Bénédiction de Dieu
Franz Liszt carried a walking stick with the faces of St. Francis of Assisi, Faust’s Gretchen and Mephistopheles carved on it. Apparently he longed for the Divine, craved women and worldly pleasures, and was fascinated by the diabolical. These three passions, three aspects of his character, shaped and defined both his private life and his creativity, although it seems he had better luck reconciling his conflicting aspirations in music than in life. His finest work, the Sonata in B minor for piano, is a textbook of his amazing craft of transformation: one theme, one element appears in different guises – divine, human, and diabolical – creating an incredible inner drama of temptation and turbulent passion stemming from one source.
Liszt was a Renaissance man – pianist, composer, conductor, educator, writer, tireless champion of music old and new, and a great teacher. Many major pianists of the twentieth century belonged to the lineage of Liszt and his students, a lineage that is still alive today. He was one of the most influential artists and creative personalities of the nineteenth century; his influence is apparent in the music of Wagner and Tchaikovsky, Franck and Saint-Saens, Reger, Debussy and Ravel, Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, Bartok and Messiaen. He believed in the high calling of the artist and the transcendental power of music. He was a man of character and convictions who tried to realize his global vision and goals until the end of his life.
Over time it became a sign of “good taste and sophistication” to be condescending towards Liszt the composer. It is true that the quality of his work is uneven and there is some “incidental” music that ought not to have been published at all. Nevertheless, he created a body of compositions of the finest quality, primarily for piano, that is not inferior to the work of his contemporaries Chopin and Schumann. Judged (a terrible word!) by his best works, Liszt was clearly a great innovator of form, a composer who found his own musical language and aesthetics and created his own piano technique.
The greatest pianist of his time, Liszt opened a new era in piano performance, turning it into a happening, an event. Inspired by Paganini, he transformed the status of the virtuoso performer and became the first celebrity musician, with an image like that of a rock star today. He is rightly credited with the invention of the recital: before Liszt, public concerts usually featured several musicians, but after him, a recital – a performance by just one musician – became a staple, a norm that endures today.
This recording brings together thirteen compositions, most written during Liszt’s very productive period from the middle 1840s to the early 1850s. The last two, however, were written in 1880s towards the end of his life and are strikingly different. The late works explore new horizons and open new possibilities of musical language. They are private meditations, austere, almost minimalist in their precision: the harmonic foundation becomes fluid and ambiguous and tonality as such is taken away from under our feet. We are on quicksand here, without gravitation to a definite key, exploring uncharted territory. These late works of Liszt contain prophetic insights into the future of music.
Putting together an album is unavoidably a personal endeavor that reflects the taste of compiler. All the compositions selected for this recording were given titles by Liszt and refer to extra-musical sources, primarily drawn from poetry. Indeed, the majority of his works (and those of many other romantic composers) were inspired by such extra-musical subjects. Because of this, it is easy to label his music as “programmatic”. However, such labels can be and often are misleading. The works of Liszt are not illustrations but purely musical events, coherent wholes that stand on their own, independent of the source of inspiration. As anyone familiar with the creative process can confirm, an initial idea, an inspiration, is not a gradual process, not an invention, but an instantaneous flash of recognition, a non-verbal comprehension and vision of the whole. Later the artist gives a distinct form to this vision and the initial idea or inspiration becomes a work of art. The artist is at the same time both a tool and a creator.
Liebestraum No. 3 in A flat major belongs to a set of three Liebestraume (Dreams of Love) published by Liszt in 1850 in two formats, both as piano solos and as songs for soprano and piano. The first and second songs in the set are based on poems by Ludwig Uhland and the third on a poem by Ferdinand Freiligrath. Each song elaborates a specific kind of love. The first celebrates religious or sanctified love. The second tells of erotic ecstasy: “I was dead from the bliss of love, I lay buried in her arms.” In the third song the poet describes love as a mode of being, the essence of life: “Oh love, love as long as you can…” Liebestraum No. 3 is the most popular of the set and for good reason. One simple melancholy tune appears four times: first and last as an intimate, nostalgic song, the second and third times as a more and more passionate and exalted song of love. Before the theme returns for the last time, there is a moving climax, a sensual wave that moves up, down and slowly up again, stops for a moment, as if looking for something and seamlessly brings us back home to A flat. The whole love story is told in about 5 minutes.
Ballade No. 2 in B minor was completed in 1853. In Liszt’s circle it was known that this ballade was inspired by one of the most enduring love stories of all time, the ancient Greek myth of Hero and Leander. Hero was a priestess in the temple of Aphrodite and pledged to virginity. She lived in a tower on the Greek side of the Dardanelles (or Hellespont). Leander, a youth of uncommon beauty, lived on the other side of the strait. They met, fell in love and became lovers. Leander visited Hero every night, swimming across the strait to the tower. One stormy night, the lamp lit by Hero to guide him was blown out. Leander lost his bearings and was drowned. Not wanting to live without him, Hero jumped from the tower to her death. This tragic story inspired many: Ovid, Musaeus and Tasso, Marlowe, Ben Johnson, Shakespeare and Byron to name just a few. The fine contemporary Serbian author Milorad Pavić used it in his novel The Inner Side of the Wind. The second Ballade is one of the archetypical super-charged romantic works. It contains many staples of Lisztian piano technique and his highly descriptive style – chromatic scales depicting waves, tremolos and octaves, big chords, arpeggios, contrasts in sonority and, of course, a beautiful love theme (which would reappear in a different guise as the love theme in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde). It is a story that unfolds episode by episode. Liszt went through several drafts of this work and replaced the bombastic original ending with one that is understated and hushed, more poetic and personal.
Six Consolations (published in 1850) is a cycle that makes one whole out of six “pensées poétiques”. The first, second, fifth and sixth Consolations are in E major, and the third and fourth are in D flat major, establishing a tonic of E for the whole set. These charming and poetic pieces are often played by young students. They are not difficult and provide a good introduction to Liszt’s more complex and technically challenging works. The third Consolation is the most popular of the set.
The Berceuse in F sharp major is a part of the Christmas Tree Suite composed in 1875-6. It is a mesmerizing and impressionistic work that might literally lull you into slumber. It ends with an unresolved terza without coming back home to F sharp, giving us a preview of Liszt’s later works that have no real tonal center.
Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude belongs to Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (published in 1853), a set which comprises ten works, most of them substantial in scale. Four out of the ten works contain Latin liturgical texts printed in the score in the manner of a vocal setting. Bénédiction de Dieu is the largest work in the set in scale, scope and conception. An infinite succession of ascending landscapes (soundscapes) unfolds in which divine and human, spiritual and mundane are fused in one supreme harmony that contemplates itself. It is a meditation, a tone painting of unrelenting inner intensity, sincerity and beauty. Before and after the middle episode Liszt placed a unique sign – an angular broken line – that tells us to take a good deal of time before going forward. The key is F sharp major, an auspicious key that Liszt (and Wagner) used on special occasions, a key of the transcendence of love and religious rapture over death, a key of exultation, a key of immortality. Bénédiction de Dieu is one of the most vivid expressions of spiritual ecstasy in music, a truly inspired and inspiring work.
Elegia, originally titled Schlummerlied im Grabe (Lullaby in the Grave), was written in 1874 in memory of Countess Maria Moukhanoff-Kalegris, a patroness of Liszt and Wagner. Liszt apparently valued this intimate and passionate work, as he produced five versions of it: for solo piano; for cello, piano, harp and harmonium; for cello and piano; for violin and piano; and for piano duet. All five were published simultaneously in 1875.
La lugubre gondola (second version, circa 1883-5). Liszt wrote the first version of this work in December of 1882 while a guest at Wagner’s house on the Grand Canal in Venice, not long before Wagner died in February of 1883. It is said that Liszt had a premonition of Wagner’s death. Whatever the truth of this story, both versions of La lugubre gondola are haunting, elusive and mesmerizing, among the finest of Liszt’s late works. The key word is lugubre – dark, tormented, an interior state closed in on itself. Parallel octaves open this work, as if searching for something; a recitative follows and suddenly stops. This pattern is repeated twice, each time a half tone lower. The third time, the recitative does not stop, but goes on for a while, searching for a way out of this haunted and desolate place. The left hand joins in with the broken pattern from the opening motif and the recitative becomes a song, a somber litany. After a descending passage, this theme comes back a half tone lower. The middle section (on the dominant to tentative F sharp) creates a tangible impression of a rocking gondola, with the sigh motive in chords on top and a repeated ostinato figure in the bass going up and down: we go back and forth with the gradually increasing swing of the pendulum. The litany motive returns appassionato on octaves and a descending passage follows – this time in octaves indicated fff. The opening theme returns in full force, but suddenly loses its energy, descending by half tones, as if unable to stop this disintegration. The recitative inevitably follows and then stops – nothing is resolved and we are back where we started. A chromatic sequence of chords in the lower register follows with the sigh motive on top: the whole atmosphere could not be darker or more hopeless. The recitative returns depleted of all energy, repeats twice a question-like phrase, and aimlessly wanders away in the fog.
En rêve (circa 1886) is one of the last sweet musical dreams of Liszt. This work is transparent, precious, and fragile: it is a fleeting moment, a page from the album of Liszt’s memory. Thanks to Liszt, this fleeting moment of beauty is still alive.