The Music of Liszt: 6 Favorites

In today’s video, we’ll be taking a look at the music of Liszt. I’ve picked out some pieces for us to listen to that I think represent Liszt’s music best – though of course there are bound to be many favorites left off this list.

We’ll start by discussing Liszt’s performing style, and then we’ll get into some specific categories of his music, such as his original piano pieces, transcriptions, and symphonic poems.

Let me know in the comments which Liszt pieces are your favorite!

Liszt’s performing style

Here’s what we know about what Liszt sounded like on the piano.

Carl Czerny said he played according to feeling. Concert reviews say that his playing demonstrated brilliance, strength and precision. There was a comment about how well he could keep absolute tempo (possibly because his dad made him practice with a metronome). We also know that he often improvised in his concerts.

We have a specific description of Liszt’s playing from the 1830s from one of his students. Valerie Boissier’s mother kept a diary of these piano lessons, with this quote:

Liszt’s playing contains abandonment, a liberated feeling, but even when it becomes impetuous and energetic in his fortissimo, it is still without harshness and dryness. […] [He] draws from the piano tones that are purer, mellower and stronger than anyone has been able to do; his touch has an indescribable charm. […] He is the enemy of affected, stilted, contorted expressions. Most of all, he wants truth in musical sentiment, and so he makes a psychological study of his emotions to convey them as they are. Thus, a strong expression is often followed by a sense of fatigue and dejection, a kind of coldness, because this is the way nature works.

Apparently Liszt also had the tendency to make big gestures and facial expressions while he was playing piano.

Liszt’s musical works

Liszt is mainly known for his piano compositions, but he didn’t write for piano exclusively. He also wrote for orchestra and other instrumental ensembles. His piano music is known for being very difficult.

Liszt also transcribed plenty of music, taking orchestral arrangements and writing them in a piano-only version. Roughly half of his compositions (400/800) are of this ilk.

He’s also credited with the creation of the symphonic poem, which we’ll also be discussing in today’s video.

The Music of Liszt: Piano music

Liszt is best-known for his piano music, in particular his original music. His transcriptions are less well-known, though some are still regularly played today.

Among his famous piano pieces include the three amazing “Annees de pèlerinage” (Years of Pilgrimage) collections. These collections are very diverse, featuring all different styles and moods of pieces. We’ll look at two pieces from this collection today.

Among Liszt’s other piano pieces are his Hungarian Dances, Etudes, Consolations, Religious and Poetic Harmonies and Valse Oubilees.

He also wrote piano transcriptions of his own music. For example, the famous Liebestraum no. 3 was originally a vocal piece, but it’s now better known in its piano incarnation.

Music of Liszt: Original works

Annees de pèlerinage

The first piece I want to look at is from his second Years of Pilgrimage collection. It’s called:

Apres une Lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata (After a Reading of Dante/Dante Sonata)

This is a one-movement piano sonata composed in 1849, and first published in 1856. This is an example of program music­, inspired by Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy.

Program music is when a piece of music also comes with notes for the listener. It’s sort of like how lyrics in music give you an idea of what a song is all about – program music had programs to tell you the themes and stories to listen for in the instrumental music.

In this piece, we hear a lot of the devil in music (the diminished 5th tritone) to really cement that hellish imagery. There’s a second part to this piece in a major key, which contrasts all the hell themes with joyous heavenly themes.

Music of Liszt: Le jeux d’eaux a la villa d’este

The next piano piece from Years of Pilgrimage I want to share with you is entirely different in character. It’s from the third set, and shows Liszt’s evolution toward new musical styles.

This piece, Les Jeux d’Eaux a la Villa d’Este (The fountains of the Villa d’Este) was composed in 1877, during Liszt’s later years. It sounds very impressionistic, foreshadowing guys like Debussy and Ravel. You can clearly hear Liszt heralding in a new generation of music in this piece – have a listen.

Music of Liszt: Sonata in B minor

The final “original” piano piece we’ll take a look at today is his highly famous (and highly difficult) Sonata in B minor, S. 178.

This was published in 1854 and dedicated to Robert Schumann (because Schumann dedicated one of his Fantasies to Liszt). As such, the Schumanns received a copy of the piece, but Clara Schumann (Robert’s piano playing wife) didn’t much care for it. (she called it “merely a blind noise”).

She wasn’t the only one to dislike the sonata – apparently Brahms fell asleep when Liszt performed it, and some music critics had their share of scathing comments.

But it did have its supporters, like Wagner. The problem with this sonata was that it was a little ahead of its time – too dissonant, too weird, too difficult. Over time, this sonata has become a common concert repertoire piece, and considered one of the pinnacles of Liszt’s writing. Time was the main thing needed to get into this one.

This sonata is about 30 minutes long with absolutely no breaks, unlike a traditional sonata with breaks between movements.

Music of Liszt: Transcriptions of others

As previously mentioned, Liszt composed about 800 pieces, half of which were transcriptions and arrangements of music by other people. In the 1800s, orchestral performances weren’t accessible to everyone, so transcribing music for piano was a way to share music people might not have otherwise heard.

Among Liszt’s transcriptions include Beethoven’s symphonies, Schubert songs, Wagner music and Berlioz symphonies.

Liszt was really creative with his transcriptions, not creating carbon copies but instead adding his own spin and genius to them.

Despite that, these transcriptions disappeared from the music world in the early 1900s. They weren’t considered “real” concert repertoire, and were seldom played.

Because of this, most of Liszt’s transcriptions are left to history. However, there are still some great ones that have been brought back into regular repertoire (such as the Beethoven symphonies).

The one I’d like to take a look at is his Paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto. It’s not as famous as, say, his piano version of Schubert’s Ave Maria, but I think it’s really interesting nonetheless.

Paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto

Verdi was a famous Italian opera composer in the Romantic era. Liszt created an excellent concert piece from a particularly dramatic moment in Verdi’s opera Rigoletto (Bella figlia dell’amore).

Liszt makes his own spin on the music, but maintained the highly melodic quality of Verdi’s writing. It’s very emotive and expressive, and shows off all that a piano can do. It’s a great example of Liszt’s fun, breathtaking virtuosic style.

This paraphrase was composed in 1859, in the later years of Liszt’s career.

Music of Liszt: Transcriptions of his own works

Liszt also made arrangements of his own orchestral and vocal music. The most famous example of this is probably Liebestraum no. 3, which was originally a work for vocals. However, it’s now much better known in its piano incarnation.

We’ve already spent a lot of time talking about Liszt’s Liebestraume on this channel, so I’ll share the link with you guys if you want to check out that video. Instead, I’d like to show you his first Mephisto Waltz today.

Liszt wrote four Mephisto Waltzes, the first two originally being for a symphony. But he transcribed it for piano (both solo piano and duet versions), and that’s the version we’ll be taking a look at.
The first Mephisto Waltz was composed between 1859-62, and it’s highly syncopated – almost jazzy. Its subtitle is “The Dance at the Village Inn”, and is another example of program music. This is the note that accompanies the score:

There is a wedding feast in progress in the village inn, with music, dancing, carousing. Mephistopheles and Faust pass by, and Mephistopheles induces Faust to enter and take part in the festivities. Mephistopheles snatches the fiddle from the hands of a lethargic fiddler and draws from it indescribably seductive and intoxicating strains. The amorous Faust whirls about with a full-blooded village beauty in a wild dance; they waltz in mad abandon out of the room, into the open, away into the woods. The sounds of the fiddle grow softer and softer, and the nightingale warbles his love-laden song.”

Music of Liszt: Orchestral music

Symphonic poem

Liszt is responsible for developing a new musical genre – the symphonic poem. As such, I want to spend a moment talking about that, and then sharing a recording with you.

Symphonic poems are written for orchestra, and they are designed to evoke some type of art, whether it be a story, novel, poem, painting or something else along those lines. Franz Liszt was the first composer to attribute this name to 12 of his pieces in this genre.

This genre is less about the structure of more traditional symphonic forms (like sonata form), and is more about evoking a mood and telling a story.

Since he knew the audience appreciated some context for the music they were listening to, most of his symphonic poems had written prefaces. But Liszt didn’t interpret the prefaces literally – it was more about creating the mood that the preface described.

Orpheus

The symphonic poem we’ll be listening to is Orpheus, written in 1853-4. He wrote a few other symphonic poems about legendary men as well (Tasso, Prometheus, Mazeppa).

It’s written for a small orchestra, and has the notable inclusion of two harps (representing Orpheus’s lyre). Apparently Liszt was inspired by a touring virtuosic harpist named Jeanne Pohl, and so decided to write some harp.

Orpheus is a lovely piece that is basically one big crescendo. The mood is serene (and later triumphant) – very contemplative. This was one of Wagner’s favorites.

Conclusion

No, we aren’t looking at his Consolations, Etudes, and other very famous piano pieces today. There’s plenty of great Liszt music that was left out of this video! Instead, I wanted to provide you with not his most famous hits, but instead a sense of the genre-spanning music he wrote.

For a history of Liszt, check out this video.

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.