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8.570137 - LISZT: Donizetti Opera Transcriptions (Liszt Complete Piano Music, Vol. 27)
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Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Donizetti Operatic Reminiscences and Transcriptions


Finally the Fantasy from "Lucrezia Borgia" … this non plus ultra of difficulties aroused astonishment and admiration in the large audience. The enthusiastic applause this time could not persuade Liszt to play an encore.
Dr K–, Allgemeine Wiener Musik-Zeitung, 26 March 1846

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, more concerned with the continued propagation of her husband's music.

Operatic transcriptions, arrangements, paraphrases and fantasies were a necessary part of the repertoire of any virtuoso performer. Liszt excelled in these evocations of the opera house, often treating the borrowed thematic material in novel ways that revealed new features. These works number some forty, including compositions based on Meyerbeer, Bellini and Donizetti, and then on Verdi and Wagner. Gaetano Donizetti was a prolific composer of Italian opera and after the death of Bellini in 1835 its leading representative, a position he was able to maintain until his final illness, leading to his death in 1848. In 1845 Liszt had had a personal association with Donizetti's brother Giuseppe, in the service of Sultan Abdul-Mejid in Istanbul, during the weeks he spent in the city in the course of a concert tour, and Gaetano Donizetti's operas were to be staged under Liszt in Weimar, part of the varied repertoire he introduced after he had taken up his residence there.

The Valse de concert sur deux motifs de Lucia et Parisina was published in 1852 as the third of a set of Caprices-valses, and is a revision of an earlier work, the Valse à capriccio sur deux motifs de Lucia et Parisina de Gaetano Donizetti, S401/R155. Donizetti's opera Lucia di Lammermoor, based on Sir Walter Scott's novel The Bride of Lammermoor had been first staged in 1835. The waltz theme extracted by Liszt is that of Lucia's first act aria 'Verranno a te sull'aure'(My ardent sighs shall come to you on the gentle breeze), as Lucia bids farewell to her lover Edgardo. The much less familiar Parisina, based on a poem by Byron, had been first staged in Florence in 1833. It deals with the love of the heroine of the title for Ugo, who is killed by Parisina's jealous husband, Azzo d'Este, who only then learns that Ugo was his own son. The theme used by Liszt is taken from the second act of the opera.

Liszt's Réminiscences de Lucrezia Borgia, Grande fantaisie sur des motifs de l'opéra de Gaetano Donizetti was published in 1849. It represents a revision and expansion of an earlier work written in Hamburg in the early winter of 1840. Donizetti's opera was first staged in 1833 and was based on Victor Hugo's play of the same year, Lucrèce Borgia, a treatment of the popular legend of Lucrezia Borgia. The revised version of Liszt's work takes as its material the trio, in fact from the first act of the opera, between Lucrezia, her husband, Alfonso d'Este, and her son, Gennaro, this last poisoned as a punishment for his lèse majesté in hacking off the initial 'B' of Borgia, on the palace coat of arms, to proclaim the wickedness of Lucrezia, of whose identity as his mother he is unaware. Alfonso's motive in poisoning Gennaro is one of jealousy of a man he sees as a rival, his wife's lover. Lucrezia, however, has an antidote to the poison, which she is prepared to administer. The Chanson à boire (Drinking Song) is in the second of the two acts. Maffio Orsini, a contralto rôle, sings his ballata 'Il segreto per esser felici' (The secret of happiness) as he and his friends, including Gennaro, drink, their wine poisoned by Lucrezia, unaware of the presence among the drinkers of her son Gennaro. Liszt's treatment of the scene is interspersed with elements from the festivities of the Prologue, in which Lucrezia, masked, observes her long-lost son, and is revealed to his friends, who accuse her of murdering members of their families.

Liszt held Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia in the highest esteem, marginally, perhaps, in preference to Lucia di Lammermoor. His Réminiscences de Lucia di Lammermoor is in two parts, published separately in 1841 and 1844, although this was not Liszt's original intention, as he later pointed out. The Andante final is based on the final sextet of the second act of the opera. Lucia has been tricked by her brother into agreeing to marriage with Arturo. With 'Che mi frena in tal momento'(What holds me back at such a moment) Edgardo, Lucia's pledged lover and enemy of her family, bursts in, accusing her of breaking her vow to him, and threatening violence. The funeral march from the third act is heard as the people of Lammermoor lament the death of Lucia, who has in madness murdered her new husband. The march leads to a version of 'Esci, fuggi' (Go, fly) from the end of the second act, as Edgar's enemies tell him to be gone. It is followed in Liszt's work by Edgar's final aria before he kills himself, 'Tu che a Dio spiegasti l'ali' (You who have flown to God before me).

Donizetti's opera La Favorite, first staged in Paris in 1840, was a reworking of his L'ange de Nisida, itself derived from earlier work. Wagner made a piano score of the opera, and it was from this that Liszt drew for his transcription of the cavatina 'Spirto gentil'. The mistress of King Alfonso, Leonora, is to marry Ferdinand, once a novice at Compostela, but in love with her, although ignorant of her relationship with the King. When he realises the situation, Ferdinand rejects the honours the King has bestowed on him and returns to the cloister. In the fourth act he sings of his sorrow in 'Spirto gentil'. Leonora, disguised as a novice, tries to tell Ferdinand of her earlier attempts to reveal to him the truth, revives his love, but dies in his arms. 'Spirto gentil'remains a popular tenor aria.

Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal was the last of Donizetti's operas, first staged in Paris in 1843. It deals with the unsuccessful crusade of Dom Sébastien against the Moors, his defeat and supposed death and his love for the Moorish ruler's daughter, Zaïda, whom he has saved from death. During his absence a usurper takes his place on the Portuguese throne, and back in Lisbon, in disguise, he observes his own funeral, before revealing himself, only to be condemned by his enemy and killed in earnest as he tries to make his escape with Zaïda. Liszt made his varied transcription of the Marche funèbre de Dom Sébastien in 1844, and gave the Portuguese Queen Maria II a presentation copy, during the six weeks he spent in Lisbon in 1845, a visit that had started with attendance at a performance of Lucrezia Borgia. Donizetti himself recommended Liszt's version of the march to a friend for its evocation of terror.

Keith Anderson


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