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8.573710 - LISZT, F.: Berlioz Transcriptions (Feng Bian) (Liszt Complete Piano Music, Vol. 46)
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Franz Liszt (1811–1886)
Berlioz Transcriptions

 

Franz Liszt was born in 1811 at Raiding (Doborjan) near Odenburg (Sopron) in a German-speaking region of Hungary. His father, Adam Liszt, was a steward in the employment of Haydn’s former patrons, the Esterhazy Princes, and an amateur cellist. The boy showed early musical talent, exhibited in a public concert at Odenburg 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 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 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 role 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 own 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, since her husband’s death, by his daughter Cosima, to whom his appearance there seems to have been less than welcome.

Liszt had first met Berlioz in Paris, before the first performance of the Symphonie fantastique in 1830 and in the following years did much to promote Berlioz’s work in transcriptions and then, in Weimar in the 1850s, in performances of original orchestral and dramatic works. Berlioz recalls their first meeting in his Mémoires: “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.

It was in 1828 that Berlioz had first discovered Goethe’s Faust, which he read in a French prose translation by Gerard de Nerval. This served as the inspiration for his ambitious Huit scènes de Faust (Eight Scenes from Faust), using the Gerard de Nerval translation of Part I of Goethe’s Faust, which had been published in 1827. With some audacity he issued the work in 1829 as his Opus 1, but later withdrew it, absorbing much of the material into his later La damnation de Faust. This last was largely sketched during a concert tour in 1845 and 1846 that took Berlioz to Vienna, Prague, Pest, Breslau (Wrocław) and Brunswick, and using a libretto on which he had at first sought the help of Almire Gandonniere, who made some contribution to the first three parts. For much of the work, however, Berlioz eventually provided his own text. He explains in his Mémoires, not always a reliable document, how he wrote various parts of the work while travelling, working in coaches, trains and steamboats. The Ballet des Sylphes was written in Vienna, and appears in the seventh scene of Part II in Berlioz’s work. By the banks of the Elbe Faust sleeps and dreams of spirits, gnomes and sylphs, as well as of Marguerite, a vision provided by Mephistopheles. The Ballet des Sylphes, a waltz, is heard, as the Sylphs hover round the sleeping Faust, before gradually disappearing. Liszt had the first two parts of La damnation de Faust performed in a Berlioz concert in Weimar in 1852. He made his piano transcription, under the title Danse des Sylphes, in 1860, conjuring up in its opening bars, the scene, as Faust sleeps by the riverside.

Berlioz had his opera Benvenuto Cellini staged at the Paris Opera in 1838. He was persuaded by Liszt to revise the work for performance in Weimar in 1852, when it won as little success as it had done in Paris. Liszt’s transcription took from the opera, Bénédiction et serment: Deux motifs de Benvenuto Cellini (Blessing and Oath: Two Motifs from Benvenuto Cellini) , the Papal Blessing and Cellini’s oath. The plot of the opera centres on the libertine of the title, distinguished as a goldsmith and sculptor, but unscrupulous in his private life. The solemn first theme is heard, followed by the second theme, which mounts in intensity, complicated by the use of four staves instead of two as the second part develops.

Berlioz was fascinated by the plays of Shakespeare and by the leading actress in Kemble’s company, Harriet Smithson, who became, for better or worse, his wife. His concert overture King Lear was written in 1831 in Nice, where Berlioz had sought refuge from his obligatory stay in Rome, according to the rules of the Prix de Rome, and from his imagined attempt to take revenge on the former object of his affections, Camille Moke. Liszt’s transcription followed in 1837, a faithful reflection of the overture, with its slow introduction, marking the King’s entry into his council chamber, and the following Allegro, with a second subject perhaps personifying Lear’s displaced favourite daughter, Cordelia.

The Symphonie fantastique is a remarkable work, autobiographical in content and immensely influential in the path it suggested to future composers such as Liszt, anxious to extend the scope of musical expression in the generation after Beethoven. Described as An Episode in the Life of an Artist, the symphony is haunted by an idée fixe, a recurrent fragment of melody, symbolizing the beloved, a prototype of the Leitmotiv, to be developed by Wagner. In 1830 the autobiographical nature of the symphony represented something entirely new. Liszt transcribed the work, in 1833. From it he took the idée fixe, the fragmentary theme that haunts the protagonist throughout the work. Having poisoned himself in despair, the artist is haunted by dreams of his beloved, even, when he has killed her, at the moments of his execution. Liszt’s L’idée fixe. Andante amoroso d’après une mélodie de Hector Berlioz creates a graceful lyrical piece from the theme. It was published in 1846, originally in A major. It was transposed to B major and reworked as an introduction to the Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold) proper, a transcription of the penultimate movement of the Symphonie fantastique. The first version formed part of Liszt’s innovative transcription of the whole work in 1833, the second version following in 1865.

It was Byron’s Childe Harold that suggested to Berlioz a symphony with a solo viola, Harold en Italie. This last was completed in 1834 and performed at the Paris Conservatoire in November of the same year, to be published only fourteen years later, in 1848. It was in December 1833 that Berlioz had met the great violinist Paganini, after a performance of the former’s Symphonie fantastique. Paganini sought from Berlioz a concerto in which he might display to advantage a Stradivarius viola that he had acquired. Berlioz at first demurred, but set to work, nevertheless, on a work for viola and orchestra, only to have it rejected by Paganini, who required a true concerto, in which the solo viola would retain prominence throughout. In Harold en Italie Berlioz had not only drawn on the adventures of Byron’s hero, but also on his own time in Italy as a winner of the Prix de Rome. The second of the four movements, Marche des pèlerins chantant la prière du soir (March of pilgrims singing the evening prayer) brings the Harold theme, heard again over the procession, as the steady march proceeds. Liszt’s transcription of the whole work, for viola and piano, was made in 1836, followed by a version of the Pilgrims’ March. The second version dates from 1862 and includes an optional cut of part of the work added by Liszt.

Berlioz had some hopes for his first opera, Les Francs-Juges (The Judges of the Secret Court), written in 1826, with a libretto by the composer’s friend Humber Ferrand. In spite of his efforts, the work remained unstaged, and survives only in its popular Overture, published in 1836, and various fragments. Liszt’s s effective piano version was made in 1837, capturing something of the drama, from the hushed opening to the menace and excitement of the following Allegro.

Keith Anderson


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