Poetry on the Piano, Diablerie on the Violin – and All Hell Let Loose in the Orchestra

Other composers needing a mention when Liszt’s Etudes are discussed are Chopin, Paganini, and Berlioz.

Berlioz and Liszt met in December 1830. Liszt’s enthusiasm for Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique was boundless; he transcribed it for solo piano, performing the transcription often, and publishing it at his own expense. He wrote the orchestral cues into the piano score, eg Timp, Vc, Cb etc.; the transcription must have been a valuable lesson in reverse orchestration, as he crammed the colours and  personnel of a huge orchestra into a piano, played by ten fingers; he recreated the Songe d’une nuit du Sabbat, with its diabolical orgy and Dies Irae theme; he emulated col legno effects; racing violin passagework became fearsome glissandi in 6ths and thirds. Timpani rolls became low trills and tremolandi; repeated brass and woodwind chords were engulfed in one hand, their fast repetition enabled by the relatively new invention of double escapement on Erard pianos. Liszt’s Etudes often retain this orchestral scope.

Then, in 1831 and 1832, Paganini played in Paris. Tall, gaunt, black-haired and dressed in black, in league with the devil so the rumours said, he performed astonishing feats on the violin, never before attempted. Liszt wrote to a pupil in 1832:’ What a man, what a violin, what an artist! Heavens! What sufferings, what misery, what tortures in those four strings! …[Liszt then wrote out some fiendish excerpts.] … As to his expression, his manner of phrasing, they are his very soul!’ Liszt was practising technique for four to five hours daily at this time, as well as soaking up contemporary literature, and studying a large repertoire. Paganini’s violin wizardry was soon to be translated into pianistic terms.

Chopin arrived in Paris in 1831, and Liszt attended his Paris debut in the Salle Pleyel in 1832. Chopin’s Etudes Op 10 were dedicated to Liszt, and there is humorous letter written alternatively by Chopin, Liszt and Franchomme to Hiller, in which Chopin writes:’ I write to you without knowing what my pen is scribbling, because at this moment Liszt is playing my Etudes, and putting honest thoughts out of my head. I should like to rob him of the way he plays my own Etudes.’

Were Liszt’s Etudes, and other works, influenced by Chopin’s unique brand of expressive lyricism, and by those Etudes which Liszt played with such ease? Humphrey Searle claims that Chopin was the composer to have had the most immediate influence on Liszt at that time. I wonder. Perhaps I shall discover more while investigating the ‘Douze Etudes d’Execution Transcendante.’

But for now – a break from blogging during the rest of August. Below is the 5th movement of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, transcribed by Liszt.

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This entry was posted in Composers, Liszt - Studying the Etudes - Transcendental Etudes, and Paganini Caprices, Music and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Poetry on the Piano, Diablerie on the Violin – and All Hell Let Loose in the Orchestra

  1. Alastair says:

    Liszt didn’t transcribe the ‘Symphonie fantastique’ until 1833. Having heard Paganini play in 1832 and committed himself to ‘four to five hours of practice of exercises (thirds, sixths, octaves, tremolos…’, subsequent compositions, the ‘Symphonie fantastique included’ bore this influence.

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