A pre-concert note #2: Liszt the song-writer, sonnet-lover, and consummate traveller

You who come from heaven

We love the songs that Liszt wrote, and we can’t wait to be performing 2 of his most sublime songs – “You who come from heaven” (Der du von dem Himmel bist) (here with Diana Damrau) (on German great Goethe’s rather well-known text, the first of his two Wandrers Nachtlied or Wanderer’s Nightsong, where the nocturnal ‘I’ asks for peace but has not found it) and “Ah while I sleep” (Oh quand je dors) (here with Kathleen Battle) (on French great Victor Hugo’s poem, with the composer knowing Hugo personally and having as a young man visited the latter’s Parisian home and and played the piano) at the “Songs and Sonnets” concert in a few days. 

Liszt the song writer composed over 120 works if one counts the many revisions he created (and over 70 if one doesn’t), spanning a wide array of styles and six different languages. 

Oh quand je dors is the longer of the two songs and it is pure Liszt: the off-tonic start to the piano introduction, the telling use of silences (almost recitativo style), the anticipation of the singer’s melody in the prelude, the sublime melodic lines that speaks of rapt ardour, the contrast between the C sharp minor’s ‘dismal dream’ and the F major sweetness of the glances from the the beloved’s caressing eyes. 

He then also made piano transcriptions on his own songs – these 2 songs we are performing received the self-transcription treatment (here’s Kit Armstrong playing the piano version of “You who come from heaven”) – while his hundreds of piano transcriptions on other composers songs is quite well-known especially that of Schubert.  

Liszt’s literary interest is well-known, and he read different literature as he travelled as well.  Of course, pianists already know his 3 books of Années de pèlerinage (or Years of Pilgrimage), and even the title of this work has strong literary connections, referencing Goethe’s famous novels of self-realization, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Travels.

The first Liszt piano piece that is included in the “Songs and sonnets” programme, from Book 1 (“Switzerland”) of Années (which Warren Lee plays in the concert) has a preface with 2 texts, reflecting the strength of the literary influence and probably also inspiration on the composer’s mind:

‘Que veux-je? que suis-je? que demander à la nature?…’
(“What do I wish? What am I? What shall I ask of nature? I feel; I exist only to waste myself in unconquerable longings”)
(from Sénancour the novel about Obermann that is set in Switzerland)

But as it is, I live and die unheard, With a most voiceless thought, sheathing it as a sword.’
(from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage)

The song Oh quand je dors that is written on Victor Hugo’s poem itself references the the Italian great Petrarch and his love Laura, and this song reminds us of the Liszt who wrote those 3 Petrarch sonnets for the piano in Book 2 (“Italy”) of the Années, Sonnets 47, 104 and 123. The lesser-known Liszt the song-writer and the better-known Liszt the piano composer extraordinaire whose inspirations are often literary and certainly the Liszt the composer in the Années, is ultimately the same Liszt.  

The other Liszt piano piece that is included in the “Songs and sonnets” programme, Ave Maria, S.182 (sometimes referred to as “Bells of Rome”) (here with Richter) (which Sylvia Chan plays in the concert) does not have a preface with 2 texts, but it also reflects Liszt the traveller (he eventually made Rome his main residence for 8 years later in his life, in the 1860s; a most interesting work he wrote that was inspired by his visit to the Sistine Chapel was included in our 2017 Hear the song in the music programme [see our write-up of the piece here too) as well as Liszt the composer who always wrote music that reflects his own inner search (that tension between his religious devotion and his love of earthly delights and beautiful excesses) into his music. The piece starts simply but by the end of the work, the pianist is working hard and virtuosically at both ends of the keyboard!



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