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8.573235 - LISZT, F.: Transcriptions from Operas by Meyerbeer (Liszt Complete Piano Music, Vol. 40) (Gallo)
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Franz Liszt (1811–1886)
Transcriptions from Operas by Meyerbeer • Le Prophète • Robert le diable • L’Africaine


Pour ne pas retarder la Publication des morceaux du Prophète il est plus simple de m’envoyer les épreuves à Eilsen où je resterai jusqu’au commencment de Décembre. Le titre général devra rester tel que je l’ai indiqué: «Illustration du Prophète de Meyerbeer par F. Liszt»…

Not to delay the publication of the pieces from The Prophet it is easier to send me the proofs at Eilsen where I shall stay until the beginning of December. The general title must remain as I have indicated: “Illustration of The Prophet of Meyerbeer by F. Liszt”… – Franz Liszt: Letter to the Leipzig publisher Hermann Härtel. Eilsen, 12 November 1849 In November 1849 Liszt stayed for some weeks at the spa town of Bad Eilsen, before returning to Weimar.

At Eilsen he was to be joined in November by his new young assistant Joachim Raff, who was to be of service in the orchestration of Liszt’s new orchestral compositions. In his letter to his publisher Hermann Härtel he turns his attention to the publication of operatic transcriptions, an element in his repertoire as a virtuoso, a career he was now abandoning.

Franz Liszt was born in 1811 at Raiding in a German-speaking region of Hungary. His father, Adam Liszt, was a steward in the employment of Haydn’s former patrons, the Esterházy Princes, and an amateur cellist. The boy showed early musical talent, and with the support of members of the Hungarian nobility was able to move with his parents 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 Cherubini, but was able to embark on a career as a virtuoso, with the help of the piano-manufacturer Erard.

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 there 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 bluestocking 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 and other subjects.

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 He died in 1886 in Bayreuth during the Wagner Festival, now controlled, since her husband’s death, by his daughter Cosima, to whom his appearance there seems to have been less than welcome.

The years when Liszt was based in Paris brought him into contact with leading figures in French artistic society, writers, painters and composers, a circle into which Liszt was again received when he returned to Paris after self-imposed exile with his mistress Marie d’Agoult. Among the composers with whom they associated was Giacomo Meyerbeer, the leading composer of French grand opera. Born near Berlin into a family of wide cultural interests Meyerbeer had been a pupil of Vogler and near-contemporary of his fellow-pupil Weber. Meyerbeer made his career chiefly in Paris, while maintaining cosmopolitan connections, sustained by family wealth which gave him some freedom in his approach to his work. Of Meyerbeer’s seventeen operas the most substantial are the grand operas Robert le diable (Robert the Devil), Les Huguenots (The Huguenots), Le Prophète (The Prophet) and L’Africaine (The African Maid), to all of which Liszt turned for a source of piano transcriptions.

Meyerbeer completed his opera Le Prophète in 1840 and it had its first performance at the Paris Opéra in April 1849. Liszt’s Illustrations du Prophète were topical, written in 1849 and 1850, and in the latter year he was also to write his impressive organ Fantasy and Fugue on the chorale ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’, using the theme of the first-act Anabaptist chant. The opera is based on the Anabaptist seizure of power in sixteenth-century Münster, bringing the elevation of John of Leyden as ‘the Prophet’, and a final spectacular cataclysm when John and his followers perish as his palace is destroyed by gunpowder that he himself has prepared. Liszt’s piano transcriptions begin with elements from the third and fourth of the five acts. The Illustrations, an idiosyncratic choice of title, start with the sound of the Coronation March for the crowning of John in the Cathedral as Emperor, which is to return. Other material includes the prayer of the people and the Anabaptist Hymn of Triumph heard in Act III. The second movement of Liszt’s work, Les patineurs (The Skaters), an entertainment for the soldiers in Act III, provides the obligatory French ballet, and is well known both as ballet music and for its inclusion in orchestral repertoire. Liszt’s version, with spectacular glissandi and other technical demands, representing the people skating on ice, is also known as a virtuoso recital piece. The third of Liszt’s movements reflects the pastoral opening of the opera, as shepherd pipes answer each other, a pastoral idyll broken by the appearance of the Anabaptists, with their call for an uprising.

The opera Robert le diable was first staged at the Paris Opéra in 1831. Liszt’s Cavatine de Robert le diable, a transcription of the Act IV Robert, toi que j’aime (Robert, you that I love), dates from 1842, a year after his Réminiscences de Robert le diable – Valse infernale. Duke Robert identifies himself with the wicked Robert the Devil of Norman legend, lured into evil by his apparent friend Bertram, in fact Robert’s father. Robert is eventually saved from the clutches of the Devil, to be united with his beloved Isabelle, a Sicilian princess. In the fourth-act Cavatina Isabelle begs Robert to abjure evil, moving him to break the magic branch that has given him diabolical powers.

Liszt’s Réminiscences du Robert le diable makes use of the Valse infernale of Bertram and his evil spirits in Act III, a theme allied with the temptations of debauchery and the notorious ballet of dead nuns, rising from their graves, and a theme associated with the entry of knights for the Act II tournament that should pit the Prince of Granada against Robert, rivals for the hand of Isabelle. The work won enormous popularity after its inclusion in a piano recital in Paris in 1841, and Liszt was forced by his audience to play it, however reluctantly and inappropriately, at a Beethoven concert in aid of the proposed Beethoven Memorial.

Meyerbeer had the libretto of L’Africaine (The African Maid) as early as 1838, but the work was not completed until 1863 and was first performed in 1865, four years after the death of the librettist and a year after the death of the composer. Liszt’s Illustrations de L’Africaine was written in 1865. The opera is set in Lisbon and on an island in the Indian Ocean: the period is the sixteenth century. Vasco da Gama, his name Meyerbeer’s original title for the opera, is betrothed to Ines, and as the story opens has been away for two years. Her father insists that she marry Don Pedro, since now Vasco is surely dead. He returns, however, bringing with him two slaves, Selika and Nelusko, and seeking support for further exploration, refused by the Grand Inquisitor. Vasco is imprisoned. Selika, a queen in her own country, tries to comfort him, as he dreams of Ines, and prevents Nelusko killing him. Ines purchases Vasco’s freedom by marrying Don Pedro, and with him sets sail, piloted by the treacherous Nelusko, to be joined by Vasco, who seeks to protect Ines. The vessel is wrecked in a storm and the Portuguese are taken prisoner. Selika is now queen once more, while the male prisoners are put to death, except for Vasco, saved by Selika, who claims him as her husband and bids him escape. He refuses, but is later seen by her with Ines, who has not died, as others have, from the poisonous scent of the manchineel tree. Selika now believes she will lose Vasco, and kills herself, joined in death by Nelusko. Liszt bases his first movement, Prière des matelots (Sailors’ Prayer), O grand St Dominique (O great St Dominic) on the Act III scene at sea, as Ines and Don Pedro, on the latter’s ship, head for danger. The second movement, Marche indienne, is derived from Act IV, where, outside a temple, Selika is honoured as queen. In a divertissement priestesses are followed by Brahmins, Amazons, jugglers and finally, in an Allegro marziale, warriors.

Keith Anderson

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