Mazeppa tells the story of a page in the court of the King of Poland, caught having an affair with the wife of a Count. He is stripped naked, strapped to a wild horse which is whipped, plunging headlong into a frenzied journey. Finally the horse falls, exhausted, and dies – but not so Mazeppa, who is found by the local Cossacks, nursed to full health, thereafter becoming their leader in battle.
The tale inspired painters such as Géricault and Delacroix , the poet Byron – rather long-windedly, telling the story in retrospect – and then the poet Hugo, who cuts to the chase immediately. So does Liszt, quoting some final words from Hugo’s poem at the conclusion of the piece –‘Il tombe enfin, et se relève Roi!’
The title Mazeppa was added in 1840 to the third, transcendental version of a piece already composed: the modest Etude No 4 in D Minor of 1826,which appeared in an expanded but untitled form in the Grandes Etudes of 1837. The 1840 publication, dedicated to Victor Hugo and appearing separately, had a new ending, and that version, too, was revised, reappearing in the 1851 publication of the Etudes. Later it became an extended symphonic poem.
‘…Then loosed him with a sudden lash..’ writes Byron, and there is but one crack of the whip in the orchestral version to set the horse on its way; but a pianist has several lashes to inflict before a cadenza poco a poco precipitando rises to the top of the keyboard, falling again before the powerful main theme is intoned.
Secure ‘geographical’ precision is needed to play the Etude, landing accurately, cleanly – and loudly. Liszt’s own suggested fingering for the inner parts is interesting, using 2 and 4 for each semiquaver. (Is it wholly practical on modern instruments?) The music is written on three staves, con strepito, and is not for the faint-hearted. Strength and stamina are demanded, fortissimo throughout at the first appearance of the theme. Octaves, both normal and interlocking, are often present.
It’s not all loud, though; layers need differentiation, and there is a lyrical middle section where the melody is in the LH thumb, approached from below via arpeggiated chords. Above, the RH adds an accompaniment in light staccato chords, changing hand position frequently. Berman plays it beautifully:
The piece ends in a triumphant blaze of D Major, following a recitative-like section depicting the horse’s death. A good performance of the piece is very exciting, and more successful, I think, on the piano than in the orchestral version. YouTube has performances by Cziffra, Bolet, Berezovsky, etc., and a piano roll version by Emil von Sauer, Liszt’s pupil.