From the Sleevenotes: Death and Transfiguration

Kenneth Hamilton’s sleevenotes from his first volume of the music of Liszt, the double CD Prima Facie Records PFCD167/168 Death and Transfiguration.

“On 31 May 1861 Franz Liszt received some very welcome news from France: he had been unexpectedly elevated to the rank of Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur by the Emperor Napoléon III – an award granted to few musicians. Ironically, what pleased him most was not the award itself but the fact that the official citation described him simply as a composer, with no mention of his phenomenal fame as a performer. For Liszt, it was a long-awaited vindication.

It was certainly true that a decade or so earlier, “composer” would not have been the first term that came to mind when Liszt was mentioned. “Virtuoso pianist” might have been the most popular choice, although some less charitable individuals may have said “dedicated self-publicist” or even “outrageous philanderer”. As Mendelssohn wittily put it, Liszt’s life seemed to be “a constant oscillation between scandal and apotheosis”. In fact, Liszt’s transformation into a creative artist first and foremost had taken place only in the years from 1848, when he had decided to withdraw from the hectic life of a touring virtuoso and to settle down as court-composer (Kapellmeister) in the small town of Weimar. There he intended to create original works worthy of his talent. It was high time: he was already in his late 30s and had previously been pigeonholed as a performer of genius who persisted – against all evidence – in the harmless but bizarre delusion that he was also a great composer.

Liszt, however, had one steadfast supporter in his artistic endeavours: the Polish Princess Carolyn von Sayn- Wittgenstein, his new partner and unquestioning idolater of his musical genius. She would sit opposite him in the study of the large house they shared in Weimar, writing an almost interminable multi-volume history of the Catholic Church, while simultaneously checking that her companion’s attention was fixed on his manuscript rather than his favourite cognac. “It’s not talent for composition that Liszt lacks”, she would firmly tell friends, “just the ability to sit on his backside and get on with it!”

Partly owing to the Princess’s iron will, Liszt’s output during his Weimar years was prodigious. But although most of his best music was either originally written or extensively revised in Weimar, a few pieces had been created on a quasi-geological timescale, with sketches and early drafts dating back decades. Moreover, some significant works had been initially inspired by Liszt’s previous partner, Countess Marie d’Agoult, the “Lorelei” of his song-setting, and the mother of his three children Blandine, Cosima and Daniel. There was, not surprisingly, no love lost between the Countess and the Princess – nor between Liszt’s children and his new partner. The children deeply resented the fact that they were confined to living “out of the way” in Paris, happily enough at first with Liszt’s mother, but subsequently with an elderly dragon of a governess chosen by Princess Wittgenstein, while the Princess’s own daughter, Marie, was allowed to live with Liszt in Weimar.

Completing the cast of this real-life soap opera were numerous students, and of course Richard Wagner, whom Liszt regarded as the greatest genius of the era (as indeed did Wagner himself). Wagner would eventually marry Liszt’s daughter Cosima, an event that caused no little heartache, as to do so Cosima had not only to convert to Protestantism, but also divorce her first husband Hans von Bülow, one of Liszt’s former pupils, and among his closest friends. Cosima thus became a muse to Wagner in the same way as her own mother, Marie, had become a muse to Liszt, but in a more enduring fashion.

The rupture that the marriage caused in the personal relationship between Wagner and Liszt was eventually healed, but their musical interaction had always continued unabated, as demonstrated by many of the pieces in this recording. These chronicle multiple borrowings and influences, musical and conceptual, from both sides – not least the creative obsession with the themes of love, death, transfiguration and redemption. The latter two, however, were considered by Liszt to belong exclusively to a Christian context, in marked contrast to Wagner’s erotically-charged Schopenhauerian mysticism (of which more later).

A lively artistic exchange also sprung up between Liszt and the many gifted pupils he taught over the last decades of his life. Fortunately for us, some of these students survived well into the 20th century, and left not only accounts of the composer’s teaching, but editions and recordings influenced by it. Lina Ramann’s Liszt Pädagogium, the reminiscences of August Stradal (1860-1930), and the diaries of August Göllerich (1859- 1923) and Carl Lachmund (1853-1928) are especially valuable. Much more was passed down than sometimes thought. Liszt’s most gifted pupils received copious individual attention and detailed instruction outside of the famous “masterclasses”. This was especially true for those who, like Arthur Friedheim (1859-1932), Göllerich, Stradal and Bernhard Stavenhagen (1862-1914), sporadically took on roles as Liszt’s secretary, reader or amanuensis something that became increasingly necessary as the composer’s eyesight and general health began drastically to decline after 1881.

According to August Stradal: “Liszt gave freely of his time to those he was convinced understood him and sensed his greatness. He untiringly and enthusiastically made corrections, demonstrated certain passages, and made many annotations in the scores of the student concerned. I consequently possess a thick volume of Liszt’s pieces, into which the master wrote many comments for me – in truth an invaluable ‘Nibelung’s hoard’.”

Liszt did not confine himself to clarification of performance instructions, but actively revised aspects of his music with a constant creative re-engagement. I have discussed this more extensively in my chapters ‘‘‘Nach persönlichen Erinnerungen’: Liszt’s long-ignored Legacy to his Students”, in the volume Liszt’s Legacies, and in the chapter Lisztiana” in my book After the Golden Age. This new series of recordings is an attempt to apply Liszt’s legacy in practice. I have tried as much as possible to imagine myself a student of Liszt, to absorb his performance advice, or at least what survives of it, and to read his scores in a 19th century (rather than a “modern”) fashion. I treat “hairpins” as potentially referring to rubato as well as dynamics, adopt revisions and additional ornamentation that Liszt himself recommended, and take a free attitude to arpeggiation and tempo fluctuation. Furthermore, several demonstrably authentic metronome marks passed down by Liszt to his pupils are significantly faster in “slow” sections than common practice today. I have observed their spirit, while noting that they were intended as general indications rather than rigid straitjackets. As Liszt himself trenchantly wrote, “a metronomic performance is certainly tiresome and nonsensical; time and rhythm must be adapted to and identified with the harmony, the accent and the poetry… My very small amount of pedagogism is, for the most part, confined to the words of St Paul: the letter kills, the spirit gives life.”

Listeners familiar with the published scores will notice differences from the very start of this recording. To take a few examples: in the first bars of Funérailles the bells in the bass toll four times, rather than twice, with dynamics accordingly adjusted; in the Sonata I have adopted a strikingly effective revision to the last page passed down by Arthur Friedheim (the only Liszt pupil both to have made a recording and edition of the piece, and to have studied it intensively with the composer). And the “slow” section was evidently intended to flow songfully rather than freeze in the crystalline fashion sometimes encountered (it’s true that crystals can be beautiful nonetheless…). I mention several other points below in comments on specific tracks.

The success or failure of this approach should, of course, be judged by the emotional effect of the performances themselves. I have not attempted to copy wholesale any specific recording by a Liszt pupil, nor to confine myself to any single historical source, rather to immerse myself in the musical language and its performance tradition, to try to become a “native speaker”, as it were. Ultimately, every convincing interpretation is personal one.

And now to the actual music: Three tracks of the first CD – Funérailles (Funeral March), Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude (God’s Blessing in Solitude), and Pensée des Morts (Thought of the Dead) are from the collection Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses (Poetic and Religious Harmonies), published in 1853, but partly sketched out in 1847, soon after Liszt’s first meeting with Princess Wittgenstein. The first half of Pensée des Morts is of even older origin. A version appeared in print in 1835, at that time itself entitled (confusingly for posterity) Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses, in a reference to the poetry of the same name by Liszt’s friend and mentor Alphonse de Lamartine. Liszt seems to have set great store by the original piece, but far from being greeted with critical acclaim, it met with bewilderment. This was not “composition,” wrote François Stoepel in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, this was “fantasizing” – a stream of consciousness without rules or moderation, a sequence of striking effects without structure. It was daringly original, but alas also incomprehensible.

Liszt maintained a heroically defiant demeanor in the face of these criticisms, but impressively, he did also try to evaluate and absorb them. Thus it was that nearly two decades later, with the radical revision of the original Harmonies into the piece titled Pense?es des Morts, he responded to condemnations of the earlier work, which he now admitted had been “fragmentary and faulty”. The desperate, questing restlessness of the first version remains in Pensée des Morts – indeed, the opening pages are almost identical to the original but this is now balanced by a lengthy second half based on entirely new material: a fervent declamation of, and mystical meditation on, the psalm plainchant “De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine,” (“From the depths I cry to thee, O Lord”) adapted from another Liszt piece: an unpublished and abandoned Psaume instrumentale on the same theme. Moreover, the keyboard writing of the new closing pages unmistakably alludes to both to Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata and Schubert’s G-flat Impromptu (I have included Liszt’s version of the Impromptu in the second CD of this set). The soul, therefore, might petition God from the depths, but for the musician on earth, Beethoven and Schubert provided more practical help.

Pensée des Morts is a powerful threnody on death, purgatory and redemption. We hear the trumpets of the last judgement mingling with the chromatically-inflected hot winds of hell. The closing bars languish in brooding anticipation – exactly the same mood, and notes – are taken up again at the beginning of the Sonata in B minor. It is an astonishing piece, with previously unparalleled keyboard writing producing a quite overwhelming impact at the entry of the “De Profundis” theme, in cyclopean chords in the bass of the piano. And it all no doubt reminded the Liszt of the 1850s of his younger days, of his fondness for ghoulish visits to morgues, graveyards and catacombs in Paris, and of that listlessness of spirit (“ennui”) consciously cultivated by the young musical Romantics.

The magnificent Funérailles (Funeral March) is another elegy, but one of multiple meanings. Its subtitle “October 1849”, and its pervasive use of the “Hungarian” scale, tells us that it commemorates the failed Hungarian revolution of that year against Hapsburg rule, during which several of Liszt’s friends were executed by the Austrians. However, Chopin also died in 1849, and the composition of Funérailles was partially inspired by Princess Wittgenstein, who suggested that Liszt create a Hungarian counterpart to Chopin’s famous funeral march. Listeners familiar with Chopin’s Ab major Polonaise will notice a clear reminiscence of its overwhelming octave passages towards the end of Funérailles, building up to a majestic return of the main theme. When, decades later, a student played Funérailles to Liszt in a masterclass, he commented: “That is essentially an imitation of Chopin’s famous Polonaise; but here I have done it somewhat differently.” He might also have mentioned that in the coda of both pieces, the galloping ostinato returns briefly as a nostalgic reminiscence – triumphant in one case, despairing in the other.

But there’s more. The subtitle “October 1849” is also evidently a musical response to Heinrich Heine’s cutting poem “Im Oktober 1849”, which was published in 1850, just before Funérailles was composed. Liszt was openly angered by this poem, which wittily satirized the stark contrast between his patriotic proclamations of love for his Hungarian homeland, and his noted absence from any field of battle in which this patriotism might actually have been of any practical use:

Auch Liszt taucht wieder auf, der Franz,
Er lebt, er liegt nicht blutgeröthet
Auf einem Schlachtfeld Ungarlands;
Kein Russe, kein Kroat hat ihn getödtet.

Es fiel der Freiheit letzte Schanz’,
Und Ungarn blutet sich zu Tode –
Doch unversehrt blieb Ritter Franz,
Sein Säbel auch – er liegt in der Kommode.

Er lebt, der Franz, und wird als Greis
Vom Ungarkriege Wunderdinge
Erzählen in der Enkel Kreis –
„So lag ich und so führt’ ich meine Klinge!“

I offer a fairly free prose translation here, in an attempt to catch the caustic register of Heine’s language:

Even Liszt turns up again, our old friend Franz, He’s still alive, he’s not lying red with blood On a Hungarian battlefield;
No Russian or Croat has killed him.

Freedom’s last barricade has fallen, And Hungary bleeds to death – Yet Sir Franz remains undamaged,

Just like his sabre—it still lies in the drawer He is alive, is our Franz, and as an old geezer He’ll tell his grandchildren
Wonderful tales of the Hungarian war –

“Here I lay and thus I bore my point!”

The point was sharpened by the fact that Liszt really did have a sabre – his notorious Hungarian “sword of honour”, awarded onstage by Count Leo Festetics and a group of noblemen after a concert in the National Theatre in Pest a decade before. It was inscribed with the words “To the great artist Franz Liszt, for his artistic merit, and for his patriotism, from his admiring compatriots”. Liszt’s speech of thanks, in which he perhaps unwisely promised to shed his “last drop of blood” for his country, quickly made the rounds in Europe, a tale told sometimes admiringly but often mockingly. That there was an undeniable core of truth in Heine’s sarcasm no doubt caused it to sting even more.

But Liszt’s patriotism was certainly sincere, despite the rash promises. He was obviously of far greater cultural than military value to Hungary: a leader of art than of armies. Was it not better to be a fine composer than a failed soldier? The execution of his Hungarian comrades and the death of Chopin offered Liszt an opportunity to make this argument in an unforgettable fashion.

Liszt was particularly proud of Funérailles, and of the mystically ecstatic Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude, often choosing the latter to play to friends and colleagues. One of the latter was Richard Wagner, who evidently remembered its climactic passages well enough to remain under their influence while composing the glorious final pages of the Liebestod from Tristan, Liszt’s transcription of which closes this CD set. The Bénédiction is prefaced by the opening of the poem by Lamartine from which the piece borrows its title. Indeed, it’s easy to see and hear that Liszt’s exquisite main melody, in his “divine” key of F# major, is an instrumental setting of the opening line: “D’où me vient, ô mon Dieu! cette paix qui m’inonde ?/D’où me vient cette foi dont mon c?ur surabonde?”

(Whence comes to me, O my Lord! This peace which overwhelms me?/Whence comes this faith with which my heart overflows?)

A gracious central section offers a contemplative contrast before the main melody is ushered in again, prefaced by an improvisatory passage described as Preludio in the score (beginning at 8’26” in this recording). Such a “prelude” in the middle of a piece is highly unusual. One earlier example is in Dussek’s fine Fantasy op. 76 (1810), which Liszt very likely knew. Not only was Dussek a celebrated composer during the 19th century, but Liszt’s Preludio even harks back to Dussek in its specific keyboard figuration. The most important of the Bénédiction’s earlier melodies are all recalled in the last pages of the piece, along with a completely new tune (beginning at 13’49”) that seems to be another text setting, this time of the first line of the Ave Maria, which fits the melody like glove. Liszt’s final summoning of benevolent spirits of the past will be noticed by any pianist who has ever played Beethoven’s Sonata op. 106 (one of Liszt’s specialities): the Bénédiction’s closing chord of F# major laid out similarly to that at the end of the Sonata’s slow movement. I have personally been influenced in my performance of the Bénédiction not only by the extensive notes of Liszt’s teaching on the piece in Lina Ramann’s Liszt Pädagogium, but also by the Liszt student Alexander Siloti’s (abridged and adapted) piano roll recording, which convincingly mirrors accounts of Liszt’s varied and imaginative use of arpeggiation.

“Is one allowed to write or listen to such a thing?”, Liszt inscribed at the head of the manuscript of Csárdás Macabre, a late piece of 1881-2, that in this recording (of its final, extended version) acts as a somewhat sarcastic satyr-play, casting aside the elevated mood of Funérailles and Bénédiction, and forming a transition to the almost equally macabre, if far more serious, Pensée des Morts. The reason for Liszt’s question will become clear as soon as one hears the Csárdás’s main theme (0’27”), a chromatic slithering on “forbidden” open fifth harmonies: a joke Medieval organum (a choral harmonization in fourths or fifths) that would have failed any music student from Liszt’s day onwards. Even more flippantly ironic is the parody of the Dies Irae plainchant that first appears at 1’33”, recalling the Mephistopheles movement of Liszt’s Faust Symphony in its shredding of otherwise noble themes. Not so much a Mephisto Waltz as a Mephisto Can-Can. Can one listen to such a thing indeed?

Clara Schumann would certainly have said, “no!”. When she heard church choirs singing “real” organum during a tour of Russia she thought it primitive and dreadful. When she first played over Liszt’s great Sonata in b minor, sent to her by the composer with a dedication to her husband Robert, she thought it equally dreadful. “Truly terrible”, she wrote. “And now I suppose I’m expected to thank him for it!” She luckily never heard the Csárdás Macabre, which remained unpublished during Liszt’s lifetime, nor another late piece, the bizarrely haunting Nuages Gris (Grey Clouds) of 1881, with its augmented triads, quartile harmonies, inconclusive ending, and almost uncanny adumbration of French musical impressionism and other “modernisms”. Liszt once said that his ambition was to cast a lance into the future of music. It hit the mark. I play Nuages Gris here as a shadowy prelude to the Sonata.

Clara Schumann’s exasperated comments turned out to represent a dissenting opinion on Liszt’s Sonata, which is now accepted as one of the major masterpieces of 19th-century piano music. As with the Bénédiction, Liszt would frequently play it for visitors in Weimar. (One of these was the young Brahms, who promptly fell asleep in the middle of the performance – he was of a mind with Clara here.) Though Liszt naturally knew every note of these works by heart, he would ostentatiously play from the published scores, to demonstrate that they were properly “composed” pieces, and not just elaborate improvisations (Stoepel’s review of Harmonies Poetiques two decades earlier must really have stung). Indeed, the scores lying on Liszt’s piano were soon falling apart, so often had they been pressed into service. But they were, for Liszt, more than just performing material: they were evidence that the critics had been wrong.

Liszt himself never gave any programmatic “explanation” for the Sonata in b minor (1854), intending it to be received, unlike the Symphonic Poems, as a piece of “absolute” music. Of course, this does not necessarily mean there was no programme in the back of his mind. Many writers have seen in the Sonata another commentary on Goethe’s Faust – a pianistic double, therefore, of the Faust Symphony – a correlation strengthened by the obvious similarly of some of the Sonata’s themes and developmental procedures with the “Quasi Faust” movement of Alkan’s Grande Sonata of 1848. (I have addressed this issue in more detail in my chapter “Après une Lecture du Czerny?: Liszt’s Creative Virtuosity” in the symposium volume Liszt and Virtuosity).

The Sonata unfolds in one vast movement, but within this the composer encapsulates elements of the more common three- or four-movement sonata form. The idea of fusing elements of several movements into one was partly inspired by Beethoven’s example in the choral finale of the Ninth Symphony, but Schubert had also adopted a similar plan for his 1822 Wanderer Fantasy, one of Liszt’s favourite pieces. The exposition and recapitulation of Liszt’s Sonata can in this fashion be considered as analogous to the first movement and finale of a four-movement sonata, while the slow section and fugal scherzo that take up most of the development supply the other two hypothetical movements.

Although Liszt’s musical language remains highly chromatic, the basic key relationships of the Sonata are more conventional than usual – the second subject is in the traditional relative major, while the slow section is in the dominant. This deliberately conservative outline points up all the more starkly the originality of the mysterious off-key opening on G, while the scherzo section initially gives the impression of being a recapitulation in the “wrong” key – a semitone too low – before the music is violently wrenched back into the tonic for the return of the opening material in the “proper” key. The whole piece is masterfully welded together using only a handful of themes, most of them starting off as fragments which are then transformed or varied to create more extended melodies. As Liszt himself proudly put it, this method of construction was “somewhat unique”.

Liszt’s original ending for the Sonata consisted of grandiose chords carousing boldly up and down the keyboard (as is also the case with the first ending of the Ballade in b minor). But he soon had a better idea, namely the wonderful coda that now stands in the score – an ethereal conclusion bringing the work full circle to its opening theme, at last played in the tonic key, followed by three visionary harmonies in the high treble. Here Liszt used his virtuoso’s insight into the capabilities of the keyboard not to dazzle, but to create music of the highest spiritual quality.

There is a wealth of material relating to Liszt’s teaching of the Sonata, most prominently August Stradal’s notes from his lessons with the composer (included in the Liszt Pädagogium) and, as mentioned above, a piano roll recording and projected edition by Arthur Friedheim. Liszt praised one of Friedheim’s public performances as “the way I thought of the piece when I wrote it”, so his perspective on the piece is especially stimulating. Eugen d’Albert, another celebrated Liszt student, also made a piano roll recording, although it seems unlikely that, in contrast to Friedheim, he ever studied the Sonata with Liszt himself. Almost needless to say, given the flexibly creative nature of Romantic performance aesthetics, and the fact that Liszt was quite capable of changing his mind from time to time, this material is not always entirely concordant, but there are enough significant areas of agreement to gain a very good idea of Liszt’s general approach to the performance of the Sonata, including tempi and tempo relationships, and even insight into some specific nuances such as the “rubato” performance of ornaments (see 5’35”-46”), and the composer’s final thoughts on some accidentals on the last page of the piece (see 25’54” onwards). These aspects, among others, make a perceptible difference to the flow of the piece as a whole.

The brilliantly vivid and deeply moving Ballade no. 2 in b minor (1853) is also in sonata form, but Liszt handles the structure rather differently here. There is a possible “hidden” programme too (as with the Chopin Ballades, which were doubtless aesthetic models for the Liszt) based on the legend of Hero and Leander: two lovers separated by the waters of the Hellespont. She was a priestess of Aphrodite in Sestos, he resided in Abydos, on the opposite bank. Although her father disapproved of their relationship (as fathers tend to do), love found a way. Every night, Leander would swim secretly across to her, until one fatal day he was engulfed by a storm. Despairing at his death, she drowned herself in the waters. But when the bodies washed up together upon the shore, they were found to be embracing.

According to Claudio Arrau, a pupil of the Liszt pupil Martin Krause, it was common knowledge among Liszt’s students that the Ballade was a depiction of the Greek myth. Although I have found no other source for this attribution, it strikes me as so convincing that the music itself forms its own corroboration, especially if Liszt’s source was Schiller’s Ballad (1801) Hero und Leander, which seems much more likely than a direct link to an earlier treatment by the Hellenistic Greek poet Musaeus Grammaticus. Schiller’s poem is a dramatic narration, and also a very Lisztian hymn to the power of love. The swinging trochaic rhythm: “Seht ihr dort die altergrauen/Schlösser sich entgegen schauen,/Leuchtend in der Sonne Gold?” (Do you see the old gray castles staring across at each other, shining in the golden sun?) is faithfully reflected in the rolling chromatic bass of Liszt’s opening theme, which surely illustrates Leander in full swim, while the gracefully “feminine” second melody of Liszt’s sonata form is an obvious illustration of Hero. Leander’s demise is graphically signalled by a flurry of alternating octaves at the climax of the piece, followed by passionate reminiscences of their former nightly trysts. The lover’s final unity “beyond the grave” is depicted by a genuinely touching transfiguration of Leander’s theme, now at last in major key. Uncannily akin to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Hero and Leander join together in a love-death. It is perhaps more than a coincidence that the first use of the expression I know of in English is in George Chapman’s completion of Christopher Marlow’s poem Hero and Leander (1598), the last lines of which read: “And this true honor from their love-deaths sprung,/They were the first that ever Poet sung”.

As a continuation of the closing mood of the second Ballade, I’ve included the charming En rêve (1885). This, and other thought-provoking pieces such as Nuages Gris, are a product of Liszt’s last years. He was increasingly ill, finding it more difficult to put pen to paper, and even to read. Cataracts were steadily affecting his vision. His compositions became shorter, sparer, starker – yet also more intimate, questing, clairvoyant: his inner eye had remained undimmed. Fortunately, many of Liszt’s admiring friends and students were eager to act as amanuenses for the ailing composer. They would visit him early in the morning (Liszt regularly rose at the ungodly hour of 4am in order to attend mass), would read out letters for him, and copy musical manuscripts.

One such secretary was August Stradal, for whom the exquisitely slender nocturne En Rêve (Dreaming) was written. Stradal had arrived at Liszt’s apartment expecting to find the usual mountain of correspondence waiting for him, but was instead handed the score of En Rêve by the grateful composer. The piece starts off simply enough with an elegantly artless tune that soon begins to wander into a thicket of surprisingly complex and delightful harmonies. And it ends, like so much late Liszt, in gently equivocal contemplation rather than unquestioning certainty.

The “floating” quality of this deceptively straightforward piece is created by the complete absence of full cadences in the tonic key of B major. Even the last chord is in an inversion, avoiding the conventional root position. As Liszt remarked to the Russian composer César Cui, he had come to feel that using root position harmonies was like trying to dance in a pair of clogs. Abschied (Farewell) was written in the same year for another student, in this case Alexander Siloti, who probably supplied the Russian folksong on which it is based. Modal harmonies abound, and the little piece ends with what seems like a nostalgic “what if?”.

Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth (The Cell in Nonnenwerth) is a bittersweet memory of happier times. Originally a song (1841) dedicated to Marie d’Agoult, and set to a poem by Liszt’s friend, the Prince and politician Felix von Lichnowsky (1814-48), the piano transcription heard here is actually the 4th version of the piece. It was rewritten, around 1880, with all the added hallmarks of Liszt’s late style, including long-held pedal passages of mingled chimes heard from afar – a melancholic summoning of distant recollections. It was doubly nostalgic for Liszt. Lichnowsky was long gone – murdered by a mob during the revolutionary uprisings of 1848. Nonnenwerth, a tiny island in the Rhine, was the location of the former monastery (hence the “cell” of the poem is a monk’s, not a prisoner’s), by then a guesthouse, in which Liszt, Marie and their three children had holidayed every summer from 1841-1843. The song, revisited ruefully nearly four decades later, was a memoriam not only to a long-dead friend, but also to the very rare occasions that Liszt’s whole family was fleetingly together. Liszt and Marie split up for good just after their last stay in Nonnenwerth. Marie died in 1876. But the last lines of the poem still resonated: “Dies, das letzte meiner Lieder/ruft dir: Komme wieder, wieder!“ (This, the last of my songs, calls to you: Come back back? again, again!)

“So, now even I am a Liszt pianist!”, exclaimed Wagner to Cosima when he saw the score of Dem Andenken Petofis (In memory of Petofi), and realized to his great delight that he could actually play it. The piece, something of a belated sequel to Funérailles, was published in 1877 as a tribute to the great Hungarian poet Sándor Petõfi (1823-49), another victim of the Hungarian revolution. The themes were based on a slightly earlier melodrama by Liszt, The Dead Poet’s Love (1874), to a poem by Mór Jókai, which was itself an allegorical treatment of certain supposed elements of Petõfi’s life story. Dem Andenken Petofis is a short but intensely concentrated work, which makes for a hard-hitting and highly memorable few minutes of music. Wagner could also not help noticing that Liszt’s main tune is very like a “Hungarian” version of a passage in Act 3 of Die Walküre (“War es so schmählich/Was ich verbrach…”). But considering how much he himself had borrowed from Liszt, he could hardly complain when the processed was reversed.

We briefly return to Harmonies poétiques et religieuses with the Ave Maria of the set, which partners well with Liszt’s version of Schubert’s Impromptu in Gb major. As mentioned earlier, the Gb major Impromptu had a clear influence on the consolatory music of Pensée des Morts. The affinities are even more obvious in the rewriting of the recapitulation of the Impromptu, which Liszt hyper-Romanticises with widely spaced arpeggiated chords. The Ave Maria, which was originally composed in 1846 as a choral piece, might seem at first to have nothing to do with Schubert, but listen closely to Liszt’s main melody, and the contours of Schubert’s famous Ave Maria (actually a setting on Sir Walter Scott, not the Latin hymn) will become apparent. Just in case we still “don’t get it”, Liszt archly introduces what is more or less a straight quote from the Schubert right at the end of his piece – a single melodic line floating off into the distance, like a shadowy memory (a nice touch that is instructively absent from the original choral work).

Two incisive elegies follow, one for Liszt’s son, and one in premonition of the death of Wagner. Daniel Liszt died in Berlin December 1859 at the all too young age of 20. The grief-stricken father reached out to Bach, and wrote a short Prelude after J. S. Bach based on the opening chorus of the cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (Weeping, Lamentation, Worry, Despair): a mournful, chromatically descending bass sequence frequently found in Baroque funeral music, most famously in the “Crucifixus” from Bach’s b minor Mass and “When I am laid in earth” from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. It is intimate, profoundly touching, heartfelt music. In September 1862, a second blow struck with the death of Liszt’s eldest daughter Blandine.

In the wake of this, he returned to the Prelude after J.S. Bach, extending it into a much longer, nobly tragic set of variations, its structure shattered by two dramatic collapses that seem graphically to illustrate the children’s deaths. (This version of the piece can be heard on my earlier CD Back to Bach.)

In late 1882, Liszt visited the Wagner family in Venice, where Wagner was recuperating after the exhausting effort of directing the Bayreuth premiere of Parsifal that summer. The sight of funeral gondolas draped in black gliding through the canals, combined with the fact that Wagner seemed far from well and increasingly ailing, led to the composition of the first version of La Lugubre Gondola (The Funeral Gondola). When, having left Venice, Liszt heard of Wagner’s death there in February 1883, he began to regard the piece as a presentiment, a foretelling of the catastrophe to come. It underwent several revisions before reaching the version heard on this disc, which was likely composed shortly before Liszt’s own death in 1886. La Lugubre Gondola is not merely mournful but discontented, dissonant, unsettling. Twisted hints of parts of Tristan combine with faint echoes of Mendelssohn’s Venetian Gondola Songs. It ends amid distant thunder.

“I only compose forgotten things these days” Liszt remarked to his pupils, amusingly anticipating the built- in obsolescence of modern consumer culture. But it was also a joke about his recent pieces: Romance Oubliée (Forgotten Romance) and an ongoing series of Forgotten Waltzes. All were bittersweet exercises in reminiscence. The original Romance had quite literally been forgotten. Its rediscovery had given Liszt the witty idea of creating a genre of “forgotten” music: pieces deliberately designed to look back on the past, affectionately disassembled, as if recalled in fragments from decades ago.

The story began in 1880, when Liszt received a letter from the German publisher Albert Simon, enclosing a manuscript that Liszt had long forgotten he had written: a piano transcription, entitled Romance, of a soulfully languorous song, “The Tears of Women”. Liszt had written the song in 1843, made a transcription in 1848, then directed his attention to more important matters. Simon now wanted permission to publish the piece. Liszt’s interest was piqued, but instead of the expected permission, he sent Simon a new piece entitled Forgotten Romance – a radically transfigured version, very much in Liszt’s autumnal style rather than the robust Romanticism of forty years before.

Liszt was well aware of the critical reaction to his late music. “These pieces show that the composer never attended a conservatory, and has absolutely no knowledge of the laws of harmony!”, he joked. Even Hans von Bülow was sceptical about the value of Liszt’s late style. When he discovered that Simon had not just published Romance Oubliée in 1881, but even paid Liszt a large sum for it, he was outraged: “1500 marks [worth around 11,000 Euros today] for this unparalleled piece of nonsense!”, he declared. Yet it cannot be denied that while the older Romance benefits from a very good tune, Romance Oubliée is a much more interesting, more sophisticated production. Its consolatory coda is especially captivating, surrounding the listener with a sunset glow of nostalgia (and incidentally using the same “transfiguration” chord progression that closes both Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods and Tristan).

As is well known, the opening of Tristan seems to have been decisively influenced by the the 1856 version of Lorelei, Liszt’s most fascinatingly beautiful Lied, set to Heine’s well-known poem. The original song was dedicated to Marie d’Agoult, Liszt’s own blond Lorelei, who no doubt once “combed her golden hair” in the same enticing manner as the siren of the Rhine. He created a wonderful orchestration of the Lied for the mezzosoprano Emilie Genast in 1860 (he was close to her at the time) for which he very successfully extended the central section. The revision also appeared in the final publication of the song, but never made it into the piano transcription. I have, however, included it here, as it significantly strengthens the musical narrative.

This song, too, is a “love-death”, structured dramatically in an avant-garde “progressive tonality”. It begins in E, but ends in G, in a quite remarkable fashion for the era. The two key areas are bisected by a “storm scene”, during which the boatman sinks to his death as his gaze is transfixed by the Lorelei. That is the dramatic crux, the peripeteia, hence the change of key. Liszt no doubt thought that one cannot have a standard “recapitulation” after that, as if nothing had happened. But Liszt did not think of this as a tragic tale. On the contrary, he thought it a thrilling way to go. He wrote to Emilie Genast, “What does it matter if the little craft breaks into smithereens, if the waves swallow the boatman and his boat? The boatman has actually seen the beauty and heard her song. It doesn’t matter at all that he couldn’t reach the shore, his fate remains no less enviable!” Spoken like a true Romantic.

Liszt, however, would have been reluctant to categorise the “love-deaths” of the boatman on the Rhine, and that of Hero and Leander, as “transfigurations”. For him, as the scholar David Cannata has pointed out, “transfiguration” was something that happened exclusively to Christ and the saints of the Catholic church. (And therefore not, we might add, to sailors in the grip of erotic anticipation, nor to Isolde engulfed in the “world-breath’s universal stream”.) Hence when Liszt published his transcription of the final scene of Tristan und Isolde, he referred to it as “Isoldens Liebestod” (Isolde’s love-death) but not, as Wagner did, “Isoldens Verklärung” (Isolde’s transfiguration). It was, as it happens, Liszt’s title that stuck, incidentally showing the vast influence of operatic piano transcriptions in the 19th century.

Liszt’s idea of a “proper” transfiguration can be heard in the relatively little-known but rather moving In Festo Transfigurationis Domini Nostri Jesu Christi (On the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ) of 1880, which depicts a visit by Jesus Christ and three disciples to Mount Tabor. As they approached the peak, Jesus was “transfigured”, his face and raiment glowing with a blinding brightness. Not only was this story commemorated in a Catholic feast, but it was one with a direct connection to Liszt’s homeland, for it was declared a Pan-Catholic celebration only after a Hungarian victory over the Ottomans in 1456. Liszt’s music begins with a plainchant theme in the bass of the piano, gradually rising up to the higher registers, and eventually settling into transcendental spheres.

According to Liszt himself, his Wagner transcriptions were merely “modest propaganda on the inadequate piano for the sublime genius of Wagner”. Nevertheless, they played a crucial role in keeping Wagner’s music in the public eye (and ear) following his participation in the failed 1848-9 German revolution and his resulting exile to Switzerland. Suddenly finding himself an outlaw in his own land, Wagner relied on Liszt to conduct the 1850 world premiere of Lohengrin in Weimar, to proselytise for his operas in prose (Liszt published several sprawling essays, all of them enthusiastically ghost-written by the prolix Princess Wittgenstein), and of course to lend him money. To be sure, Wagner borrowed money from almost everyone – he was an equal opportunity debtor – but Liszt’s artistic support was uniquely useful, partly because he was one of the most famous, or notorious, musicians in Europe at the time, and partly because, as a pioneering composer himself, he was capable of genuinely creative engagement with what many regarded as Wagner’s preposterously complex and incomprehensible music.

The glorious “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde – Wagner’s unforgettable amalgam of sex and death, packaged up in the metaphysics of Arthur Schopenhauer – is the jewel in the crown of Liszt’s Wagner transcriptions. It is no exaggeration to say that it revealed the wonders of the opera to those who otherwise might never have heard a note of later Wagner. As Nietzsche so rightly said, “life is poor indeed for those who have never been sick enough for this voluptuousness of hell”. But as we have mentioned above, for Liszt, the idea of a psycho-sexual Schopenhauerian transfiguration, however enticing, was distinctly contrary to catechism, even if he admired the music of Tristan und Isolde above all else. So, the designation “Verklärung” (transfiguration) had to go. Nevertheless, Liszt found a suitable substitute in the text of Act 2, as the lovers sing of their “selig verlangter Liebestod” (“blessedly longed-for love-death”). He could now complete the renamed transcription with a clear Catholic conscience and a keen ear for the creation of Wagner’s heavenly harmonies at the keyboard.”
Notes by Kenneth Hamilton