Transcendental Etude No. 4 (Liszt)

Franz Liszt's Transcendental Etude No. 4 in D minor, "Mazeppa", is the fourth Transcendental Etude, inspired by Victor Hugo's dramatically morbid poem Mazeppa, in which a Ukrainian page named Mazeppa is strapped onto a horse and the horse is set free to gallop, resulting in the critical condition of both the horse and the Mazeppa. At the end, Mazeppa is crowned king.


This etude has some clearly defined sections, almost invariably separated by powerful progressions in double octaves. After a short introduction, the main theme is presented in octaves accompanied by a flurry of thirds in the center of the keyboard, giving the impression of a horse galloping in a cloud of dust. The theme returns immediately this time with a thinner texture. After a thunderous chromatic scale in alternating octaves arrives the quieter "Lo stesso tempo." in which the left hand plays a modified version of the theme while the right hand plays sweeping arpeggios in intervals up and down the keyboard. An "Il canto espressivo ed appassionata assai" (sung expressively and with much passion) immediately follows in which the main theme reappears, this time accompanied by repeated thirds in both hands in addition to a chromatic scale in the left.

The original theme makes a more recognizable return in the "Animato" yet this time much more discreet and quiet, alluding to the horse's waning physical condition. Yet the horse, in an unexpected burst of energy, gallops faster than he has ever before, as illustrated in the "Allegro Decisio," a mind-blowing pianistic feat in which a variation of the original theme is played at a breakneck tempo. Finally, a grandiose finale represents Liszt's interpretation of the last verse of the poem: "il tombe, et se relève roi !" (he falls then rises a king).

Technical difficulties

Considered musically one of the most difficult of the 12 etudes, Mazeppa imposes some extremely demanding technical difficulties as well. It requires a complete familiarity with the piano, as it contains a lot of very fast and wide jumps and octaves, and is usually only attempted by advanced players.

Liszt, in his typical custom, indicated a rather odd fingering: the fast successive thirds in the beginning two sections should be played only with the index and fourth finger, alternating hands every two intervals. This fingering hinders speed, is more difficult than moving from the thumb and third finger for the first interval, to the index and fourth for the second interval; and is therefore not used by every performer. However, this fingering is given for specific purposes; it makes the consecutive thirds sound more like a horse by preventing legato and expressive playing and builds strength in the second and fourth fingers. Note that the earlier versions were marked "Staccatissimo."

An earlier version of this piece was published under the same name in 1840 (S.138). However, it was based on the fourth etude from Douze Grandes Etudes (S.137) hence they are more similar to form than the last published version.

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