Program notes

Below are details on various Liszt compositions that I created using multiple sources in my Liszt library (e.g. Leslie Howard, Serge Gut, Ben Arnold, Alan Walker and dozens of  other Liszt experts). I compiled this information to assist piano students with the performance of these pieces. The ultimate goal is to establish (or contribute to) a database with program details of all of Liszt’s compositions.

S.169, Romance in e minor, 1848
Composed for solo piano and based on the song Oh pourquoi donc, S.301a Revised 1880, as Romance oubliée (= S.527)  in version for violin and piano,1880 (S.132b): Published 1881 by Schirmer (New York). The Romance oubliée derives from a song—Ô pourquoi donc?— was composed in 1843 and transcribed for piano as Romance (in e minor) in 1848. It’s title originated from the fact that it was ‘forgotten’ as resulkt of a refusal by the editor to publish it in those days. A copy of the original manuscript was found in the late 1920’s in the music collection of Ferrucio Busoni. In 1880 Liszt’s publisher sent him a copy of his Romance in E for piano (S 169) with a request for its reprint. Instead, Liszt transformed the piece into a new four-minute composition, Romance oubliee (S 132) for viola (or cello) and piano. The 1880 revision, which amounts to a completely new view of old material overlaid with a mystical despair common in the extraordinary music of Liszt’s final, was apparently foreshadowed by the present text—whose manuscript is held in the Library of Congress—where the phrases are shorter, and the coda has not yet been added.

S.198, Wiegenlied / Chant de berceau, 1881
Liszt’s Wiegenlied (Chant du berceau) (S 198) is written as piano version of the first part of his last symphonic poem “Du berceau à la tombe” (S.512, 1881) which was created as triptique: a) The cradle, describing the innocent child, b) The battle for life, and c) The tomb, cradle of the future life.
The Wiegenlied starts out as one of his charming, light works but moves into a different realm. The piece, in two parts with the second a variation of the first, never rises much above the piano dynamic level. It begins with a four-measure rhythmic ostinato that provides the left-hand accompaniment for the majority of the work. Over this ostinato Liszt writes a slow but lilting melody usually in thirds or sixths.
The Wiegenlied bears the inscription “To Arthur Friedheim (Weimar), 18th May 1881, in friendliest remembrance,” but it is a curious fact that Friedheim neglects to mention it in his gossipy memoir, Life and Liszt (New York: Taplinger, 1961). Perhaps its extreme simplicity and the several moments of delicately accented harmonic asperity — lending its aura of childlike innocence a muted anxiety — seemed at odds with the magisterial Liszt Friedheim adored and imitated. For Liszt, on the other hand, Wiegenlied possessed a deep significance evidenced by his unusual arrangement of it for four violins, and, still more, his use of it for the opening of his 13th and final symphonic poem Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe (1881-1882).

S 199, Nuages gris, 1881
Nuages gris (S 199), composed on 24 August 1881 in Weimar, is autobiographical: This was a bleak month for Liszt. Even weeks earlier he had fallen down the stairs of the Hofgärtneri and had sustained severe injuries. He had expected to make a swift recovery, but the healing process was slow, and it was compounded by other difficulties, which now included dropsy and failing eyesight.
The strange pessimistic and captivating atmosphere has since made his one of the best known works in Liszt’s late output. The theme is identical to the one later used by Alban Berg in his Sonate for piano opus 1. It also drew admiration from Debussy and Stravinsky for its simple perfection. The ostensible key—G minor—is strained by dissonance, first growling then lyrical, not at all resolved by the enigmatic cadence.

S.214, Carrousel de Mme Pelet-Narbonne
Liszt’s most amusing piece is his Carrousel de Mme Pelet-Narbonne (S 214a), dating between 1875 and 1881. In only forty-three measures, it foreshadows Bartók’s Bagatelles ans shorter pieces for Mikrokosmos. The first section, Allegro intrepido in A minor, uses percussive and repeated open fifths in the bass, and the second (un poco moderato) and third (both in A major) are more delivcate and playful. The textures are spare throughout. Although the work could hardly be considered virtuosic, the clever writing makes the piece difficult to perform effectively. Joseph Banowetz elaborated on its compositional history:
During the 1870′s the Meyendorff family was renting a house from Madame Pelet-Narbonne in Weimar. The good lady, apparently of rather portly proportions, had been seen by Liszt riding on a carrousel at the carnival which was in town. The sight of the corpulent and ungainly woman struck Liszt as extremely funny, and so to describe her he improvised this little piece for the Baroness. Delighted at this and knowing Liszt’s tendency to forget these type of improvisations, she made him immediately write it out.

S.224 and S.225, Csárdás
In 1882 Liszt published his first “Gypsy” work: Csárdás Macabre (S.224). He published two more Csárdás (S 225) in 1884, the first simply titled Csárdás and the second Csárdás Obstinée.
Liszt’s three Csárdás works are known for their Hungarian character, and divulge little of the Gypsy music that infused his Hungarian Rhapsodies. The Csárdás and this Csárdás obstinée share thematic material with the Csárdás Macabre (1881 — 1882), which is the longest and best known of the trio. It is probably also the darkest and most ominous-sounding of them, too. The Csárdás obstinée is the most anxious and perhaps most exciting, coming across as somewhat frenzied in character. It is over three minutes in length, more than double that of the Csárdás, which is relatively bright and joyous compared to its siblings. The Csárdás obstinée begins slowly and modestly, the music seeming to struggle to find its rhythmic impetus. Soon, however, a driving four-note rhythm takes shape and the music races ahead with a dark variant on a theme from Liszt’s Csárdás macabre. From here, things build and churn, the music several times seeming to vent its accumulating tensions when a fanfare-like section announces what appears to be a triumphant resolution. But the music always returns to its driven, anxious character. It finally descends to the bass regions, from where it cannot arise, and the work rather abruptly ends.
One potential pitfall in discussing these works is labeling them as atonal on the basis of hearing strange sonorities at the surface of the music. The Csárdás macabre, for instance, is solidly based on compositional procedures consistent with Liszt’s earlier style.

S.244, Rhapsody No. 2, 1847
Liszt had been enthralled by Gypsies and their music ever since childhood in his native Hungary. In 1839–40 his interest bore fruit in a series of piano pieces called Hungarian National Melodies, which he began revising as Hungarian Rhapsodies in 1848. Rhapsodies Nos. 1 and 2 were published in 1851 and Nos. 3–15 in 1853; he added four more between 1882 and 1886.
In his remarkable 450-page book “The Gypsies and Their Music in Hungary” (1859), Liszt clearly associated the rhapsody both with its roots in the recitation of ancient epic poetry and with nationalistic expression.
Unfortunately, it was shown that exactly the opposite was true — that the Gypsies, who can be traced only to the 15th century in Hungary, assimilated the local idioms into their songs and methods of performance, mixed them with musical formulae from other lands, especially those of the Near East, and had, by the 19th century, evolved a kind of urban salon music that Liszt mistook for original folk art
In making a “national epic” out of Gypsy music and calling the resulting rhapsodies “Hungarian,” Liszt had unwittingly stirred up an enormous hornet’s nest. To the world it made the Gypsies appear the true representatives of Hungarian music, which offended native Hungarians. Public wrangling over the issue initially hurt the fortunes of the Hungarian Rhapsodies, but they had their supporters, including Bartók, who said their musical material “could not have been handled with greater beauty or genius.”
Ironically, modern research has shown that some of Liszt’s melodies actually were Magyar folk melodies, though he had learned them through Gypsy improvisations. He succeeded remarkably well in transcribing for piano the sounds of the Gypsy orchestra—solo violin, clarinets, cimbalom (a stringed instrument struck with two wood sticks) and strings.
Many of these works were built around the performance method of the Hungarian national dance, the Csárdás, which alternates (at a sign from the dancer to the orchestra) between an initially contemplative or dramatic outpouring movement (Lassan) and an exuberant, spirited and wildly dancing one (Friska). To describe their resultant free structure and quick contrasts, Liszt borrowed the term “Rhapsody” from literature, saying that it was meant to indicate the “fantastic, epic quality” of this music.

Rhapsody No. 2, written in 1847 and dedicated to Hungarian patriot Count Lázsló Teleky, is based on a Romanian theme. Its grand, slow introduction exudes solemnity as does the opening section of the lassan (slow first part), but a graceful lightness ensues. One passage in this second section admirably imitates the delicate embellishments of a cimbalom. The majestic introduction returns before a variation of the lassan and reappears deep in the bass before the lively friska (fast dancelike second part). Despite its sometimes comic demeanor, this friska contains myriad pianistic challenges, including a kind of repeated- note “étude” and thundering chromatic passages of octaves in both hands.
Rhapsody No. 2 is also well known due to its frequent use in animated cartoons. The first such appearance was as part of a piano solo by Mickey Mouse in The Opry House in 1929, where he has to deal with an animated piano intent upon making life difficult for him. It became a permanent part of cartoon history with its use in Friz Freleng’s Rhapsody in Rivets (1941), where the construction of a skyscraper is synchronized to the rhapsody. Freleng used the piece in several other Warner Brothers cartoons, most notably Rhapsody Rabbit (1946), which featured Bugs Bunny as a concert pianist playing the solo piano version. Within weeks, MGM released Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera’s Tom and Jerry short, The Cat Concerto, which won the 1946 Academy Award for best cartoon. The short featured an almost identical plot, and the same Hungarian Rhapsody, being played by Tom the cat this time. Freleng was convinced that MGM stole the idea from him, and Hanna and Barbera were just as convinced that they were the victims of plagiarism.

S.251, Abschied, 1885
Liszt’s ties to Russia date from his glory years as a touring virtuoso. Critic Vladimir Stasov recalled Liszt’s first concert in St. Petersburg, in the Assembly Hall of the Nobles, before an audience of 3,000 on April 8, 1842. “We had never in our lives heard anything like this; we had never been in the presence of such a brilliant, passionate, demonic temperament, at one moment rushing like a whirlwind, at another pouring forth cascades of tender beauty and grace. Liszt’s playing was absolutely overwhelming.” Liszt was in Russia again in 1843 and 1847, though he did not match the triumph of his initial St. Petersburg appearances, very likely because of his support for the Polish independence movement. Liszt maintained the contacts made with Russian composers and made new ones, welcoming “the mighty handful” — Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov — and actively promoted performances of their works. Anton Rubinstein was another frequent visitor chez Liszt. It was almost inevitable that one of Rubinstein’s most brilliantly promising students, Alexander Siloti, would be sent to study with Liszt. In May 1883, when the 19-year-old Siloti was introduced to him, Liszt was dropsical (edema / tissue swelling caused by heart problems), alcoholic, and partially blind, with enormous wens covering his face, but — despite some technical slippage — the magic of his playing seemed greater than ever. Becoming a favorite pupil and member of Liszt’s inner circle, Siloti remained with Liszt until the latter’s death in July 1886. It was almost certainly from Siloti that Liszt derived the Russian folk song of farewell, which he harmonized very simply and movingly — a mere two pages — rounding it with a carillon effect, titled Abschied, and dedicating it to Siloti in 1885.

to be expanded…