week45: Franz Liszt--Transcendental Études #1-9; Andre Alexis


In his expansion and breaking down of classical methods Liszt was in tune with the writers and artists of the Romantic movement, who saw themselves as attempting to express things beyond the rational and the knowable -- the forces of nature,  destruction, and renewal, the fleeting and the eternal, the universe and humanity’s place in it, the mysteries of imagination and the supernatural. Since it was impossible to express such things with completeness, a sense of failing to express them, a sense of things glimpsed but not fully encompassed or ordered, became desirable in itself. Liszt’s take on this was to write music that breaks down traditional forms and procedures. “” robert phillip, The Classical Music Lover’s Companion to Orchestral Music

the format is a hard one to describe: the étude began in the early 19th century as technical pieces for musicians, for the cultivation of budding talents and as testaments to the prowess of seasoned virtuosos. with the advent of chopin and liszt--the latter’s career as a pianist was instigated by his awe of the talent of violinist nicolló paganini and perpetuated by chopin as a contemporary--études, in complexity and emotional power, were developed into concert material to enthrall audiences and possess soloists (daniil trifonov’s performance below is a case of such demonic possession).

liszt’s is a name that comes up over and again not only as a Romantic composer but as well a nexus of 19th century european arts and culture. if you talk about wagner long enough you’ll find liszt amongst the prominent proponents of his ‘music of the future’; and of course his wife, cosima wagner (matron to friedrich nietzsche and many such burning candles)---was liszt’s daughter. and what are the chances of a claude debussy or erik satie if they weren’t afforded liszt as a predecessor?

Everywhere you look at Liszt as composer and man, you find ambiguity. His music can be strong, innovative, and splendiferous in color; at other times, flaccid, overwrought, and cloying, Brahms more or less forgave Wagner his personality and his bigotry, but he could not forgive Liszt his lapses in taste. “” jan swafford, Language of The Spirit   

these nine études mark the beginning of what i refer to as the parlour stretch of this weekly catalogue: that is, music for the ‘small hours’, armchair-fodder, music for the summertime wherein evenings mean more---the stretch between june and the end of august that runs through debussy, satie, offenbach and wraps up with a month of chopin. reminiscent of one sufjan stevens who had planned to record an album for every state in the U.S. and retired the project just after Illinois and Michigan, liszt had originally intended for 45 of these études in the same sequence as bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, but decided after twelve of them that he was done with his studies and instead spent his efforts revising the bunch in three successive versions. the latest of which was performed by lazar berman for the Melodiya recording.

these works are a study in the minutiae and intricacies of the instrument, at times rising up to high dramatic stakes in exclamatory and percussive gestures and, in the later études, emphasizing the melancholic and introspective tendencies characteristic of chopin’s works.

the first of the dozen might well be subtitled Explosions in the sky, it is a short romp of splattering keys, a concatenation of fractured images written in the style of a formless warm-up for the soloist but strung tight by the urging and incessant askance of the theme:

as perhaps a response to careless prose of the first étude, the second unspools like a long and patient answer in prose…

after the restless back and forth, the third takes the first breath of the collection:

As the title suggests, it is peaceful, pastoral music. Perhaps one hears in the second version [written after chopin wrote his Etudes] the influence of Chopin. “” leslie gerber, notes from the recording  

the fourth (a tone poem) is the musical version of what nietzsche had in mind when he subtitled one his books ‘How to Philosophize with a Hammer’---the exhilarating pace of the first two is resumed, with such infinitesimal shimerings of keys that the suspicion of the involvement of a third hand never passes.

In [Victor] Hugo’s poem, Mazeppa is a Pilish nobleman who is condemned to death and tied to the back of a horse, which is then whipped and set free. Instead of dying in the wild ride, Mazeppa survives to reach the Ukraine, where he becomes a Cossack chief. The wild ride of the horse can be clearly heard in the music. “” leslie gerber, notes from the recording

for the fifth, ‘Willow o the Wisp’, a Flight of the Bumblebee-esque theme possesses the left hand:

the sixth:

and seventh:

The introduction is taken from one of Liszt’s earliest works, an opera potpourri on themes from Rossini and Spontini, written in 1824. The rather showy opening seems a bit out of character with the meditative music which follows, but it gradually builds to a fine storm reminiscent of the climax of Funérailles. “” leslie gerber, notes from the recording

reminiscent of the fourth, the incessant ebullient energy of a ride returns in the eight:

in the ninth, chopin’s influence is most evident; it is nocturnal music from a dark and purple of night:

It provides a welcome calm after the preceding storms. One might think the influence of CHopin was demonstrated by this work, which sets a singing melody against delicate, wide-ranging arpeggios. “” leslie gerber, notes from the recording



MELODIYA Recording. Printed in the U.S.A // Franz Liszt (1811-1886) // Transcendental Etudes for Piano #1-9

Pianist: Lazar Berman

As a keyboard innovator he along with Chopin redefined the instrument in ways still being explored a century later. He and Chopin were friends, the first extravagant and extroverted, the latter introverted as a person and restrained as a player. With their music, Liszt brought brilliance and color to the piano, Chopin subtlety and a quieter but no less original palette. The later history of piano music is unthinkable without both of them. “” jan swafford, Language of The Spirit  


#1--Preludio (Presto)

#2--Molto vivace

#3--Paysage (Poco adagio)

#4--Mazeppa (Allegro)

#5--Feux Follets (Allegretto)

#6--Vision (Lento)

#7--Eroica (Allegro)

#8--Wilde Jagd (Presto furioso)

#9--Ricordanza (Andantino)


Besides his supremacy as a virtuoso in an age that worshipped virtuosos, Liszt also happened to be devastatingly handsome. He invented the idea of the solo piano recital. Female fans would flock to his recitals to be transported in ways that resembled something between the screaming rock-star concerts of the twentieth century and a shark feeding frenzy. Liszt fed the frenzy with James Brown-like antics onstage: fake fainting fits, being carried offstage and staggering back, and so on. Like his friend Wagner, Liszt was a mad mixture of qualities, his mastery mixed inextricably with charlatanism. But he embodied what the age craved: the artist as hero, as showman, as semi-divine genius and superhuman virtuoso. He was a tireless womanizer, his conquests including famous women of the time, such as notorious dancer and actress Lola Montez. Mixed with his sexual profligacy was an abiding yen for religion, for purification and absolution. “” jan swafford, Language of The Spirit  

the first i heard of liszt was in the summer of 2010--back when my interest in the genre went little past Yiruma’s River Flows in You--by way of Phoenix’s Lisztomania, a song about the snowball-effect of fame as displayed in the frenzy and fever-pitches reached by attendees of liszt’s concerts. his persona as a virtuoso, on and especially off the stage, has been described in a way that would make it appropriate to estimate him as first instance of the subject of that mob-hysteria we now refer to as the ‘rockstar’....

(this other little thing i found...)

At seminary, Christopher had struggled because he had not known if the voice he’d heard belonged to God or Satan. Following Barrow Day, a new thought occurred to him. What if it had been neither God nor Satan? What if it had been the land itself that had called him? What if it had been Cumberland -- the hills, the trees, the stony fields - that spoke? If so, could one serve both God and the land? Were they indistinguishable or were they, rather, two jealous masters, only one of whom could be devoutly followed? “” andré alexis, Pastoral

that was an excerpt from the canadian author whose book, Pastoral--set in a fictional town in southern ontario--is a subtle skim through the many variegated shades of life in a place where gossip, rather than social media, is still the main vector of social intercourse. this seemingly ancient setting is also the perfect aperture through which he chose to understand the newly ordained priest, the aforementioned Christopher, and his vacillations of faith. one such instance of understanding, the one that caught my attention above, is the eternal question of how much compatibility can be forced between the supernatural and natural world?

that happens to be one of my motivations in keeping this journal, the realization that there is no compatibility possible between the natural world, (‘the hills, the trees, the stony fields’), and the divine, the transcendent, the hinterwordly things that have always held the monopoly on profundity, on grace. and yet, one cannot live without profundity and grace. in service of the illusion of the possibility of serving both of those two masters, one remains distant from the real and eternal thing--through which anything profound earns its license, by which grace from within is possible: the land. or in another sense, nature.

in music, the allure and mystique of transcendence has the least potency...because a musician is, among many things, an apostle of the moment...that spellbound and levitating feeling in reaction to great music is an affirmation of the here and now, an admission that it is indeed possible to be completely satisfied by the moment without the glittering promise of something supernatural. that religions and spiritualists the world over hi-jacked this essentially terrestrial art precisely for the opposite of its nature--as incantations for their otherworlds and thereafters--is merely another layer in the gargantuan pile of human folly.

that i keep coming back here every week is my attempt to wean myself off the fraudulent proposition that anywhere else is needed in order to be satisfied by the moment; that there is no costlier word in any language than the ones that fall beneath the umbrella of ‘transcendence’; that any time spent is time wasted in search of the ‘meaning’ behind nature. one’s time might be better spent as an enthusiastic observer, as the cultivator of a satisfying attentiveness---and for that purpose no halfway point between two masters is sensible, indeed one stands in need of an almost sectarian cultivation…