The Later Works
II. Later Years 1861-1886
III. The Death of Liszt
The Music History III Final Paper
11 December 2008
Franz Liszt embodied the very definition of virtuoso. From his animated performances to pages blackened by notes so numerous that even the greatest performers wish for an extra finger or two, he cast a shadow over all other musicians of his time. Liszt was born in 1811 in Hungary and starting from a young age, it was well noticed that he was a prodigy. His father, Adam, took him to Vienna in hope that his son could become the musician that he never could be, and Liszt began studying under Carl Czerny, a pupil of Beethoven and a famous piano technique teacher. Even though Franz Liszt was being taught by the greatest teachers, his father, in a move that may have limited Liszt's potential, hastily flaunted him on tour throughout Western Europe instead of allowing Liszt to develop and refine his technique.1
It wasn't until 1930 when Liszt was introduced to Berlioz, Paganini, and Chopin that he began to compose his own piano works, significantly influenced by these three musical geniuses. The programatic music of Berlioz, virtuosity of Paganini, and harmonic nature of Chopin all can be seen in Liszt's work.2 The glaring distinction between Liszt and his counterparts was that he performed works by other composers much more then his own. While his performances may not have been originals, he was the first to perform solo piano recitals that lost none of the graduer of full orchestras due to Liszt's incredible skill3. Starting in the late 1930's, Liszt, while already a quite famous and attractive man, toured the whole of Europe elevating his stardom to astonishing levels. His performances consisted of mostly crowd pleasers and fantasias on well-known tunes and operas. Some would even criticize him for his lack of original works.4 But even with the hectic life of a performer, he managed to compose some of his most virtuosic etudes and concerti.
In 1947, Liszt settled down with Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein in Weimar. Although he was free from the duties of performing, he had the steady job of a conductor and courtly duties. While in Weimar, Liszt's artistic freedom was imposed upon by the fact that he was living with a woman who was still married. The upper-class looked unfavorably upon him, and he was forced to work under their prejudice.5 But even with all this stress, he was still able to produce masterpieces: Piano Concerto in E flat major. S 124, Grandes études de Paganini. S 141, and Eine Faust-Symphonie. S108, along with others.
After his stay in Weimar, he moved to Rome and was ready to marry his princess when the pope stepped in at the last minute.6 This caused Carolyne to go into a dark, religious depression state, and while they never did marry, Liszt continued to visit her.7 After his stay in Weimar and the change of state in his emotional well-being, Liszt began a new period in his life.
II. Later Years 1861-1886
I have taken so long to reach the beginning of my paper because without knowledge of his early life, we could never see how much he changed and what he kept in his later years. It is the time starting in 1861 until his death in 1886 that I will focus my discussion.
For me Liszt's output during the last twenty-six years of his life remains the most important, interesting, and moving music he ever wrote. This music with its incomplete and experimental character and without frills or sensationalism became increasingly dark, lonely, personal, and sincere. This music was an outgrowth of his solitary and homeless life, an errant life of an artist growing old who endured many delusions and unfortunate experiences.
Ben Arnold, The Liszt Companion
I, for many of the same reasons as Ben Arnold, feel that the later years in Liszt's life are the most captivating. The futuristic compositional ideas he introduced and where he saw music going in the 20th century fascinates me along with his influence on impressionists and expressionists. From here, I will discuss his early late works that foreshadowed impressionism, and his experimental works that broke away from tonal composition all together anticipating expressionism.
Let us move ahead to 1876. Liszt has yet to settle down, and never will until his death. He spends his years in three cities, Weimar, Rome and Budapest.8 His personality never left him, but his energy and health began to diminish. He has lost two of his three children and his mother, and to make matters worse, his only child is in breaking up her marriage for another man and will not speak to Liszt. However, he continues to teach his faithful students for free and live a modest life, performing for charitable and cultural causes.
While entertaining suicidal thoughts, Liszt returned to the Villa d'Este in the summer of 1877 and composed Les jeux d'eaux á la Villa d'Este (Fountains at the Villa d'Este), which is included in his collection entitled Years of Pilgrimage (1867-1877).9 This is a perfect example of Liszt's impressionistic ideas, sounding like Ravel's “water music”. The flowing upper register thirty-second notes vividly symbolizes fountains and flowing water are characteristic of impressionist composers.10 Surprisingly, this piece is quite diatonic compared to most of his other late works which we will see.
Les jeux d'eaux á la Villa d'Este begins in F sharp major with a fluid arpeggiation ending a series of tremolos and trills. At m. 49 Liszt introduces a melody in the left hand that must have been inspired by Chopin and covers it with a deceivingly challenging arpeggiation11. When he repeats the left hand melody, he raises the D by a step and then a half step. Liszt builds upon this melody adding parallel sixths and then finishes with a flurry of sixteenth and thirty-second notes. This leads into a celestial section in E major. The right hand trickles down the stream and into D major where Liszt wrote, “sed aqua, quam ego dabo ei, fiet in eo fons aquae salientis in vitam aeternam” (but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life, John 4:14). This is a fitting quote as the melody is passed to the right hand and the flowing water wells up from below. Continuing his sequential composition, he returns to the tonic with the melody still in the right hand with added harmony.
Now comes the Liszt signature, tension builds up and thins to a left hand trill and a strained melody. A dark, dreary moving bass enters overshadowing the trickle of the water turning it into a rushing fortissimo river. The flowing water is still present, but the dissonance and force removes all peacefulness. The entire piece is relatively calming and beautiful until this point, but as quickly as it came, it leaves the agitated depths to return to the flowing stream. He almost finishes with the major celestial melody, but descends once again into the relative minor. It is a powerful statement at the end because we expect him to go full circle with the flowing melody he began with, but instead he leads us into thinking he wants to end as we expect and ends in a thin, minor cadence.
Les jeux d'eaux á la Villa d'Este stands out among Liszt's later works specifically because it remains diatonic and faithful to harmony used sequentially. Liszt began to experiment with music that did not obey major and minor harmonies in his later works. Many are only brief sketches that lack the virtuosic nature of his earlier works. Liszt was imagining what music would be like in the 20th century, a loss of tonality. The next two works I will look at were written in 1881, Ustern! Sinstre, disastro (S 208) and Nuages Gris (S 199). His dark side is exemplified in these two, and the latter was written recently after he had sustained serious injuries from falling down a flight of stairs. He also had dropsy and failing eyesight at this time.
Ustern! Sinstre, disastro has a slow start. Not only is the tempo marking, lento, but the melody line is interrupted and then starts over, only to be interrupted again by half measures of rest.12 It then moves up a fourth to try again but to no avail, so Liszt, expressing his inner anguish, decides to march in octaves to the first augmented triad in m. 25. This march then climbs chromatically but after the climax, thins to the fading lower octaves. The distress is not over yet, as a twelve measure tremolo on F begins in the left hand and the right climbs chromatically for two octaves of only augmented triads. It peaks at a painfully dissonant recollection of the march theme but with an added tritone to the augmented triad.
Franz Liszt had taken minor orders towards the priesthood and written multiple masses and choral works. This side of him comes up in Ustern! After having enough of the dissonance, Liszt writes “sostenuto, quasi Organo”, and introduces a hymn-like theme in B major.13 The intense contrast is startling and leaves the listener somewhat bewildered by the change of direction. To bring us back to his world without tonality, he repeats a parallel chromatic passage and leaves all sense of key in a dreary, lonely descent to a final, single E.
Nuages Gris (Grey Clouds) is another perfect example of Liszt expressing himself bluntly with a desperate, agonizing work unmistakably meant to release his inner turmoil through his music. This work has been described as “the gateway to modern music.”14 It begins with a repeated tritone melody accompanied by a tremolo in the left hand. The tremolo continues while the right hand of augmented triads descends chromatically. A counter melody fills in the original by adding more tritones. Nuages Gris concludes with parallel octaves climbing chromatically for an octave.
Romanticism loosened the bonds to tonic/dominant tonal form, but his thin textures, devoid of any tonality would have seemed, at the time, absurd to the casual concert goer. Liszt's life as a pianist had been built upon his ability to stun an audience with his virtuosity, not stupefy them with atonal miniatures lacking any shred of difficulty. I do not believe that Liszt wrote his last works with the expectation of them being performed in every concert hall across Europe, instead, he wanted break all the rules and let the music speak for itself. He composed what he was feeling. In my reading, I have come across multiple instances where Liszt is referred to as an autobiographical composer.15 The music on the page symbolizes what he is feeling, and how he conveys this is exactly what makes him a genius.
In 1885, Liszt met Claude Debussy, who later became a master impressionist, three times in Rome where they played for each other.17 Liszt chose to play Au bord d'une source (Beside a Stream), which he had composed in 1855. Au bord d'une source is “water music” and contains many of the same characteristics of Les jeux d'eaux á la Villa d'Este. These meetings strengthen the claim that Liszt influenced impressionism. Young Debussy could only have been impressed by this old, now 74, man's ability to not only play the piano but make it speak.
The next year, on his seventy-fifth birthday, he was flooded with invitation to attend concerts in his honor. He decided to attend one in London for three weeks of April. On his way back to Weimar, he made a stop in Paris to perform also. The last few concerts were more popular than his during the virtuoso years. He even admitted that he finally was respected as a musician. (Walker 499).
The final touring had taken its toll on Liszt. His dropsy made movement painful and almost impossible. His eyesight was all but gone. “I am already more than half blind; perhaps I shall not have to wait long for the rest...” 18 His last concert was held in Luxembourg on July 19 (505). Sadly, Liszt death was not an easy one. For someone who had battled with depression and thoughts of suicide his entire life, all he wanted was to die quietly, alone. His pupils would not stand for it and doctors insisted
it was only a cold. He was bed ridden with pneumonia and plagued with visitors. He eventually fell into a coma and died the night of July 31, 1886.
Liszt encompassed not only the virtuoso, but also the ingenious composer. He started by writing music solely based off of others, but then took his compositions to new levels when he began to let the music speak for himself. Les jeux d'eaux á la Villa d'Este is a piece that uses the imagery of water, a theme found many times in the following impressionists such as Ravel and Debussy. His even later works, stripped bare of his earlier grandeur, foreshadowed the expressionists and atonal music. Liszt removed much if not all harmonic progression in favor of chromaticism, tritones, and augemented triads. 20th century music owes itself to many of Liszt's later experiments, and would not be where it is today without his imaginative compositions.
Arnold, Ben. The Liszt Companion. 1st. London: Greenwood Press, 2002.
Hamilton, Kenneth. The Cambridge Companion to Liszt. 1st. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Sitwell, Sacheverell. Liszt. 1st. London: Faber & Faber, 1934.
Walker, Alan. Franz Liszt: The Final Years 1861-1886. 1st. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.
Music Used for Analysis
Kalmus, Edwin F. Liszt: An Album for Piano Solo II. New York: Kalmus Piano Series.
Kalmus, Edwin F. Liszt: Late Piano Works. New York: Kalmus Piano Series.