Liszt

Liszt

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Liszt, Franz, 1811-86, Hungarian composer and pianist. Liszt was a revolutionary figure of romantic music and was acknowledged as the greatest pianist of his time. He made his debut at nine, going thereafter to Vienna to study with Czerny and Salieri. In Paris (1823-25) he knew all the principal artistic figures of the period and was influenced by Berlioz, Chopin, and Paganini. He lived with Mme d'Agoult (better known by her pen name, Daniel Stern) from 1833 to 1844, and they had three children; their daughter Cosima became the wife of Hans von Bülow and later of Wagner. As a piano virtuoso, Liszt enthralled his audiences with his expressive interpretations and grand style of playing, augmented with dramatic gestures.

In 1848 he decided to make a career as a composer, and became musical director to the duke of Weimar. He remained at Weimar until 1859, and two years later went to Rome, where he became an abbé (1865). During the years between 1880 and 1885, in Rome, Weimar, and Budapest, he taught most of the famous pianists of the succeeding generation. In his compositions he favored program music over traditional musical forms.

Liszt originated the symphonic poem, and although he wrote symphonies, such as the Faust Symphony (1857), most of his orchestral pieces, including Les Préludes and Mazeppa (both 1854), are symphonic poems. In his Sonata in B Minor (1853) he developed the technique of transformation of themes, which completely altered the concept of sonata construction. This technique, together with his chromatic harmony, strongly influenced both Wagner and Richard Strauss.

For the piano Liszt composed prolifically in addition to transcribing many works of other composers. His most outstanding works for the piano include Années de pèlerinage (1855-83), Douze Études d'exécution transcendante (final version, 1852), Six Paganini Études (final version, 1851), concertos in E Flat (1855) and A (1848-61), and 20 Hungarian Rhapsodies (of which he published 19). Some of his most popular pieces, including Liebestraüme (c.1850), are characterized by lyrical, romantic sentiment; many of his later compositions are somber in tone, full of dissonance and unusual harmonic effects that foreshadow 20th-century music.

See his correspondence with Wagner, ed. by F. Hueffer (2 vol., rev. ed. 1969); his letters, ed. by La Mara (2 vol., 1968); biographies by S. Sitwell (rev. ed. 1966), E. Newman (1935, repr. 1970), D. Watson (1989), and A. Walker (2 vol., 1983-87); study by H. Searle (2d ed. 1966).

Totentanz. Paraphrase on "Dies irae." (Dance of Death), S.126, is the name of a symphonic piece for solo piano and orchestra by Franz Liszt, which is notable for being based on the Gregorian plainchant melody Dies Irae as well as for daring stylistic innovations. The piece was originally planned in 1838 and completed in 1849; it was then revised twice however, in 1853 and 1859.

Obsession with Death

Some of the titles of Liszt’s pieces, such as Totentanz, Funérailles, La Lugubre gondola, Pensée des morts, etc., show the composer's fascination with death. In the young Liszt we can already observe manifestations of his obsession with death, with religion, and with heaven and hell: Liszt was an enthusiastic Catholic, and he devoured Dante's Divine Comedy. According to Alan Walker, Liszt frequented Parisian "hospitals, gambling casinos and asylums" in the early 1830s, and he even went down into prison dungeons in order to see those condemned to die.

The traumatic impact of the Black Death inspired a rich tradition of "Totentanz", "Danse Macabre", or "Triumph of Death", paintings; and since the Middle Ages, throughout the Renaissance until today, painters, such as Bosch, Brueghel, Holbein, and many others, have ritually cleansed our subconscious of this archetypal fear with fantastic, and sometimes humorously horrible, images of dancing corpses and armies of skeletons. Those images contained a moral message as well: they were to remind us of how fragile our bodies were and how vain the glories of earthly life are.

Sources of Inspiration

In the Romantic age, due to a fascination with everything Medieval, the aspect of fantastic or grotesquely macabre irony often replaced the original moral intent. A musical example of such irony can be found in the last movement of the Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz which quotes the medieval (Gregorian) Dies Irae (Day of Judgment) melody in a shockingly modernistic manner. In 1830 Liszt attended the first performance of Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony and was struck by the powerful originality of this work. Liszt’s Totentanz (Dance of Death), a set of variations for piano and orchestra, is also paraphrasing the Dies Irae plainsong.

Another source of inspiration for the young Liszt was the famous fresco "Triumph of Death" by Francesco Traini (at Liszt's time attributed to Andrea Orcagna and today also to Buonamico Buffalmacco) in the Campo Santo, Pisa. Liszt had eloped to Italy with his mistress, the Countess d’Agoult, and in 1838 he visited Pisa. Only ten years later, Liszt’s first sketches materialized into a complete version of his Totentanz. Revisions followed in 1853 and 1859, and its final form was first performed at The Hague on 15 April 1865 by Liszt’s student Hans von Bülow, to whom the work is dedicated.

Stylistic Innovations

Since it is based on Gregorian material, Liszt’s Totentanz contains Medieval sounding passages with canonic counterpoint, but by far the most innovative aspect of the scoring is the shockingly modernistic, even percussive, nature of the piano part. The opening comes surprisingly close to the introduction in Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, a work composed almost a hundred years later. This may be no coincidence since Bartók frequently performed Liszt’s Totentanz. Other modernistic features are the toccata like sections where the pianist’s repeated notes bleat with diabolic intensity and special sound effects in the orchestra—for example, the col legno in the strings sound like shuddering or clanking bones. Richard Pohl (an early biographer) notes, "Every variation discloses some new character—the earnest man, the flighty youth, the scornful doubter, the prayerful monk, the daring soldier, the tender maiden, the playful child."

Extant Versions

Like most Liszt pieces, a number of versions exist. Besides the first version of the Totentanz a De Profundis version has been prepared from manuscript sources by Ferruccio Busoni (1919). The standard version is the final third version of the piece (1859). Besides these a two piano as well as a solo piano version by Liszt can be found.

Notable Performers

Besides the performances by Hans von Bülow, Bartók, Rachmaninov and Busoni, performances of historic significance include those of the Liszt student José Vianna da Motta (1945 - Port Nat S IPL 108), as well as György Cziffra (EMI 74012 2), Claudio Arrau, Jorge Bolet (Decca), Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1961 - Arkadia HP 507.1; 1962 - Memoria 999-001) and Byron Janis (RCA), and also Valentina Lisitsa.

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