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8.550725 - LISZT, F.: Berlioz - Symphonie fantastique: Episode de la vie d'un artiste (Biret)

Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886)
Hector Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique (Piano Transcription)

Franz Liszt was born in 1811 at Raiding (Doborján) near Ödenburg (Sopron) in a German-speaking region of Hungary. His father, Adam Liszt, was a steward in the employment of Haydn's former patrons, the Esterh6zy Princes, and an amateur cellist. The boy showed early musical talent, exhibited in a public concert at Ödenburg in 1820, followed by a concert in Pressburg (the modern Slovak capital Bratislava). This second appearance brought sufficient support from members of the Hungarian nobility to allow the family to move to Vienna, where Liszt took piano lessons from Czerny and composition lessons from the old Court Composer Antonio Salieri, who had taught Beethoven and Schubert. In 1822 the Liszts moved to Paris, where, as a foreigner, he was refused admission to the Conservatoire by the director, Cherubini, but was able to embark on a career as a virtuoso, displaying his gifts as a pianist and as a composer.

On the death of his father in 1827 Liszt was joined again by his mother in Paris, where he began to teach the piano and to interest himself in the newest literary trends of the day. The appearance of Paganini in Paris in 1831 suggested new possibilities of virtuosity as a pianist, later exemplified in his Paganini Studies. A liaison with a married woman, the Comtesse Marie d'Agoult, a blue-stocking on the model of their friend the novelist George Sand (Aurore Dudevant), and the subsequent birth of three children, involved Liszt in years of travel, from 1839 once more as a virtuoso pianist, a rôle in which he came to enjoy the wildest adulation of audiences.

In 1844 Liszt finally broke with Marie d'Agoult, who later took her own literary revenge on her lover. Connection with the small Grand Duchy of Weimar led in 1848 to his withdrawal from public concerts and his establishment there as Director of Music, accompanied by a young Polish heiress, Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, the estranged wife of a Russian nobleman and a woman of literary and theological propensities. Liszt now turned his attention to new forms of composition, particularly to symphonic poems, in which he attempted to translate into musical terms works of literature.

Catholic marriage to Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein had proved impossible, but application to the Vatican offered some hope, when, in 1861, Liszt travelled to join her in Rome. The marriage did not take place and the couple continued to live separately in Rome, starting a period of his life that Liszt later described as une vie trifurquée (a three-pronged life), as he divided his time between his comfortable monastic residence in Rome, his visits to Weimar, where he held court as a master of the keyboard and a prophet of the new music, and his appearances in Hungary, where he was now hailed as a national hero.

Liszt's illegitimate daughter Cosima had married the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, whom she later deserted for Wagner, already the father of two of her children. His final years were as busy as ever, and in 1886 he gave concerts in Budapest, Paris, Antwerp and London. He died in Bayreuth during the Wagner Festival, now controlled by his daughter Cosima, to whom his appearance there seems to have been less than welcome.

Berlioz and Liszt met in 1830, the day before the first performance of the former's Symphonie Fantastique, together with the same composer's cantata Sardanapalus. Berlioz recalls their meeting in his Memoirs: I talked of Goethe's Faust, which he admitted he had not read, but which he soon came to love as much as I. We felt an immediate affinity and from then onwards our friendship has grown always closer and stronger. Liszt applauded enthusiastically at the concert and dragged Berlioz off for dinner at his house, overwhelming him by the energy of his enthusiasm. This was the beginning of a relationship that continued for many years. At Weimar Liszt was able to stage the opera Benvenuto Cellini and to hold Berlioz weeks during the 1850s, although their admiration for one another as musicians had by then undergone some modification. Berlioz had reservations about the freedom that Liszt sometimes took in performance, however effective it might be, while Liszt came to entertain reservations about the music of Berlioz, which he found at times over-intense. In 1830, however, at the start of their friendship, esteem was mutual and unbounded.

The score of the Symphonie fantastique of Berlioz, a remarkable and in many ways seminal work, an early precursor of Liszt's own later symphonic poems, was not published until 1845. Liszt's transcription of the symphony, however, was made in 1833 and published at his own expense. It is a remarkable tribute to the original. Liszt himself wrote in 1837 to his friend Adolphe Pictet on the subject: I have started something quite different with my transcription of the Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz: I have worked on this as conscientiously as if I were transcribing the Holy Scriptures, attempting to transfer to the piano not only the general structure of the music, but all its separate parts, as well as its many harmonic and rhythmic combinations. He goes onto write of the similar work he is undertaking with the symphonies of Beethoven.

Clearly there were elements in the Symphonie fantastique that suited Liszt peculiarly well. The Witches' Sabbath with which the work ends has its counterpart in the Mephistophelian element in Liszt's compositions, in the Faust Symphony and the Mephisto Waltzes, while the scene in the country has its correspondence with Liszt's own year of pilgrimage in Switzerland and its romantic evocation of the Swiss landscape. The whole Byronic conception of the Symphonie, even more directly evident in Harold in Italy, which Liszt also arranged, this time for viola and piano, chimed with the young Liszt's own feelings and ideas.

The Symphonie fantastique is in five movements. In the first of these, Rêveries et Passions, the artist falls in love with an ideal being, represented by the theme of the beloved, the so-called id6e fixe that re-appears in various guises throughout the work. The second movement, LeBal, is followed by Scéne aux champs, a country scene, over which the appearance of the beloved casts a shadow of presentiment. The Marche au supplice, the March to the Scaffold, sees the young artist about to be executed for the murder of his beloved, with the idée fixe making its appearance as the blade of the guillotine falls. The final Witches' Sabbath makes grotesque use of the theme of the beloved, now in mockery, as the artist takes part in his own funeral rites. The richness and variety of the score by Berlioz is miraculously translated into terms of the piano by Liszt, an extraordinary demonstration of the affinity between the two men.

Idil Biret
Born in Ankara, Idil Biret began piano lessons at the age of three. She displayed an outstanding gift for music and graduated from the Paris Conservatoire with three first prizes when she was fifteen. She studied piano with Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff, and composition with Nadia Boulanger. Since the age of sixteen Idil Biret has performed in concerts around the world playing with major orchestras under the direction of conductors such as Monteux, Boult, Kempe, Sargent, de Burgos, Pritchard, Groves and Mackerras. She has participated in the festivals of Montreal, Persepolis, Royan, La Rochelle, Athens, Berlin, Gstaad and Istanbul. She was also invited to perform at the 85th birthday celebration of Wilhelm Backhaus and at the 90th birthday celebration of Wilhelm Kempff. Idil Biret received the Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund award (1954/1964), the Harriet Cohen / Dinu Lipafti Gold Medal (1 959) and the Polish Artistic Merit Award (1974) and was named Chevalier de l'Ordre du Mérite in 1976.

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