fear, I hope, I burn, I freeze; And all for love of thee, my lady.”
Mephisto Waltz No. 1
As for the Mephisto Waltz, it first saw the light of day as an orchestral composition (shamefully neglected today) which Liszt immediately re-cast for solo piano. When we place the two versions side by side, we come to understand what Sir Donald Tovey meant when he declared that “Liszt was by far the most wonderful interpreter of orchestral scores on the pianoforte the world is ever likely to see.”
All his life, Liszt was fascinated by the Faust legend. Yet it was not to Goethe that he turned for the inspiration of this piece, but to a minor poet Nicholas Lenau. The Waltz is subtitled “Dance at the Village Inn.” Attracted by the sound of music, Faust and Miphistopheles wander into a village inn where they find a wedding celebration in full swing.
Mephistopheles seizes a violin, tunes it up (an effect which is graphically portrayed at the beginning of the Waltz) and starts to play. The dancers fall under his spell as the music goes faster and faster. Faust chooses a local wench, takes her outside, and they dance into the dark woods. With the sound of Mephistopheles’s violin in their ears he seduces her and they are engulfed “by a roaring sea of lust.” At the end, the only sound to be heard is the song of a nightingale.
On July 2, 1881, Liszt fell down the stairs of the Hofgärtnerei, his later home in Weimar. It was his traumatic entry into old age. Not quite seventy years old, he had until then enjoyed reasonably good health, and his body had retained much of the vigor of his youth. The accident changed all that. There was extensive bruising down his right side, an injury to his foot, and contusions to his face. The local doctor who examined Liszt recommended total rest. The composer dutifully took to his bed, thinking that he would be up and about within a few days. In fact, he was immobilized for at least eight weeks and when he left his sickroom he could only move around with difficulty.
The impact of the fall seemed to remind Liszt of his mortality, and it triggered within him a number of illnesses that until then had been lying dormant — including dropsy, asthma, a cataract of the left eye, and chronic heart disease. This latter ailment was to kill him within five years. Liszt’s old age was also marked by melancolia and black depression. His private correspondence tells of his wish to commit suicide, an action from which only his powerful attachment to Roman Catholicism saved him.
It is no coincidence that his music underwent a major stylistic shift at this time, and suddenly became “difficult.” It exhibits all those characteristics of melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic disintegration associated with the music of the twentieth century. Chords are left unresolved, melodic phrases are abandoned in mid air, tonality itself is sometimes suspended. (Busoni was not wrong to call Liszt “the father of modern music.”) In fact, the music of his old age reflects nothing less that the breakup of a personality, and from time to time it offers a glimpse into a mind on the verge of catastrophe. Small wonder that Liszt’s contemporaries shrank from the view. Liszt spent his final years composing music that utterly failed to find an audience.
Composed on August 24, 1881, the Grey Clouds are clearly autobiographical. The night was closing in, and Liszt created a soundscape which matched his world of inner despair. The piece could well be described as a gateway through which modern music later passed. Of particular interest is its ending, which is left unresolved and simply drifts into silence. Some scholars have drawn a straight line from this piece to the impressionist world of Claude Debussy. It is a compelling idea, spoiled by one irrefutible fact: Debussy could never have heard this music which remained unpublished until 1927 — more than forty years after Liszt’s death. We are left to conclude that Liszt stole it from the future — not the first time that he had exercised this magical knack.
En rêve: Nocturne
As for En rêve: Nocturne, this was surely stolen from the night. Liszt himself tells us that he often suffered from insomnia. Composing helped to restore his tranquillity and put his inner demons to flight. This dreamy evocation dates from the last months of Liszt’s life. It is cast in the key of B major, which we know from collateral evidence to be Liszt’s “key of redemption.” We would not be wrong to regard it as a farewell glance at a lifetime spent in the service of music.
© Alan Walker