…To sleep, perchance to dream … or not … Two Nocturnes by Liszt

Liszt - Gottlieb CollectionWe’ve all been there; those nights when your head hits the pillow, tiredness overtakes you, and sleep comes quickly and quietly. Sweet dreams…

Then there are the other nights; those when you toss and turn, and thoughts, fears and questions go around and around in your mind for hours, with no solution, and no rest…

Liszt must have experienced both varieties of nights – and two of his late works set them to music. En Rêve -Nocturne, composed in 1885 and dedicated to Liszt’s pupil August Stradal, seems to represent the former.

Over a gently rocking accompaniment, a beautifully sculpted melody lulls and soothes us – but then an unexpected dissonance disturbs the mood … just briefly … peace is restored, the melody returns, and its final turn of phrase modulates down and down again and again … below quiet trills the pulse slows … silence … and the final chord hovers on the second inversion of the tonic without resolving onto root position – oh dear, what a prosaic and technical description of a magical cadence, but that is the means whereby Liszt enables us to drift off…

The other Nocturne couldn’t be more different. Written in March 1883, its title is ‘ Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort – Nocturne nach einem Gedicht von A Raab‘ – ‘Sleepless! Question and Answer – Nocturne from the poem by Antonia Raab’, who was a  Hungarian pianist and a pupil of Liszt. ( There is a letter from Liszt to Antonia in the Library of Congress – No 243, here .)

The poem is lost, but the music says it all. Have a listen –

A questioning musical idea arises above an agitated accompaniment of rolling arpeggio figures, encircling itself , growing in pitch and intensity, painfully unresolved, desperate.

A sudden pause, and the idea is heard unaccompanied in the minor key – and then in the major; it is harmonised in a higher register and used hesitantly to find its way to completion and resolution.

But Liszt wrote two versions; one is shorter, and –  forgive the technical details – rather than suggesting G# as the unaccompanied dominant of C# minor at the end, as in the performance above, it has a more ‘acceptable’ ending with G# in a chord as the mediant of E major.


Alan Walker writes astutely about the piece here in his book – Franz Liszt; The Final Years, suggesting that the Answer lies within the Question. Plenty here to ponder on, both musically and philosophically.

The late works of Liszt are a fascinating collection of pieces which look far into the future. This link contains clips from Leslie Howard’s Hyperion recording of them – well worth browsing.

This entry was posted in Nocturne - A Little Night Music and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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