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8.550408 - LISZT / BRAHMS: Piano Variations

Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886)
Fantasia and Fugue on the Theme B.A.C.H
Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen

Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24

The name of Bach was to provide a theme for a number of subsequent composers, following the example of Johann Sebastian Bach himself, who had used his own name as a fugal subject in The Art of Fugue, to be followed by his youngest son, Johann Christian, who w rote his own fugue on the same subject. The letters represent in German notation the notes B flat, A, C and B natural, an angular figure well suited to fugal treatment.

Franz Liszt, the son of a steward employed by Haydn's patrons, the Princes of Esterhazy, was to become not only one of the most dazzling virtuoso pianists of the nineteenth century, but in later life exercised extraordinary influence over generations of younger composers and players. Early ability took him to Vienna at the age of ten, and there he had lessons in composition from the old court composer Antonio Salieri and from Beethoven's brilliant pupil Carl Czerny. Two years later Liszt moved with his parents to Paris, where he was to rermain for the next twelve years, travelling from the French capital to other parts of Europe on a series of concert tours that won him the unbounded adulation of female enthusiasts and the more grudging admiration of their men.

A liaison with the Comtesse d'Agoult, the mother of his three children, led Liszt to years of travel abroad as a virtuoso, and, after a breach in their relations, to a more settled existence in the Grand Duchy of Weimar, where Goethe had held court until his death in 1832. There Liszt became a conductor and music director, turning his attention also to composition. In Weimar he was able to revise many of the works that had formed part of his stock-in-trade as a pianist and to write orchestral music in which he attempted to translate some of the greatest works of literature into musical terms.

In Weimar Liszt lived with the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, the estranged wife of a Russian nobleman. Their plans for marriage were frustrated in 1861 by the refusal of the Vatican to grant the Princess an annulment of her first marriage. Thereafter the couple took up separate residence in Rome, where Liszt took minor orders, while continuing to divide his time between his interests in Rome, the remaining demands of Weimar and his concern with music in his native Hungary, which had achieved a measure of autonomy after 1848.

The monumental Fantasia and Fugue on the theme B-A-C-H was written for organ in 1855 during Liszt's period of residence in Weimar. The composer arranged the work for piano in 1871, creating music of incredible power and intensity. The opening Fantasia makes immediate use of the B-A-C-H motif, which re-appears as a subject of mysteriously shifting tonality in the subsequent magnificent fugue.

Liszt shared the enthusiasm of a number of his contemporaries for the achievement of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose music he had studied from childhood, in earlier years reserving performance for a limited circle of friends. In Leipzig, where his success as a performer had not at first been recognized, he played Bach's Concerto for Three Harpsichords, at the insistence of Felix Mendelssohn, who, with Ferdinand Hiller, joined him in the performance.

The Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, written in 1862 and dedicated to the Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein, take as a motif a figure from the bass line of Bach's Cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, written while Bach was in Weimar, but given its final form in 1725, when the composer was established in Leipzig. The origin of the work, which demonstrates all the power and strength of Liszt's imagination, as well as his phenomenal technical ability, is proclaimed further by the introduction, in a mood of contrasting tranquillity, of the chorale that ends Bach's original cantata, Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgethan - What God doth, Surely that is right. It is tempting to find in this the composer's resignation before the will of Rome, in the matter of his proposed marriage, and the beginning of that mood that he was to describe, in his final years, as santa indifferenza.

By 1861 Franz Liszt had become disillusioned with life in Weimar, where he had hoped to establish a generous centre for the new music of Wagner and his own conflation of music and poetry. The same year found the young Brahms, who had failed to ingratiate himself with the great virtuoso when he had visited Weimar eight years before, once again in his native Hamburg. Liszt was accustomed to deference, and this Brahms had not shown, while open hostility had been proclaimed in 1860 with an ill-timed manifesto to which he had put his signature, expressing strong condemnation of the music of the future propounded by Liszt and Wagner.

It was in 1861 that Brahms wrote one of his most successful works, the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel. The Variations even elicited praise from Wagner, who remarked that it was interesting to see w hat could still be done with the old forms, although his later attitude to the composer was distinctly less complimentary. A year later Brahms was to settle permanently in Vienna and the Handel Variations were included in one of his first public concerts there, later to become one of his most popular works.

The theme that Brahms uses appears in the second of Handel's harpsichord suites, where it is also the subject of variations. After a simple statement of the theme Brahms proceeds to a thoroughly pianistic version of it in the first variation, following this with a series of variations that we can now recognize as entirely characteristic of the composer in their contrasts of mood and in their revelation of the possibilities inherent in the theme itself.

The fugue, forming a great climax to the whole work, demonstrates the mastery that Brahms had acquired in his early studies of counterpoint, as the variations show his skill in using the restrictions of the form to the greatest musical advantage, something that he had tried to achieve in earlier sets of variations on which he had been working.

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