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9.70871 - LISZT, F.: Schubert Song Transcriptions (Biret)

Franz Liszt (1811–1886)
Schubert Song Transcriptions


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 move 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.

Liszt transcribed over fifty of Schubert’s songs, largely between 1833 and 1846. A set of twelve transcriptions was published in Vienna in 1838 by Anton Diabelli, the first eleven of which were dedicated to the Countess d’Aragon, half-sister of Princess Belgiojoso. The second of this group of transcriptions is Schubert’s Auf dem Wasser zu singen (To be sung on the water), a setting of verses by Leopold Graf zu Stolberg-Stolberg, dated to 1823. Liszt adds the title Barcarolle. In the first verse of the strophic song Liszt keeps the melody in the left hand, moving, for the second verse, to the middle register. With the third and final verse he allows the vocal melody to move above the accompanying texture. The transcription ends with an extended postlude.

Schubert’s Du bist die Ruh (You are repose) is a setting of a poem by Friedrich Rückert, the song again dated to 1823. Here Liszt omits the original prelude and presents the melody at first in the tenor register, then an octave higher. An interlude introduces greater elaboration, with hand-crossing, before, after a pause, the song is resumed, ending with Schubert’s short postlude.

Schubert wrote four versions of his 1815 setting of Goethe’s Erlkönig (Erl King), the fourth in 1821. A father rides through the forest, his son in his arms bewitched by the Erl King, who lures the boy to him, as he dies in his father’s arms. The song suggests four voices, those of the narrator, the father, the son and the Erl King, the last mysteriously captured by Liszt in arpeggiated chords. The triple rhythm of the frantic ride is only broken in the last verse, as the song nears its end.

Die junge Nonne (The Young Nun), a setting of a poem by Jacob Nicolaus Craigher, was written in 1824 or 1825, and contrasts the storm outside to the young nun’s inner tranquillity in the death to which she aspires. The prelude, with its hand-crossing, a continued feature of Liszt’s transcription, reflects the storm. There is a change to the major, as the young nun rebukes the storm, continuing, as Liszt instructs, con esaltazione, and then calmato religiosamente, as the bell is heard from the tower, luring her to heaven.

Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning-Wheel) is Schubert’s 1814 setting of Gretchen’s song from Faust, in which she dreams of her lover, who will bring her to her death. The constant rhythm of the spinning-wheel and treadle, with which the vocal line is also presented, is broken only at the words “und ach sein Kuss” (“and, ah, his kiss”), before the spinning resumes its motion, the transcription gradually elaborated.

Schmidt von Lübeck’s Der Wanderer, set by Schubert in 1816, has the poet aimlessly wandering in search of unattainable happiness. Liszt’s transcription brings greater elaboration with its arpeggios and use of a wide range of the keyboard, as he evokes the romantic predicament, the homeless stranger, who seeks the beloved land where he may meet his dead friends again and find a happiness that seems only to be where he is not.

Shakespeare’s Horch, horch, die Lerch (Hark, hark, the lark), translated by August Wilhelm von Schlegel, is taken from the play Cymbeline. Liszt’s version, in B flat major, uses a wider range of the keyboard, fuller textures and more elaborate figuration.

Ave Maria, the Hymn to the Virgin, a translation of Sir Walter Scott’s poem by Adam Storck, the third of three songs from Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, dates from 1825, and the transcription, like the preceding seven, is included in Liszt’s 1838 set of twelve. Ellen prays for protection, as the chieftain Roderick Dhu prepares to fight against the forces of the king. In his transcription Liszt uses three staves, sharing the melody, on the middle stave, between the right and left hand in piano writing of some complexity.

In 1846 Liszt transcribed six songs from Schubert’s 1823 song-cycle Die schöne Müllerin (The Fair Maid of the Mill), settings of poems by the Dessau poet and writer Wilhelm Müller. A journeyman-miller, who has finished his apprenticeship, sets out on his wandering. He has fallen in love with his master’s daughter, the girl of the title, but is rejected by her in favour of a huntsman and finally drowns himself in the waters of the brook that has accompanied his romantic wandering. In Wohin? (Where?), the second of Schubert’s cycle, the movement of the water is heard, as the boy sets out on his journey. Liszt made several versions of Ungeduld (Impatience), a declaration of love, the seventh song of the original cycle. The first version by Liszt, included here and in F major, dates from 1844, published with a group of six song transcriptions. A different version is included in the six Müllerlieder transcriptions of 1846.

Liebesbotschaft (Love’s Message) opens the posthumous cycle compiled by Schubert’s publishers, Schwanengesang (Swansong). The verse by Ludwig Rellstab bids the brook carry a message to the poet’s beloved. Liszt’s re-ordered version of the cycle was published in Vienna in 1840. The transcription, after the opening prelude, has the melody in a middle voice, later to appear in the upper part, as the original material is elaborated. Ständchen (Serenade), Leise, leise flehen meine Lieder (Gently my songs send entreaties to you through the night) is a setting of another poem by Rellstab. Liszt first presents the melody in the upper part, before moving it down an octave, quasi violoncello, and then to more elaborate textures, with a rapid ascending chromatic scale before the concluding bars.

Der Lindenbaum (The Lime-Tree), one of the best known of all Schubert songs, now as familiar as a folk-song, is included in the 1827 Winterreise (Winter Journey) cycle of 24 Müller poems, of which Liszt transcribed twelve in 1838/39. The melody of the first pair of verses is in the tenor part, partly doubled above. The second pair, dolente, marcato, have more elaborate figuration in the bass, with an increase in agitation in the third, as the cold wind blows in the poet’s face.

Keith Anderson

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