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They spoke about it
Transcriptions According to Liszt
In this recording, pianistAlain Lefèvre has chosen to present a programme entirely devoted to Franz Liszt’s piano transcriptions of celebrated works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Richard Wagner. Most of the original versions are for orchestra, some with choir or vocal soloists.
In the nineteenth century, at a time when neither radio nor recordings existed, transcriptions for piano or small ensemble of pieces from the symphonic or operatic literature constituted a privileged means of making large-scale works accessible to music-lovers. The transcription genre had become, until the invention of recording at the beginning of the twentieth century, no less than a major musical industry. Several composers of the first order chose to make these transcriptions, one of their aims being to promote their own works. But for Franz Liszt (1811-1886), who is recognized as being one of the most prolific transcribers of his generation, the process afforded him the means of deeply meditating on the works of composers he admired, those of earlier masters like Bach as much as those of contemporaries like Wagner.
Today, the idea of listening to such transcriptions when the original versions are available on recordings may seem at first a little superfluous. Yet to listen to a Liszt transcription is tantamount to contemplating the remarkable etchings which the great artist Goya made of the paintings of Velasquez, a master he supremely admired and whose work greatly influenced his own conception of portraiture. Goya’s adaptations of Velasquez’s colours to the monochrome versions of his own etchings necessarily engendered a profound change of perspective, but it would be a mistake to see in them a mere levelling out of a painting with multiple angles and relief. Admittedly, while the play of colours in the original version disappears, the great lines, the basic structure, the contrasts between light and shadow are nevertheless emphasised and brought to the fore.
In the same way, when an orchestral score is reduced to a piano version, the thematic material is made clearer, as well as its transformations and relationships with the larger structure. Thus, even for the music-lover who may know some of the original version by heart, listening to these transcriptions undoubtedly yields great satisfaction and constitutes a gratifying aural experience.
The Prelude and Fugue in A Minor by Bach (BWV 543) is part of a larger collection of six great Preludes and Fugues for organ by the Leipzig Cantor which Liszt transcribed for piano between 1842 and 1850.
Published in 1852, the transcriptions became, after the Well-Tempered Clavier, a favourite among pianists and a durable success. In 1882, thirty years after the publication, the Fugue in A Minor was still so popular that it became the basis of a musical game during a banquet given at Weimar by some of Liszt’s students in honour of their teacher. At the end of this banquet, the Fugue was sung viva voce, each participant having the mission to take up one note of the theme and melodically develop it to its limit. It appears that Liszt greatly appreciated the diversion and took part in the game himself!
As for the Variations on Bach’s theme Weinen, Klagen, the “theme” is in actual fact a Passacaglia bass line on which the opening chorus of the cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (BWV 12 – composed in Weimar in 1714 when J.S. Bach was not yet thirty) is constructed. This bass line, an ostinato made of chromatic descending notes repeated ad libitum in regular long values, was a favourite feature of the Italian Baroque opera’s lamento. The deploration which inspired such lamenti had in fact become Baroque opera’s strongest dramatic point, usually depicting the moment at which the hero or heroine lamented the loss of the loved one.
Typically, in the operatic lamento, the chromatic descending bass line was limited to the accompaniment; in Bach’s cantata, however, the line is fragmented and developed among all the voices of the chorus and orchestra, with the result that its tragic ethos is amplified with the purpose of driving home the words of the text: “cries, lamentations, torments, discouragement, anguish, and distress, that is the lot of Christians who bear the burden of Christ’s sufferings.” This manner of expressing the affect of despair was so poignant that Bach did not hesitate to use his youthful composition, adapting it to the Crucifixus passage at the centre of his Credo in his celebrated Mass in B Minor. In 1862, right after the death of his daughter Blandine, Liszt fashioned the opening theme of Bach’s cantata into the basis of a series of variations that would serve as a tribute to his beloved deceased daughter.
Richard Wagner (1813-1882) was Franz Liszt‘s (1811-1886) exact contemporary. The two composers became friends as early as 1842, at the time when Wagner was beginning to experience the first fruits of his success as a composer and as the Musical Director of the Dresden Opera. The relationship between them was at times ambiguous, built as it was on mutual admiration but tempered by the vagaries of their respective personalities. Nonetheless, the friendship lasted all their lives, and was sealed, so to speak, by Wagner’s marriage to Liszt’s other daughter Cosima.
Liszt transcribed numerous pages from Wagner’s operas, often within two years of their premiere. Tannhäuser was premiered in 1845 and Liszt’s transcription of its Overture dates from 1847 while his transcription of the recitative from Wolfram’s romance “Evening Star” is dated 1849. Tristan und Isolde was premiered in 1865; two years later, Liszt transcribed the Liebestod, the famous closing aria of the opera in which Isolde realises she will never again find her lover in this world.
© Guy Marchand
Traduction: Peter Christensen