Short Takes: Innisfree Garden at May’s End (with Liszt and Sibelius)

2 IMG_0880The 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.

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Listening List

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.”

Ilkka Oramo

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).

On Spotify

On YouTube

Franz Liszt, Piano Sonata in B Minor (Martha Argerich)

Jean Sibelius, Seventh Symphony (Simon Rattle/The Danish Royal Orchestra)


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Credits: The quotations may be found at the sources linked in the text. As always, the photographs, unless otherwise credited, are mine.


19 thoughts on “Short Takes: Innisfree Garden at May’s End (with Liszt and Sibelius)

  1. kylegann

    Liszt wrote a lot of cheap music, but then, he wrote ten times as much music as most composers. Listen to the entire Années du Pelerinage (three hours), the Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses, the oratorio Christus, the Legend of St. Elizabeth, the Via Crucis, the St. Francis Legends: unbelievable stuff. The greatest piano music between Beethoven and Ives. His late piano works were withheld by his friends for fear he’d be thought mad, not published until the 1950s. And the Sonata *is* pure gold, in my opinion. I taught a Liszt course, which astonished some musicological colleagues because he’s still not academically acceptable – in itself a mark of his genius – and I didn’t have time to fit all the great music in. And the Sibelius Seventh is, of course, magnificent as well.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Kyle: Well, you can rest assured that Liszt, in whom I’d never been interested before, has now got my attention. And I know that when you make the statement that Liszt wrote “The greatest piano music between Beethoven and Ives,” you’ve considered the question closely, and you’ve got chapter and verse at hand to support your view. My knowledge of music for piano is far too scattered to weigh in, though I hope perhaps in the pantheon, you’d find room for the piano music of Debussy and Ravel. I suppose the problem again is that word “greatest,” too. It depends on the criteria against which the music is being judged, I think.

      I also sit up and take notice when you say, as Gray did, that the Piano Sonata is pure gold. I have no choice but to come to my own understanding of it, and of course, I have only my own ears, mind, and knowledge to bring to the task. Where I balk in listening is when he embellishes, to my ears, more extensively than the musical work seems to require. (The Cantando expressive section contains examples of this.) This is entirely impressionistic, but what happens at these points, when I listen, is that I lose the sense of “inevitability”—that the music could not have been written in any other way, with any other notes. (Just as a contrast, one example of a Liszt piece I do experience as “inevitable” in every respect is La Lugubre Gondola.) What I now recognize about Liszt, which I hadn’t recognized before, goes back to something George Grella once wrote. This is a paraphrase, but his point was that one can’t judge music by composer, but rather by individual works. What you wrote at the outset goes exactly to this, I think. And good old Gray, in 1933, said it too: “It is or should be, a truism to say that a composer should be judged by his best work, but Liszt, up to the present time, has been condemned on account of his worst.”

      With thanks to you for recommending some Liszt pieces for listening, I’ve created a Kyle Gann Lisztening List on Spotify so anyone who’d like to can listen in. Here’s the link: (The page that opens on the link may not show it, but, if I’ve done this correctly, every work Kyle noted should be there. The playlist can also be found by opening Spotify and searching “Kyle Gann Lisztening List.”)

  2. wanderer

    I read today “Art is the unceasing effort to compete with the beauty of flowers – and never succeeding” (Gian Carlo Menotti).

    The seventh is my fav of all, of them all, and I mean all – a haunting stream of consciousness which eschews certainty and embraces doubt, the only path to progress.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      wanderer: I love the quotation, and completely apt to these “Short Take” posts. But I wonder, do you agree? I’m not sure I do! Your comment on Sibelius’s Seventh is simply splendid, and isn’t it just so true that doubt is the only path to progress?

      1. wanderer

        The quote did seem apt for your posts, and I had literally just read it, the quote.

        Do I agree? Well, it’s all a bit circular. At first glance no I don’t. I don’t think art is about beauty, as in flowers. So then art is about truth, and truth is beauty, and truth is ugly, and ugly is beauty when it is truth, and flowers can pretty but stink and prick fingers and shrivel and die and be deformed and trampled and compete with each other for resources and trap insects and are the breeding organs for plants which make oxygen and consume carbon dioxide but then who wants to live just to look at flowers but rather to listen to Sibelius, and so where did he see beauty, and and…. I think I’ll play his violin concerto.

        Who knows what Menotti meant.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          wanderer: I love this. There is no better solution to these mind-bending quandaries than the one you chose: “I think I’ll play his violin concerto.”

  3. Curt Barnes

    Susan, Mr. Gann knows how to be provocative, doesn’t he? “The greatest piano music between Beethoven and Ives.” Reminds me that (1) much Schubert was contemporaneous with Beethoven, so maybe doesn’t count, and (2) Chopin. For the latter: talk about miraculous. But I wouldn’t dare quibble with a composer/musicologist, and have only to explore Liszt more thoroughly.
    As to Sibelius, I listened to the 7th by coincidence two nights ago. I guess the word “awesome” is overused. That was written 11 years after the premiere of the Rite of Spring, and yet shows absolutely no signs of being “safely” conservative, stodgy, resistant to change, etc. I have had to adjust my head to the fact that composers, like some latter-day figurative artists I like, can find all the challenge they need, all the inspiration, in forms that others have discarded as effete. They find new life in those forms. Did Sibelius exist in a time warp? Certainly he had to know what the avant garde was doing. But his own muse must’ve given him all the inspiration he needed, and that sounds totally sufficient to any honest ear (I avow). Same is true for Shostakovich (though for me slighly less so). Somehow we don’t have to choose sides anymore (avant garde vs. old school), in spite of the fact of the performance imbalance, audience support of one side over the other, etc. That shouldn’t influence our ears, anyway.
    Meanwhile since the first 100 or so of entries you get when you type in “Sibelius” on YouTube are orchestral, I did some research explicitly on his chamber music. Yes, he did write a bit, and yes, it can be pretty wonderful, too. He can make two instruments sound expansive. His early string quartets (before “Voces Intimae”) sound like much more interesting Borodin. Try this movement from op. 4 if you don’t have time for more:

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Curt: Interesting that you searched out Sibelius’s chamber music: so did I! I have a group of quartets cued up for listening, but feel I need to stay with the symphonies now (fear of terminal distraction!). This line of yours I particularly liked: “He can make two instruments sound expansive.” Oh, yes, and this I love, too: “I have had to adjust my head to the fact that composers, like some latter-day figurative artists I like, can find all the challenge they need, all the inspiration, in forms that others have discarded as effete.” I know just what you mean about the head adjustments, and an important head adjustment for us all is this one that you note: “Somehow we don’t have to choose sides anymore (avant garde vs. old school).” I only hope it’s true! PS: The Gray “Contingencies and Other Essays” book has a fascinating essay on Brahms.

  4. Brian Long

    Thanks for all the thoughts here. And thanks for the short mention of the trombone solo in Sibelius 7. As a lapsed trombone player I always listen out for that solo. It is beautiful writing. I still find it hard to fathom that Sibelius effectively stopped writing music for the last thirty years of his life!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Brian! How did I miss that you played trombone? A man of many talents, you are. Yes, me too, about Sibelius. How was he able to turn away, though then I think, if he felt he could not meet his exceedingly high standard, perhaps it was the only thing he could do.

  5. David N

    Wise words from Curt Barnes indeed: one could spend life better hearing (and trying to play some of) the Schubert piano sonatas than with the innovations of Liszt (though I agree, there is some spirituality in the slower Annees pieces). Surely there’s more depth and shock in Chopin, too? At least with Liszt one knows to stick to the piano music – I’ve had horrible experiences with the badly orchestrated tone poems. Just shows that innovation doesn’t always mean depth. The only time the Piano Sonata worked all the way through for me was with the wild and crazy Khatia Buniatishvili, an Argerich protegee. Some hated it; I thought the dementia was just right. Hearing her again on Wednesday.

    Anyway, with Sibelius you have it all. The comparison I find most interesting with the Seventh is Strauss’s Alpine Symphony (a 45 minute continuous movement): again, three peaks. And putting Tapiola alongside 7 is a shattering experience too.

    Meanwhile, the irises flourish in Innisfree… I must show you a crepey black one I saw in Glyndebourne on opening weekend, extraordinary. June should still be good, shouldn’t it? Do you have rose gardens nearby?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: As I wrote to Kyle, it’s hard for me to opine one way or the other, as my knowledge in general is fragmented and of Liszt I know only the barest bit. I have listened to plenty of Schubert and Chopin (and Debussy) in the day, and more recently Ravel. I’ve sort of left Chopin and even Schubert in the wake of other things–there’s a way in which I’m really a 20th/21st C gal at heart. (Oh, but then there is Berlioz . . . and the Tchaikovsky you’ve shown me . . . and there’s always Bach. Well, the list goes on, and probably depends a good bit on my frame of mind.)

      I’m not a fan of innovation for innovation’s sake. If the music doesn’t hold up, all the innovation in the world doesn’t matter to me at all. While I’m always interested in learning more, it’s an enormous effort for me, as a “lay listener,” to grasp even the smallest technical things, and I’m not about to put forth that effort if the music doesn’t “speak” to me in the first place. In the case of Liszt, while I’ve indicated to Kyle where my ear balks with Liszt’s piano sonata, I do hear it as a rich and worthwhile piece of music, and it opened a door to what Liszt had to offer and his importance in the trajectory of music that I hadn’t recognized before. (Your comment that the only time the sonata worked for you was with an Argerich protegee rang a bell, by the way. I’d been listening to Pollini, but when I switched to listening to Argerich play the piece, I was much less put off by the filigree and much more struck the piece’s wild power.)

      Sibelius is a different matter altogether. The Seventh Symphony was “love at first sight,” and it has since rewarded, and I’m sure will continue to reward, many re-hearings. To understand and listen for some of the details is an added pleasure, but you know, on some level, I don’t need to know anything about how it’s constructed to love this piece.

      I’ll look forward to seeing your crepey black iris. Yes, June should still have plenty to offer, yet there is nothing like that first flush of spring, and it goes by all too quickly. Still, each season has its own pleasures. One must always remember that!

  6. friko

    One of these days you are going to accompany your delightful photos of Innisfree Gardens with the most beautiful of all outdoor music: the sound of birdsong.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: I do often think of that when walking in Innisfree. We always have our ear out for the oriole, and the wood thrush also has the most glorious flute-y song. At home, too, we have quite a chorus at certain hours, and it’s always a pleasure.

  7. Brigitta “Britta” Huegel

    Dear Sue,
    and now it is summer! One can’t believe the date on the calendar – so quick, so quick – but your beautiful photos tell the tale convincingly: summer it is, even the blackberries are flowering! Husband looks pensively at the chestnuts – they show time running quicker than any plant I know. The beautiful quote “Have you used your summer well? Then the winter will be good to you.” comes to my mind (might be H.C. Anderson, but I’m not sure). But I am sure you use your summer well! Britta XX

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: How can it be, eh? And you recognized the blackberry flowers (I don’t know that I would have had I not seen them in their natural surroundings). Yes, let us use our summers well. I know you will, and I intend to, too.

  8. shoreacres

    Oh, my. I do try and read your comments. Sometimes it goes well, and sometimes not so well. My lack, and none of your readers. Still I enjoyed the music and the photography here so much – our spring has slipped into full summer, I fear. That means heat and humidity, and the sturdier flowers that can wilt and come back.

    I do understand your comment about the Lilacs better, now. And here’s a little tidbit for you — something I just learned. I was reading that the (anti)hero of my new post was buried under an oak by the “flag pond”. I was imagining — well, a pond with a flag pole next to it. Not so. Thanks to the town of Flag Pond, Tennessee, I learned that “flag” is another word for iris. You may know that, but I didn’t. I do remember now expressions like “yellow flags” and “wild flags.” They do look rather festive and flag-ish, those iris!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: “flag pond,” I see! I did learn somewhere along the way that “flag” was a flower. Wonder what the etymology is of that, eh?

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