The Quintessential Romantic
If Chopin was portrayed as the introverted poet with a patriotic heart and Schumann as the genius torn by unfulfilled promises of recognition, then Franz Liszt would be the archetype of the Romantic composer. By the time Liszt had reached his early twenties, he was adored as the rising star of the Parisian concert circuit. Simply put, Liszt had it all: the look, the talent and the connection among French elite.
Lizst’s daredevil temperament won him not only the appraisal of concert audiences, but also the popularity among ladies. In 1835, his affair with Countess Marie d’Agoult caused him to retreat from Paris to Switzerland and later Italy. Apart from a brief return to Paris to rival the piano virtuoso Sigismund Thalberg, Liszt embarked on a career as a touring virtuoso from 1839 until he took up the position of Kappellmeister of Grand Duke Carl Alexander at Weimar, a position which he held from 1847 until 1861.
The change from the vibrant lifestyle of an international celebrity to a more itinerant one was mirrored in his compositions. The programme of tonight’s concert corresponds to this transitional period in the composer’s life from 1835 to 1860.
The lesser known Grand Duo Concertante and the notoriously difficult Paganini etudes and were written in 1835 and 1838 respectively. Both works bore the distinctive imprint of Liszt piano writing. Liszt was also keen to show that he was equally apt in vocal genres. In fact, he began transcribing Schubert’s songs since 1837. By 1841, Liszt composed his first song “Die Lorelei” to the lyrics of Heinrich Heine. This was followed by four songs set to the poetry of Victor Hugo and other German lieder over the next nine years. Although Liszt was often dwarfed in the shadow of Schubert and Schumann, his audacious approach to song setting was unmatched. By the 1850s, Liszt had departed from the flamboyant style and experimented with more substantial works. The unique Concerto Pathétique, written in 1856 for two pianos, was a sister work among the B minor Sonata and the Faust Symphonie. At the same time, Liszt continued to revise his songs. In his letter to Bettine von Arnim in 1853, Liszt wrote that that “my early songs are mostly too sentimentally bloated and often excessively choked up in the accompaniments.” This perhaps explains why most of the songs composed in the 1840s were revised and alternative versions were made available. Liszt also lent new life to two of his three songs set to Petrarch’s sonnets. These two sonnets, no.47 (“Benedetto sia il giorno”) and no. 104 (“Pace non trovo”) were transcribed for the piano and included in the second book of his Années de Pèlerinage (“Years of Pilgrimage), published in 1858.