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Franz Liszt
Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major for Piano and Orchestra

Franz Liszt

  • Born: October 22, 1811, Raiding Austria, not far from Vienna
  • Died: July 31, 1886, Bayreuth, Germany


Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major for Piano and Orchestra

  • Composed: He began the First Concerto in 1839 and revised it continually for the next several years.
  • Premiere: February 17, 1855 at Weimar Castle, Hector Berlioz conducting; Franz Liszt, piano
  • Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, crash cymbals, triangle, strings
  • Duration: approx. 19 minutes

Liszt was a man of contradictions, many of which long served to obscure his true significance. He was an extraordinarily original artist, yet he composed outright potboilers as well as pieces of great beauty and sensitivity. That some of his more obvious works have frequently been heard on pops concerts has assured him a following today, but such compositions represent only one side of his art. Many of his works are sophisticated, subtle, subjective statements by a composer far ahead of his time. His two piano concertos, composed virtually simultaneously over a period of some 20 years, exemplify this contrast. The First Concerto, an overt work, full of bravura and virtuosity, has been a traditional favorite with audiences as well as pianists. The less frequently performed Second is more intimate and more personal. It shows the subjective side of Liszt’s complex personality.

Liszt was the greatest pianist of his age. He virtually invented the kind of pianistic virtuosity that is still with us today. He thought up and perfected any number of dazzling keyboard techniques. As he had no models among pianists, he based his craft on that of the great violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini. Paganini showed Liszt how to hold an audience spellbound by sheer technique and how to cultivate a stage presence and a public personality that guaranteed an enraptured following. Like Paganini, Liszt had to write his own display pieces, because there was no previous music that called for the soloist to use his instrument in the way Liszt had taught himself to do. His early compositions are vehicles of virtuosity, and his early career was that of a traveling virtuoso performing keyboard acrobatics before enthralled crowds. It mattered little that these compositions were often musically shallow: their purpose was to display a new technique, and they succeeded completely in doing just that.

There are striking parallels here to certain types of show business performers today. A case can be made for a similarity with circus performers, but a more relevant parallel is with the stars of the rock and pop music worlds—virtuoso performers with an enormous following who compose their own music, tailored to show off their special talents. And, just as many of today’s superstars of music are followed around on their concert tours by groupies, so Liszt had his entourage. Women idolized him in ways that were more like hero worship than artistic appreciation. There is a story, possibly apocryphal, about a lady who was so enamored of Liszt’s persona that she kept against her breast for many months a cigar butt the great virtuoso had discarded.

Not surprisingly, Liszt had numerous affairs. Many were casual dalliances, but two were blatant scandals. In 1834 he entered into an impassioned relationship with the Countess d’Agoult, a rich married woman with two children. The composer and the countess lived and traveled together until 1844. They had three children, the second of whom, Cosima, was destined to leave her husband, conductor Hans von Bülow, in order to have children by, live with and marry (in that order) composer Richard Wagner. In 1848 Liszt began a long liaison with the cigar-smoking religious fanatic Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, also married, which lasted until 1860.

Liszt was, as mentioned, a man of contradictions. At the height of his career as a concert pianist, he retired suddenly from public life. He was 37. Ironically, his retirement came at just the time when railroads began to make the life of a touring artist far easier. Nonetheless, Liszt never again performed in public. He continued to teach piano students, particularly enjoying the young women who came to learn from him, but he no longer accepted any fees for teaching. He devoted himself to composition, which he had neglected during the preceding decade.

Perhaps the biggest contradiction of all for Liszt was his increasing involvement with religion. In 1865 he received minor orders from the Roman Catholic church and became an abbé. He composed a number of religious works. In 1879 he was made Canon of Albano, which entitled him to wear a cassock. His religious feelings did not interfere with his continuing affairs of the heart. Perhaps his desire for the priesthood (he received four of the seven degrees) was one further instance of public posturing, but his religious feelings were quite genuine.

The late compositions of Liszt are forward-looking. While Wagner had consciously striven for a “music of the future” that turned out to be very much a music of the present, Liszt actually anticipated several important features of 20th-century music. Some of his late piano pieces display an almost Debussyan impressionism: they often contain unresolved dissonances that function as pure sonorities rather than as participants in harmonic progressions. He even abandoned tonality. One of his late works is called Bagatelle without Tonality (this work was first published in 1956). He anticipated Schoenberg in the opening of his Faust Symphony, which is virtually a 12-tone row. And, in many of his larger works, he developed a technique that nurtured the majority of composers of the early part of our century—thematic transformation.

This procedure, which is beautifully realized in the First Piano Concerto, involves the derivation of many different themes from one or two basic melodies. The result may be called a self-generating form—the possibilities for transformation of a given theme determine the character of subsequent sections. Thematic transformation lies between the traditional approaches of development and variation. It is akin to what Schoenberg called “developing variation.” Composer Humphrey Searle describes the process of thematic transformation as follows:

A basic theme recurs throughout a work, but it undergoes constant transformations and disguises, and is made to appear in several contrasting roles; it may even be in augmentation or diminution, or in a different rhythm, or even with different harmonies; but it will always serve the structural purpose of unity within variety. The technique was of supreme importance to Liszt, interested as he was in the “cyclic” forms and the problem of rolling together several movements into one.

The First Concerto is one of those works in which the transformation technique dictates the form. The opening theme, which appears in many guises, keeps the piece from rambling. It is not a good candidate to generate the entire work, however, because it is too limited: the tonic note alternates with a note a semitone lower, and then a third note another semitone down is added. Then this figure is repeated a step lower. The essential shape is important to the concerto: decorated downward motion by step. After it is stated at the outset in the strings, this motive is developed in a series of piano cadenzas alternating with brief statements in the orchestra. There is inevitably a more lyrical second theme. Although it is treated only briefly at first, we understand from its expansive shape and true melodiousness that it has great potential for later development. As this second idea contains undercurrents of the first theme, it is the first that seems to dominate the opening movement.

The second movement is really three movements in one. First comes an adagio based on a derivative of the first movement’s lyrical theme. A significantly new treatment of this theme in the woodwinds serves as the beautiful transition to the second main section, a scherzo. The scherzo is based on yet another transformation of the lyrical theme. The final section, allegro animato, brings back the vigorous opening theme of the concerto, along with some of its derivatives from the first movement. As this section does not abandon the main theme of the middle movement, it serves to bring back together the main two ideas of the concerto.

A consequence of this combination of themes is that the finale starts with melodic material from the lyrical theme cast in the vigorous rhythm and mood of the first theme. The first theme has the final word, however, in a presto coda.

Although the concerto is divided into three movements, the distinction between them is not as clear-cut as in classical concertos. All the movements share thematic material, some passages turn up in more than one movement and all three movements contain fast and vigorous music. Because of the pervasiveness of the two main melodic ideas, however, this complex form coheres beautifully. It serves as a vehicle for both rhapsodic invention and controlled unity.

—Jonathan D. Kramer