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8.574149 - LISZT, F.: Transcriptions - Nibelungen / Lucrezia Borgia / Preciosa / A Midsummer Night's Dream (Ivanov) (Liszt Complete Piano Music, Vol. 55)
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Franz Liszt (1811–1886)
Transcriptions from Works by Donizetti • Lassen • Mendelssohn • Meyerbeer • Weber


Franz Liszt was born in 1811 at Raiding in a Germanspeaking 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, Franz 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 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 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.

Eduard Lassen was born in Copenhagen in 1830, into a family with strong Jewish associations. He went on to spend much of his 40-year career in Weimar, where he succeeded Liszt as music director in 1858 and then as court music director. Lassen’s operas were of limited success, but his music for the stage, notably for Hebbel’s Das Nibelungenlied and Goethe’s Faust enjoyed contemporary popularity. From these two Liszt made piano transcriptions. Friedrich Hebbel, to some extent self-educated, won contemporary distinction and eventually settled in Vienna, where he lived until his death in 1863. The first two parts of his Die Nibelungen, described as a German tragedy in three parts, were given in Weimar in 1861 and staged in Vienna two years later. Lassen’s score for Die Nibelungen includes an introduction and ten numbers, the fifth and eighth of which were transcribed by Liszt, to be published in 1879. The transcriptions were dedicated to Liszt’s pupil, the composer Baroness Ingeborg von Bronsart. Hagen und Kriemhild draws on the second part, the death of Siegfried, betrayed to the warrior Hagen by Siegfried’s beloved Kriemhild, whose revenge is the subject of the following part. Bechlarn offers an interlude in otherwise bloodthirsty surroundings. The knight Volker, putting aside his sword, sings the praise of Götelind, daughter of Gudrun, wife of Rüdiger, Margrave of Bechlarn.

Lassen provided more extended music for Goethe’s Faust. From this Liszt chose to transcribe the Easter Hymn that draws Faust away from suicide in Part I. The second element in Liszt’s transcription is the court festival, with a March and Polonaise from Part II of Goethe’s work.

The great Spanish poet, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, like Shakespeare, had a particular appeal to German romantics, presenting something of the philosophical dilemma of La vida es sueño (‘Life is a Dream’). Calderón’s play El mayor encanto, amor (‘Love, the Magician Above All’) was first performed in 1635. Based on the legend of Circe, presented with a somewhat feminine Ulysses as her captive, the play has been taken as a possible satire on the Spanish court of King Philip IV. Lassen’s music for the play, staged in Weimar, included a Symphonic Intermezzo, transcribed by Liszt and published in 1883. This extended movement opens emphatically, proceeding to an Andante amoroso and bringing reminiscences of Parsifal, before a conclusion that recalls the opening material.

Liszt’s Operatic Aria, S701h/1 is probably an early work. In current operatic style, the aria is followed by an unfinished sketch of a decorative variation. It is followed here by a fragmentary snatch of the Valse infernale from Meyerbeer’s spectacular opera Robert le diable, first staged in Paris in 1831 and the source for Liszt’s 1841 Réminiscences de Robert le diable, with a fuller version of the Valse infernale and his transcription of a Cavatina from 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 the earlier work written in Hamburg in the early winter of 1840 and included here. 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 Chanson à Boire (‘Drinking Song’) is in the second of the two acts. Maffio Orsini, a contralto role, 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 longlost son, and is revealed to his friends, who accuse her of murdering members of their families.

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.

The contemporary interest in earlier Spanish literature is reflected in the actor-dramatist Alexander Wolff’s Preziosa derived from a work by Cervantes. The heroine of the title is a gypsy girl, loved by a young nobleman and eventually revealed as of more respectable heritage, having been stolen in infancy by gypsies. Weber’s incidental music for the play was written in 1821 and includes Preziosa’s charming love song, Einsam bin ich, nicht alleine (‘Solitary I am, not alone’), transcribed by Liszt in 1848.

Liszt’s concert paraphrase of the Wedding March and Dance of the Fairies from Mendelssohn’s music for Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written in 1849–50, adds a virtuoso element of technical display to the March itself and to familiar fairy figuration drawn from the Overture and other parts of Mendelssohn’s score.

Keith Anderson

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