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A Romantic Rhapsody:

Original works by Liszt together with his remarkable arrangements of Bach’s organ music, Schubert Lieder, Donizetti opera and Beethoven’s Symphony No.5.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886), the original 19th Century musical superstar, gave more than 1,000 concerts in his life time.  He was revered for his trailblazing, creative inspirations and invented the modern 'piano recital'.

Reflections on Franz Liszt (1811 - 86)

"My piano is for me what his frigate is to a sailor, or his horse to an Arab - more indeed: it is my very self, my mother tongue, my life. Within its seven octaves it encloses the whole range of the orchestra, and a man's ten fingers have the power to reproduce the harmonies which are created by hundreds of performers." Franz Liszt.
Amidst the general backdrop of war and upheaval sparked off by the American and French Revolutions from the end of the previous century, the year 1811, as writer Jeremy Siepmann remarked, was notable
for two other momentous events. The first was the discovery of a giant comet which at its height lit up much of Central Europe, its tail alone estimated to be one hundred million miles long. The other was the birth of Liszt.

It is hard to overstate the uniqueness of, or exaggerate the superlatives about, Franz Liszt. Not only as pianist, but also as composer, conductor, innovator and artistic revolutionary, he was a towering, magnetic personality and communicator, equally at home with Royalty and Popes as with the Gypsy musicians of his native Hungary. Franz Liszt was the most photographed man of the 19th century, and the second most sculpted person after Napoleon.

In June 1840, Liszt gave the first self-styled "piano recital" of a type we would recognise today, at the Hanover Square rooms in London's Mayfair. It was near the start of what was supposed to be a six-week, 50-concert tour of England to help raise funds for victims of the Great Danube floods of 1838. Eight years and 1,000 concerts throughout Europe later, he had additionally and almost single-handedly raised enough money to erect a memorial statue of Beethoven in his birthplace Bonn. He made many other charitable donations from the huge proceeds of his concerts.

The German writer, poet and critic Heinrich Heine coined the term Lisztomania to describe the hysteria surrounding Liszt's performances. His fanbase, mostly female, would throw jewellery onto the stage, mob him to collect locks of his golden hair, snuff boxes, gloves or even cigar butts he left lying around. Often referred to as the original rockstar for the electrifying effect he had on audiences, Liszt presents us with a fascinating if perplexing combination of contradictions. He had an alluring magnetism and was by spurious legend a seducer of Princesses; his beautiful but jealous lover Countess Marie d'Agoult once angrily dismissed him as a "Don Juan parvenu".  Yet, he grew up with a deep reverence for Catholicism, retreating into monastic life and taking minor orders in his later years. He was a sensational performer who, at the height of his pianistic powers, abruptly ceased giving concerts at the age of 35, turning instead to composing and conducting in the Court of Weimar. The creator of his most famous works, the Hungarian Rhapsodies, he spent so much time away from his native land he could barely speak the language. And Liszt the composer, who had had instilled in him the formal musical rigour and architecture of Bach and Beethoven, was also steeped in and inspired by the improvisatory freedom of Gypsy music. 

Liszt's early musical training was rooted in the Classical era, through his lessons with Czerny and Salieri. He illuminated the Romantic period with his genius, musical innovations, personality and striking looks, and his later compositions anticipated by a generation the innovations of the 20th century, most notably the Impressionism-inspired music of Debussy and Ravel, and the atonality of Schoenberg.

As mentioned, it was Liszt who invented the piano recital we are familiar with today - not just the use of the word recital, but also the placing of the instrument at right angles to the audience in order better to project the sound, and to afford a view of the performer's hands. It was Liszt who first included works from almost all the known keyboard repertoire from Bach to Chopin. And it was Liszt who established the habit of performing this music from memory, something almost de rigueur today. His collaboration with piano manufacturer Erard, amongst others, helped precipitate exciting innovations in the instrument itself, extracting ever more ambitious possibilities from the piano in terms of speed, volume, and expressive range.

Prelude & Fugue in A minor for organ BWV  543, S 462

Liszt wrote almost twice as much piano music as all his major contemporaries - Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Mendelssohn – combined! About half this output consists of arrangements of other composers' work for practically every conceivable medium. The nature of Liszt's arrangements varies enormously. He was generally at his freest in the operatic paraphrases. These were often elaborate showpieces, usually demanding brilliance and flair from the performer. In his transcriptions of Schubert songs, the many verses of the poems lend themselves naturally to a theme and variation approach - so a mixture of the faithful and the increasingly varied and embellished.

But Liszt recognised perfection when he saw it, and so in his arrangements of Six Organ Preludes and Fugues by Bach S.462, he avoided tampering with the Master's music. Nothing is added or taken away. That said, to integrate a complex piece of Bach counterpoint written for two fully engaged hands and two feet into the strictures of the piano is itself an impressive feat of musical engineering.

The sinuous, falling chromatic sequence of the Prelude's opening contrasts with the fugue's dancing subject which, in its final iteration, is passed back and forth between the two hands no fewer than ten times.

Six Mélodies favorites de La belle Meunière S 565, No.  2

In his arrangements of over 50 Schubert Lieder, Liszt's obvious challenge was how to vary the verses which, in Schubert's originals, are nearly always identical apart from the words. This he achieved in a variety of ways - sometimes by altering the pitch of the theme, mimicking bass/tenor/alto/soprano, and sometimes by changing the texture of the accompaniment with seemingly limitless invention. The fecundity of his imagination is evidenced by the fact that he sometimes added an extra verse to Schubert's original, as is the case here, and occasionally he even made two or three different versions of the same song.

Der Müller und der Bach is rightly regarded as one of Liszt's finest song arrangements. To make the contrast between the two characters of the miller and the brook, Schubert pulls one of the oldest tricks in the musical lexicon and one of his signature strokes, the alternation of major and minor, to magical effect. 

The song falls towards the end of a cycle of 20 poems entitled Die Schöne Müllerin (The miller's beautiful daughter). a tale of unrequited love by a minor German poet whose name coincidentally was also Miller (Wilhelm Müller). Not untypically of 19th century German poetry, the protagonist ends up committing suicide. The desperate miller's words are conveyed at the start in the minor key, and alternate with the soothing replies of the brook, in the major mode.

Réminiscences de Lucia di Lammermoor S 397

For those unfamiliar with either the Sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor in particular, or the operas of Donizetti in general, it may come as a surprise that the two gorgeous tunes in the finale to Act II of this opera have lain somewhat neglected of late. However, it was not always so. Stars as diverse as a young Shirley Temple, Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig gorged on these sumptuous melodies. The Reminiscences were also for a period one of the five most performed pieces in Liszt's own recital programmes.

Liszt's paraphrase begins with a brief introduction which hesitantly plays off the rhythmic accompaniment to the first tune in the left hand, with a recitative-like fragment of the second in the right hand. Dramatic pauses separate these tentative statements.

Once the piece gets off the ground a first ravishing tune is followed by another, even more glorious, the two separated by a brief cadenza. The melodies are caught up in ever more voluptuous and ornate accompaniments whirling through the entire range of the keyboard, and skilfully divided between the hands in a trademark technique (actually pioneered by Liszt's contemporary and pianistic rival Sigismond Thalberg) giving the impression of three hands playing.

Harmonies poétiques et religieuses S 173, No.7
Funérailles (October 1849)

Among Liszt's many revolutionary innovations was the symphonic poem, a one-movement orchestral piece based on a particular idea, theme or event. Both the title and the concept were Liszt's own, and the symphonic poem was readily embraced by later composers including Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss and Sibelius: this was so-called programme music, as opposed to abstract or absolute music with no extra-musical subject.

Subtitled "October 1849", the clear programmatic content of Funérailles relates to thirteen Hungarian generals who were executed in the unsuccessful uprising against Austrian Habsburg rule. The opening introduction features brutally clashing iron bells, building up to a trumpet fanfare. This is followed by a funeral march which magically migrates from the lachrymose minor to the more consoling major mode. The central section is a terrifying war march which gathers in speed and volume leading to a conclusion recapitulating all the themes in a series of musical twists and turns, before finally dying away in three low bass octaves.

The central section has often been compared to that of the famous Heroic Polonaise, op 53 by Chopin, who also died in 1849. It is worth recalling the comment Liszt famously made to a student who brought him the Polonaise to play: "Do I care how fast you can play your octaves!? What I wish to hear is the canter of the horses of the Polish cavalry before they gather force and destroy the enemy!"

Symphony no. 5 in C minor Op 67, S 464
1. Allegro con brio

Beginning with perhaps the most famous four notes in musical history, Beethoven's 5th symphony needs no introduction. Some of tonight's audience may even remember the shop in Wanchai, Tang Tang Tang Tang, named after its owner the late Sir David Tang, but also inspired by the opening of Beethoven's masterpiece.  

Varying recollections exist of the famous story that, as a young boy, Liszt was taken by his teacher Carl Czerny to play to an ageing, deaf and irascible Beethoven, who was Czerny's own teacher. Beethoven, impressed by Liszt's talent, kissed him on the forehead, saying to him: "Go! You are one of the fortunate ones. You will give great joy and happiness to many people. There is nothing finer or better than that!" 

What is in no doubt is Liszt's profound admiration for, and musical indebtedness to, the German Master. When it became clear that attempts to raise funds for a monument to commemorate Beethoven in Bonn, his birthplace, were about to be abandoned due to lack of interest, Liszt wrote to the Beethoven Memorial Committee and agreed to take on the debt himself. He financed this by what grew into an almost endless series of concerts across Europe.

Liszt also undertook the Herculean task of arranging all nine of Beethoven's symphonies for piano solo, later making revisions in Weimar where he was principally engaged in composing, conducting and teaching. Like so much of Liszt's work, there was also a higher purpose. His scores are instructional, indicating at key points which instruments in the original symphony play which notes - this, when getting to hear orchestral and operatic music was much harder in the days before radio and recordings.

Six Consolations S 172, No.3
Lento placido in D flat major   

The genesis of the title of these charming vignettes is unclear. Perhaps it was for Liszt to console himself during a period of difficulties in his relationship with Marie d'Agoult, the mother of their three children. As a result, contact both with them and with her became limited and strained.

This third Consolation, easily the best known of the six, appears only in the revised version of the set, composed about five years after the first. It has the quality of a Chopin Nocturne, and the way in which Liszt notated the opening bars appears to demand the use of the sostenuto (middle) pedal, a hugely important innovation he anticipated and encouraged by some decades.

Années de pèlerinage - II - Italie S 161, No.7
Après une lecture de Dante - Fantasia quasi Sonata

If Beethoven's 5th provides us with the most famous four notes in music (da da da DUM), the so-called Dante Sonata is striking for its pervasive and even more economical motif, just two, rapidly repeated identical notes (da DUM).

This monumental piece concludes the second set of Années de pèlerinage (years of pilgrimage), and is by a long margin the weightiest of the seven pieces in the book. The first two (of three) volumes form a kind of musical diary of Liszt's sojourn in Switzerland and Italy with his still-married lover, Countess Marie d'Agoult. 

Like a chef laying out the bare ingredients of a recipe, or an artist displaying the palette of colours from which he will create his masterpiece, Liszt sets out all the material from which the whole will unfold in the first couple of minutes, in a series of fragmentary statements marked by dramatic pauses. This is not dissimilar to the introduction of the Lucia sextet, though as this work is on a much larger scale the fragments are correspondingly meatier.

The title, Après une lecture de Dante, comes from a poem by Victor Hugo, but it takes its subject matter from Dante's La Divina Commedia, in which Dante and Virgil travel through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Musically it is based on three simple motifs which transform themselves continuously throughout the piece. The first is the interval of the tritone, heard dramatically at the start. The second is a meandering tune which lifts up a degree and then spirals ever downwards. The third follows almost exactly the same shape as the second, but does so diatonically and in the major mode, whereas the second is chromatic and with a minor backdrop. The musical effects of these distinctions are striking: The tritone is unsettling, even terrifying. This interval was known in Mediaeval times as "diabolus in musica" (the devil in music). The chromatic descent has a wailing quality, vividly portraying tortured souls, while the last motif in its various transformations is by turn, triumphant - like an explosively shining beacon of light – beautifully calming and, in its final iteration, celestial. Common to all three motifs is the double-note repetition, pervasive throughout the work.  

Programme Notes by Robin Zebaida copyright 2023
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