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8.557846 - LISZT: Symphonic Poems, Vol. 3
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Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Festklänge • Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne • Battle of the Huns


Born at Raiding, in Hungary, in 1811, the son of Adam Liszt, a steward in the service of Haydn's former patrons, the Esterházy Princes, Franz Liszt had early encouragement from members of the Hungarian nobility, allowing him in 1822 to go to Vienna, for lessons with Czerny and a famous meeting with Beethoven. From there he moved to Paris, where Cherubini refused him admission to the Conservatoire, as a foreigner. Nevertheless he was able to impress audiences by his performance, now supported by the Erard family, piano manufacturers whose wares he was able to advertise in the concert tours on which he embarked. In 1827 Adam Liszt died, and Franz Liszt was now joined again by his mother in Paris, while using his time to teach, to read and benefit from the intellectual society with which he came into contact. His interest in virtuoso performance was renewed when he heard the great violinist Paganini, whose technical accomplishments he now set out to emulate.

The years that followed brought a series of compositions, including transcriptions of songs and operatic fantasies, part of the stock-in-trade of a virtuoso. Liszt's relationship with a married woman, the Comtesse Marie d'Agoult, led to his departure from Paris for years of travel abroad, first to Switzerland, then back to Paris, before leaving for Italy, Vienna and Hungary. By 1844 his relationship with his mistress, the mother of his three children, was at an end, but his concert activities continued until 1847, the year in which his association began with Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a Polish heiress, the estranged wife of a Russian prince. The following year he settled with her in Weimar, the city of Goethe, turning his attention now to the development of a newer form of orchestral music, the symphonic poem, and, as always, to the revision and publication of earlier compositions.

It was in 1861, at the age of fifty, that Liszt moved to Rome, following Princess Carolyne, who had settled there a year earlier. Divorce and annulment seemed to have opened the way to their marriage, but they now continued to live in separate apartments in the city. Liszt eventually took minor orders and developed a pattern of life that divided his time between Weimar, where he imparted advice to a younger generation, Rome, where he was able to pursue his religious interests, and Pest, where he returned now as a national hero. He died in 1886 in Bayreuth, where his daughter Cosima, widow of Richard Wagner, lived, concerned with the continued propagation of her husband's music.

It was in 1842 that Liszt had been appointed Kapellmeister in Extraordinary in Weimar, his duties involving a short period of residence each year, without displacing the existing Kapellmeister. In 1848, however, he settled there, and with an orchestra largely at his disposal turned his attention to orchestral composition. His symphonic poem Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne marked his first attempt, its first version completed in 1849 and orchestrated by his protégé Joachim Raff, who also orchestrated the second version in 1850. The final version of 1857 was orchestrated by Liszt himself. Raff later claimed a considerable part in the composition of these earlier symphonic poems, allegations that reflected Raff's own opinion of himself as much as the actual facts. Clearly Liszt learnt to write for the orchestra through the direct experience that Weimar offered him. The generic title of symphonic poem for the orchestral compositions that derived their inspiration from other arts, visual or literary, gradually came to be an accepted description of a largely new form of composition, welcomed by some, and deplored by others.

Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne (What is heard on the mountain) has its literary source in a poem of that name by Victor Hugo, a friend from Liszt's days in Paris, included in his Les feuilles d'automne (The Leaves of Autumn) of 1831. The poem contrasts the voice of nature and that of humanity, two elements closely reflected in the music. The work starts with a novel effect, a bass drum roll, joined by muted strings, marked misterioso e tranquillo, music suggested by Hugo's Ce fut d'abord un bruit large, immense confus, / Plus vague que le vent dans les arbes touffus / Plein d'accords éclatants, de suaves murmures (It was first a large, immense, confused noise / Vaguer than the wind in the close-set trees / Full of brilliant chords, gentle murmurs), above which the wind instruments enter. The strings, now unmuted, with the harp embark on a passage that introduces a distinctive motif, shared by the oboe and the flute, leading to a second ascending motif, given first to the oboe and first violin. A Maestoso passage brings in a briefly forceful figure, developed in various ways, to be identified with the voice of the sea, contrasted with the voice of humanity that follows, the two voices of Hugo's poem. Liszt's development of the material is interrupted by a hymn, heard first from trombones and tuba, a slow movement, that is to be recalled in a final coda.

In 1852 Prince Nicholas von Sayn-Wittgenstein visited Weimar with offers to his estranged wife for a settlement of her estates that would be favourable largely to him and to their daughter, and an annulment of their marriage. Presumably Liszt saw at this time some near prospect of marriage, although the Prince's proposals proved completely unacceptable and the annulment at this juncture came to nothing. In 1853, in some apparent optimism, Liszt wrote the seventh of his Weimar symphonic poems, the celebratory Festklänge. This opens with the sound of the timpani, followed by a fanfare from woodwind and horns. This triumphant opening is followed by a quieter Andante sostenuto, introduced by the strings but soon giving way to the initial mood. A second theme is given to clarinets and bassoon, with the plucked notes of first violins and violas. An Allegretto, with a solo cello theme leads to an Allegro non troppo passage and then to a strongly marked episode in polonaise rhythm, the preceding episode later replaced by Liszt with a possible variant that made more open allusion to Princess Carolyne's Polish origin. There is a varied recapitulation of the material, before further returns to the two first themes and a victorious conclusion.

For his Hunnenschlacht (Battle of the Huns) in 1857 Liszt had recourse to a recent fresco by the painter Wilhelm von Kaulbach. Liszt explained, in an extensive preface, how Kaulbach had heard, while he was in Rome, the legend of the terrible battle in 451 between the Christian Emperor Theodoric and Attila the Hun in the Catalanian Fields at the gates of Rome. So fierce was the encounter that the spirits of the dead continued their struggle in the skies above the scene of battle, as night fell, a fight between barbarism and civilisation, the past and the future. In Liszt's work the two heroes are identified with contrasting themes, one of savagery, the other of serenity embodied in the Gregorian chant of the Crux fidelis. It was intended that Hunnenschlacht should be the first of a series of symphonic poems based on Kaulbach's historical frescoes in Berlin, to be accompanied by a text to be provided by the Weimar writer Franz von Dingelstedt, appointed director of the Weimar Court Theatre in 1857. The projected combination of visual art, literature and music came to nothing.

The structure of Hunnenschlacht is clear enough. Through the turmoil of battle, the sound of the Gregorian hymn is heard, finally to triumph. At this climax of the work the organ, unseen by the audience, is heard, dolce e religioso, with the words of the hymn, familiar from the Good Friday liturgy, given in the score:

Crux fidelis, inter omnes
Arbor una nobilis,
Nulla silva talem profert
Fronde, flore, germine.
Dulce lignum, dulces clavos,
Dulce pondus sustinet.

Faithful cross, among all
Single noble tree,
No wood offers such
In leaf, flower, seed.
Sweet wood, sweet nails,
A sweet weight it bears.

It is the tranquil hymn, punctuated by the orchestra, that must finally triumph, as the music moves forward in emphatic concluding victory.

Keith Anderson

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