The last of May has come and gone. Too quickly, but there you are. The photographs were taken at Innisfree Garden on May 31, 2014.
This May (and extending into June), one of the Composers Appreciation Society selections for listening has been Franz Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor. I’d never found reason to pursue Liszt. I shared, in common with many, the assumption that he succumbed too often to flashy filigrees, impressive for a display of virtuosity, but not necessarily indelible musically.
I can’t say I’ve altogether come around to Cecil Gray’s 1933 assessment that “the piano sonata is pure gold throughout.” [Cecil Gray, Contingencies and Other Essays, pp. 79-80] I do, however, solemnly swear I’ve never used any of the “string of epithets” Gray noted—including “fustian, tinsel, pinchbeck, rhodomontade, tawdry, shoddy, garish, bedizened”—to describe Liszt’s work. [Gray, p. 77] (OK, I’ll admit, “flashy filigrees” comes close.)
My ears were certainly opened in the course of focusing on the Piano Sonata to a reconsideration of Liszt’s work—and that the sonata’s form marked a significant musical innovation, I’m fully prepared to accept. Here’s an excerpt from a description of the sonata:
Often considered as Liszt’s greatest solo piano work, while also a subject of scholarly disputes over its form, the Sonata in B minor is a single movement in sonata form, within which one can distinguish the four movements of a sonata cycle – first, slow, scherzo, and finale. Only a composer with great skill and musical finesse could have achieved the result of “a sonata within a sonata” or a “double-function form,” where the middle Andante, for example, serves both as a development section to the entire piece and a slow movement to the four-movement sonata structure here encapsulated in one continuous whole.
(For those who would like to know more, Brian Long, our generous and knowledgeable helmsman at the Society, offers an excellent introduction to the sonata and its form here and identified an interesting Leon Botstein article about Liszt’s importance here.)
There have been other bonuses to learning about this stalwart of the classical canon, too. Had I not spent time with the Liszt Piano Sonata, this comment about Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony would have been entirely Finnish to me:
Much effort has been devoted in the Sibelius literature to explaining how, on the one hand, the work alludes to the traditions of single-movement symphonic design, while . . . being definable neither as a “gigantic movement in sonata form nor several movements put together into a single movement in the manner of Liszt’s B minor Sonata.” [Arnold Whittall, in The Cambridge Companion to Sibelius, Loc 1606]
As Michael Steinberg wrote of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony:
Robert Layton has written: “The Seventh consummates the nineteenth-century search for symphonic unity.” That search for a formal principle which enables a composer to write one movement that is at the same time several movements—or, if you prefer, several movements that function as the parts of a single movement—is usually reckoned to have begun with Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy. Liszt was one of the bold explorers, and his Piano Sonata is his magisterial achievement in this realm. [Steinberg, The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide, pp. 607-608]
Liszt is everywhere . . .
. . . including in unexpected places in New York City. In each case, Liszt has been included within innovative programming of mostly contemporary works. On April 26, pianist Louis Lortie performed Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage as part of Composer-in-Residence David Lang’s intelligent and ingenious collected stories series at Carnegie Hall. A review that includes the Lortie recital may be found here. The fascinating program for the sold-out Liszt Inspections: Solo Recital by Marino Formenti (June 4), part of the inaugural NY Phil Biennial, may be found here.
Franz Liszt, Piano Sonata in B Minor, S. 178 (1852-3)
Jean Sibelius, Seventh Symphony in C Major, Op. 105 (1924)
Orchestration: 2 flutes (both = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
The very first musical idea that ended up in this work is an ‘Adagio theme’ of which there are many drafts in the composer’s sketchbook. This theme and its variants, of which there are two slightly different families, grow so important in all three main sections (Adagio, Vivacissimo, and Allegro moderato) of the Symphony that their developments indeed determine the form. The most spectacular variant of this germinal idea is the majestic C-major trombone theme, heard for the first time after the hymn-like string polyphony of the Adagio section that Serge Koussevitzky called “Sibelius’ Parsifal.”
With caveats that the times given are approximate and that my ears have been known to deceive me, listen for the trombone theme in Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony on Spotify (track 1, 5:27; track 2, 1:04; track 4, 0:56) and on YouTube (5:28, 10:45, 17:05).
Franz Liszt, Piano Sonata in B Minor (Martha Argerich)
Jean Sibelius, Seventh Symphony (Simon Rattle/The Danish Royal Orchestra)
Credits: The quotations may be found at the sources linked in the text. As always, the photographs, unless otherwise credited, are mine.