LISZT: Tasso / Les Preludes / Mazeppa / Prometheus
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Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886)
Tasso, Lamento e trionfo
Les Preludes Mazeppa
Franz Liszt was born in 1811 at Raiding (Doborjan) nearOdenburg (Sopron) in a German-speaking region of Hungary. His father, Adam Liszt, was asteward in the employment of Haydn's former patrons, the Esterhazy Princes, and an amateurcellist. The boy showed early musical talent, exhibited in a public concert at Odenburg in1820, followed by a concert in Pressburg (the modern Slovak capital Bratislava). Thissecond appearance brought sufficient support from members of the Hungarian nobility toallow the family to move to Vienna, where Liszt took piano lessons from Czerny andcomposition lessons from the old Court Composer Antonio Salieri, who had taught Beethovenand Schubert. In 1822 the Liszts moved to Paris, where, as a foreigner, he was refusedadmission to the Conservatoire by Cherubini, but was able to embark on a career as avirtuoso, displaying his gifts as a pianist and as a composer.
On the death of his father in 1827 Liszt was joined again byhis mother in Paris, where he began to teach the piano and to interest himself in thenewest literary trends of the day. The appearance of Paganini in Paris in 1831 suggestednew possibilities of virtuosity as a pianist, later exemplified in his Paganini Studies. Aliaison with a married woman, the Comtesse Marie d'Agoult, a blue-stocking on the model oftheir friend the novelist George Sand (Aurore Dudevant), and the subsequent birth of threechildren, involved Liszt in years of travel, from 1839 once more as a virtuoso pianist, arole in which he came to enjoy the wildest adulation of audiences.
In 1844 Liszt finally broke with Marie d'Agoult, who later tookher own literary revenge on her lover. Connection with the small Grand Duchy of Weimar ledin 1848 to his withdrawal from public concerts and his establishment there as Director ofMusic, accompanied by a young Polish heiress, Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, theestranged wife of a Russian noblemen and a woman of literary and theological propensities.
Liszt now turned his attention to new forms of composition, particularly to symphonicpoems, in which he attempted to translate into musical terms works of literature.
Catholic marriage to Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein had provedimpossible, but application to the Vatican offered some hope, when, in 1861, Liszttravelled to join her in Rome. The couple continued to live separately in Rome, starting aperiod of his life that Liszt later described as une vie trifurquee (a three-prongedlife), as he divided his time between his comfortable monastic residence in Rome, hisvisits to Weimar, where he held court as a master of the keyboard and a prophet of the newmusic, and his appearances in Hungary, where he was now hailed as a national hero.
Liszt's illegitimate daughter Cosima had married the pianistand conductor Hans von Bulow, whom she later deserted for Wagner, already the father oftwo of her children. His final years were as busy as ever, and in 1886 he gave concerts inBudapest, Paris, Antwerp and London. He died in Bayreuth during the Wagner Festival, nowcontrolled by his daughter Cosima, to whom his appearance there seems to have been lessthan welcome.
The symphonic poems of Liszt caused some controversy. One ofthe most influential critics in Vienna, Eduard Hanslick, a champion of Brahms, wrote in1857 of the impertinence of such an attempt: He fancies his music capable of fiddling andblowing the most magnificent phenomena of myth and history, the most profound thoughts ofthe human mind. Hanslick's objection was not to music with some extra-musical association,but to the vastness of the subjects tackled and what he saw as a reliance on an externalprogramme to justify an absence of musical content.
The first attempt at what was, after all, a daring new form,came in 1848 with a musical interpretation or translation of Victor Hugo, Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne. The work wasorchestrated largely by Joachim Raff, employed by Liszt for the purpose, since his ownskills were at the time rudimentary. The following year he wrote Tasso, Lamento e trionfo, based on the poem by Byron.
Orchestration this time was by August Conradi, who had served Liszt intermittently as acopyist. The work deals with the drama of the sixteenth century Italian poet TorquatoTasso, for some twenty years in the service of the Este rulers of Ferrara and incarceratedas a madman, it was rumoured because of his love for the Duke's sister. Liszt conceivedhis composition at first as an overture, designed to form part of the centennialcelebrations of the birth of Goethe and to introduce a performance of his play TorquatoTasso. The explanatory addition to the title, Lamento etrionfo, refers to the misfortunes of Tasso and to his final triumph as one ofthe greatest of poets. The principal theme of a composition which is basically in thetripartite sonata form of classical tradition was taken from the song of a Venetiangondolier, singing words from Tasso's most famous poem, GerusalemmeLiberata. A central section in the form of a minuet refers to Tasso's life atthe court of Ferrara.
Les Preludes is described asa symphonic poem after Lamartine and was originally designed as an introduction to Les quatre elements (The Four Elements) by JosephAutran, choral settings of four poems, La terre
(The Earth), Les aquilons (The North Winds),Les flots (The Waves) and Les astres (The Stars). The connection withLamartine's Nouvelles meditations poetiqueswas suggested only after the revision of the original overture for performance in Weimarin February 1854. One of the best known of Liszt's symphonic poems, Les Preludes makes useof the process of thematic metamorphosis, unkindly castigated by Hanslick as "thelife and adventures of a theme", in which one theme, modified and transformed,becomes the basis for the unity of the whole work.
Mazeppa, completed in itsfirst version in 1851, and again orchestrated by Raff, but revised with the other earlysymphonic poems for performance in Weimar in 1854, is based on a poem by Victor Hugo. Thesubject of the work is the Cossack leader Mazeppa, bound naked to the back of a wild horseafter detection in an amorous intrigue in his native Poland, but rescued by Ukrainianpeasants, whose leader he became in battles between Charles XII of Sweden, whom hesupported against Peter the Great. Writing of a performance of the work under Weingartner,Debussy defended the disordered and feverish nature of Liszt's imagination, preferable, hesuggested, to rigid perfection.
Prometheus, written in 1850,orchestrated by Raff and revised in 1855, was designed to celebrate the unveiling of astatue of another former member of the Weimar literary establishment, Johann GottfriedHerder, who had been General Superintendent of the Lutheran Church in the grand-duchy from1776 until 1788. Herder's reputation rests in good part on his collection of folk poetryin Stimmen der Volker in Liedern and the influence of his original ideas on culturalhistory. The mythological hero Prometheus, tormented by Zeus, who had him bound to a rockin the Caucasus where a vulture daily pecked out his liver, a punishment for his temerityin stealing fire and giving it to man, had become a proto-hero of romanticism, finding aplace in a lyrical drama by Shelley, in a drama by Goethe and in Herder's Der entfesselte Prometheus, a German PrometheusUnbound. Liszt described the subject of the symphonic poem as la