About this Recording
8.553852 - LISZT: Danse macabre / Totentanz / Nuages gris (Liszt Complete Piano Music, Vol. 1)
English 

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Complete Piano Music, Volume 1

 

I consider Liszt the greatest man I have ever met. By this I mean that I have never met, in any other walk of life, a man with the mental grasp, splendid disposition, and glorious genius. This may seem a somewhat extravagant statement. I have met many, many great men, rulers, jurists, authors, scientists, teachers, merchants and warriors, but never have I met a man in any position whom I have not thought would have proved the inferior of Franz Liszt, had Liszt chosen to follow the career of the man in question. Liszt's personality can only be expressed by one word, "colossal. "

-Alfred Reisenauer (1863-1907), German pianist, composer, teacher and Liszt student.


Franz Liszt's influence on the nineteenth century was overwhelming and through his numerous students, his strong musical presence influenced piano performance and composition into the twentieth century. His works inspired many of the composers of his time and Liszt was able, during his years as a touring virtuoso, to promote their compositions as well as those of his own. Later, in his position as head of the Weimar orchestra and opera-house, he was an important influence on current tastes, tirelessly promoting the works of his contemporaries. In his later years, Liszt did his best to promote the works of the newer Russian school of composers, including Borodin and Mussorgsky. Numerous other composers - Grieg, Smetana, Glazunov, and of course, Wagner, have written copiously about the value they placed on Liszt's moral encouragement as an important aid in their careers. As one of Liszt's most illustrious students, Moritz Rosenthal (1862-1946) once wrote, "When one was with Liszt, one felt the power of his overwhelming personality..."

Franz Liszt has been a grateful subject for biographers, factual and fictional. He possessed every feature of a romantic personage, as we of the twentieth century are apt to portray the great personalities of the nineteenth century. He had a brilliant beginning as a child prodigy; he was kissed on his brow by Beethoven and studied with Beethoven's greatest student, Carl Czerny. As a youth he was the prince of pianists and the leading artistic figure in European capitals at the time when people in Europe were preoccupied with glamour rather than work or war. He wore flowing hair and had a wild appearance about him; he loved women, and women loved him; and in his middle age he became an Abbe, as some sinners do in romantic novels. Liszt wrote music with expressive and meaningful titles, often with a poem for an epigraph; and he was unquestionably, with Wagner, the fellow-creator of the "music of the future," so designated for its quality of hugeness of design and grandiloquence of idiom.

As a pianist, Liszt was unique, in the true meaning of the word. According to Felix Mendelssohn, "Liszt possesses a degree of velocity and complete independence of finger, and a thoroughly musical feeling, which cannot be equalled. In a word, I have heard no performer whose musical perceptions extend to the very tips of his fingers and emanate directly from them as Liszt's do." What he was able to do as a pianist-interpreter, Liszt was able to do even better as a composer. The hundreds of scores he wrote illustrated an astonishing command of the keyboard and an even more extraordinary musical mind. Not only did Liszt compose a vast quantity of original works, but he was throughout his life continually compelled to transcribe his own and other composers' music for the piano. How Liszt managed to find the time to accomplish all this can only be explained by the fact that a genius works in mysterious ways.

The opening work on Arnaldo Cohen's Liszt recital is a marvellous (and difficult) transcription of Camille Saint-Saens' Danse macabre. Danse macabre was the third of Saint-Saens' symphonic poems. He composed it in 1874, and conducted its first performance at a Concert du Chatelet, Colonne concert on 24th January, 1875. Saint-Saens at first set Henri Cazalis' poem to music. When this song was published the melody was considered by many performers unsingable and received a caustic reception in the music salons. As a result, Saint-Saens used the sketch of his song as the basis for the composition of the orchestral work. Here is an English version of the verses:


Jig, jig, jig, Death in cadence, Striking with his heel a tomb,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune, Jig, jig, jig, on his violin.
The winter wind blows and the night is dark; Moans are heard in the linden-trees.
Through the gloom, white skeletons pass, Running and leaping in their shrouds.
Jig, jig, jig, each one is frisking,
The bones of the dancers are heard to crack -
But hark! Bold young chanticleer heralds the day;
And Death and his dancers have vanished away!

In a letter dated 5 May 1874, to Professor Carl Riedel (founder and director of the celebrated Riedel Verein in Leipzig and later president of the AI'gemeine Deutsche Musikverein), Franz Liszt wrote, "Among modern composes I regard Saint-Saens as the ablest and most gifted." Two years later, on 2 October 1876, Liszt wrote to Saint-Saens:

Very dear friend,

In sending you today the transcription of your "Danse macabre," I beg you to excuse my unskilfulness in reducing the marvellous colouring of the score to the possibilities of the piano. No one is bound by the impossible. To play an orchestra on the piano is not yet given to anyone. Nevertheless we must always stretch towards the Ideal across all the more or less dogged and insufficient forms. It seems to me that Life and Art are only good for that.

In sincere admiration and friendship, Your very devoted F. Liszt


Clearly, Liszt was much too modest. The transcription is written in a highly orchestral style that fires the imagination. Midnight strikes (the piano is an able substitute for the harp). You hear Death tuning his fiddle and the clattering of the dancers' bones is decidedly chilling. For the pianist, the grisly merriment grows wilder and wilder (and often even sounds more ominous) and then the dancing is cut short as the first streak of daylight brightens, the skeletons vanish, the Supreme Concertmaster grins ironically as he packs his fiddle, and again -for a little while -the birds sing heedlessly in the orchard and the living forget their doom.

From sinister and devilish, we move to a mood of hopelessness. Nuages gris (Grey Clouds) is one of Liszt's noted laments. Composed in 1881, its form is extremely simple, the second half of the piece is essentially nothing more than a repeat of the first. Yet the work, with its unusual harmonies and dissonances is almost impressionistic in character, and definitely far ahead of its time. According to musicologist Imre Mezo, "Although the functional features of tonal music prevail in Nuages gris, the entry of each new note has pre-set conditions, just as it would have in the serial techniques of the new Vienna school of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg."

Unstern (Dark Star): sinistre, disastro (1880-1886) is an experimental, curious and unique work. The impression of misfortune or disaster, which approximates to the meaning of the titles in these three languages, is forcefully communicated. Unstern, perhaps, better than any other of Liszt's late piano works, illustrates the enormous strides into modern dissonance of which Liszt was capable. The unrelieved tension which these dissonances sustain over extended periods serves to suggest the significance of the title. According to Istvan Szelenyi, "The long line of chromatically ascending augmented triads convey the slow movement of the strangely glittering star on its course along the horizon. The subsequent section with an organ-like peal portrays the supplication of a frightened crowd."

Liszt had no rivals when it came to operatic paraphrases, fantasies and transcriptions. He was able to transform a series of well-known and recognisable sections of an opera into a memorable, cleverly structured pianistic tour-de-force which stood on its own. Other composers who attempted this art were only able to produce a piano reduction of operatic excerpts. In Liszt's hands (and mind) the piano was always able to transform an operatic spectacle into a cohesive, pianistic experience. Listeners familiar with the themes of the opera could always find their favourite arias and melodies woven expertly by Liszt into the fabric of his extravaganzas. Such is the case with Grande fantaisie sur des themes de /'opera Les Huguenots de Meyerbeer. In Les Huguenots Giacomo Meyerbeer proved himself to be a showman par excellence. First performed at the Paris Opera on 29th February, 1836, Les Huguenots was Meyerbeer's second French opera, coming five years after Robert le Diable. Les Huguenots was a decisive step towards historical opera, and the story of the St. Bartholomew's Eve massacre of 1572 had never been treated dramatically. The opera was also "historic" as well as "historical", for Meyerbeer was one of the first opera composers to do musicological research that he would incorporate into his composition. In composing his work, Meyerbeer studied Maraut's Psalter and French sixteenth- century instrumental music. He also used the Yigdal, the Jewish hymn of thanksgiving on the eve of the Sabbath, for the night-watchman's scene. This care over detail in his work, which contemporaries emphasized and admired, was particularly evident in his creation of local colour, which he himself considered an important attribute of a good opera composer. Liszt recognised all these attributes in Meyerbeer's music and created no less than six different works based on Meyerbeer's compositions. In 1836, Liszt wrote his Grande fantaisie sur un theme de /'opera "Les Huguenots" de Meyerbeer , and published it in 1837. In 1839 an intermediate version of the music was created, and in 1842, the final version of the same work appeared in print. The title of the work was that of the Paris publisher, Maurice Schlesinger, although Liszt's own manuscript calls the work Reminiscences des Huguenots, Grande Fantaisie dramatique. For this recording, Arnaldo Cohen uses the 1842 Schlesinger (plate S2156) edition which is marked "zweite veriinderte einzig rechtmiissige ausgabe" (second, final and only correct version). Somewhat remarkably, this Fantasia is also the only work which Liszt dedicated to Countess Marie d'Agoult (1805-1876). Marie d'Agoult was a French writer (writing under the pseudonym Daniel Stern), who separated from her husband of six years, and from 1833 to 1839 lived and travelled with Liszt. Their sensational relationship produced three children. One daughter, Cosima, was the wife of pianist Hans von BOlow, whom she later divorced for composer Richard Wagner. Marie d' Agoult's novel, Nelida (1846), is largely an autobiographical account of her liaison with Liszt.

Many of the pieces from Liszt's final years have a pronounced elegiac character. A few relate to the death of Richard Wagner. Liszt composed La lugubre gondola in two versions in December of 1882. Both of these works - inspired by a Venetian gondola funeral -originated, as the composer himself declared, in a premonition of Wagner's death, which occurred in Venice six weeks later. These pieces did not appear in print unti11927. The raw musical material is virtually the same in both versions of La lugubre gondola, but the second is a longer, more dramatic work, and on a fuller sonorous scale than the first. Although these works are steeped in traditional Romantic lyricism, its venturesome tonal organization is particularly noteworthy. What is evident is a preference for progressions of augmented triads, combinations derived from the whole-tone scale. In these bitterly beautiful laments Liszt abandons fill-in parts and ornamental elements, leaving only pure musical thought in its skeleton-like reality.

The Impromptu dates from 1872. The work was dedicated to Olga von Meyerdorff, wife of the Russian diplomat Felix von Meyerdorff, who was among Liszt's close circle of friends in Rome. It was originally published in 1877 as the fourteenth part in a series Breitkopf & Hartel entitled "Der Improvisator. Phantasieen und Variationen fOr das Pianoforte." This "impromptu" was not Liszt's first attempt at this genre. In 1829 he composed an Impromptu brillant (on themes of Rossini and Spontini) and around 1850 he composed the more famous Valse impromptu. While both earlier works are carefree and scintillating, the Impromptu (subtitled Nocturne) shows Liszt in a completely different frame of mind. Although it begins Animato, con passione, the momentum is disrupted now and then by rallentandos (moderating the pace), ritardandos (gradual slackening of the pace) and cadences. Additionally, one also encounters surprising key shifts.

Arnaldo Cohen's recital ends as it began, with a work subtitled Danse macabre- Liszt's monumental Totentanz (Dance of Death). Better known as a work for piano and orchestra, it was first sketched out in Pisa in 1839. It was developed and completed in Weimar in 1849. The instrumentation took place in 1853 with revisions in 1859. Between 1860 and 1865 Liszt once again rewrote the work (slightly shortening it at the end) and published it this time for solo piano. The inspiration for this work was apparently a fresco in the Camposanto of Pisa. Liszt was thrilled by this art work during his trip to Italy in 1838-39. The fresco, entitled The Triumph of Death, was for many years attributed to a Florentine, Andrea Orcagna, or l'Arcagnolo (1308?-1368?), but some art historians insist that it was painted by Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti. The right of this fantastical fresco portrays a group of men and women, who, with dogs and falcons, appear to be back from the chase, or they may be sitting as if in Boccaccio's garden. They are sumptuously dressed. A minstrel and a damsel sing to them while Cupids flutter about and wave torches. But Death flies swiftly toward them, a fearsome woman, with hair streaming wildly and clawed hands. She is bat-winged; her clothing is stiff with wire. She swings a scythe, eager to end the delight and joy of the world. Corpses lie in a heap at her feet; kings, queens, cardinals, warriors, the great ones of the earth, whose souls, in the shape of new-born babes, rise out of them. Angels, like butterflies, are ready to receive the righteous, who fold their hands in prayer; demons welcome the damned, who shrink back in horror. The devils, who are as beasts of prey or loathsome reptiles, fight for souls; the angels rise to heaven with the saved; the demons drag their victims to a burning mountain, and throw them into the flames. Next to this heap of corpses is a crowd of beggars, cripples, miserable ones, who beg Death to end their woe; they do not interest her. A rock separates this scene from another, the chase. Gallant lords and noble dames are on horseback; hunters with dogs and falcons follow in their train. They come upon three open graves in which lie three princes in different stages of decay. An aged monk on crutches, possibly Saint Macarius, points to this memento mori. All talk joyously, although one of them holds his nose. Only one of the party, a woman, rests her head on her hand and shows a sorrowful face. On mountain heights above are hermits, who have reached through abstinence and meditation the highest state of human existence. One milks a doe while squirrels play about him; another sits and reads; a third looks down into the valley rank with death. According to tradition, the faces in this fresco are portraits of the painter's contemporaries. One historian has suggested that Death in the fresco is personified as a woman in accordance with the characterization in Petrarch's Triumph of Death.

The first performance of Liszt's Totentanz (in the piano and orchestra version) took place on 15 March 1865 at The Hague with pianist Hans von BOlow as soloist. The work is based on the cantus firmus of the medieval plainsong Dies irae, which fascinated musicians from Berlioz to Loeffler. The text of the Dies irae upon which Liszt based his work, is ascribed traditionally to Thomas de Celano, who died in 1230, or, as some believe,1255, its melody derived from existing existing chant. Liszt's Totentanz is in five variations with many smaller ones incorporated. One historian stated that the introduction of the work is an illustration of the verse that frequently occurs in the old Dances of Death, and may be found in part on old New England tombstones. The lines may thus be translated:

"So here lie all our bones; and to us both great and small come dancing! As you are now, so once were we; as we are now, so shall you be!"

Another musicologist, Richard Pohl, suggested that Liszt's music was inspired by's German Renaissance painter Hans Holbein. Dance of Death, and that each one of the variations characterises one of Holbein's figures - the serious man, the frivolous youth, the mocking sceptic, the praying monk, the tender maiden. Possibly, the idea of this inspiration was derived from a jest of Liszt, who wrote to Bulow in 1864: "The idea of producing the Danse Macabre for the first time at Basel (Holbein lived in Basel and the Kunstmuseum contains most of his important works) is eminently judicious. If there should be a fiasco, we can attribute it to Holbein, who has corrupted the public taste."

Victor and Marina A. Ledin, @ 1997,
Encore Consultants.


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