Schubert’s songs and Liszt’s tears


Schubert wrote over 600 lieder, and Liszt, who made his first piano transcription of a Schubert song a few years after the death of Schubert, applied his pianistic magic to some 60 of these songs.  Perhaps one of the most famous is his transcription of Schubert’s Ave Maria (with Barbara Bonney and Geoffrey Parson here) which many well-known pianists have attempted and recorded (we are rather partial to Lazar Berman’s interpretation). 

One of our favourites is Auf dem Wasser zu Singen (“to be sung on the water”) – hear Schubert’s original (with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore) and Liszt’s rendition (with Yvgeny Kissin) – and you can see and hear how Liszt’s transcription is highly faithful to the Schubert original (the 2 scores are side by side in the above image).   

Liszt himself also wrote much vocal music in the German lieder tradition, while also making some piano transcriptions of his own often sacred choral pieces – notably, in the set of 10 pieces that form the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses for the piano, 3 were transcriptions of his own choral work [all 3 originals were composed in 1846]): #2 Ave Maria (yes, this is Liszt’s transcription of his own Ave Maria, a much less virtuosic affair), #5 Pater Noster, and #6 Hymne de l’enfant à son réveil (“The Awakening Child’s Hymn”).   

Liszt explained what moved him to his intense preoccupation with Schubert’s lieder between the years of 1833 and 1845 during his 1838 visit in Vienna:

I heard in the salons, with vivid pleasure and sentimentality bringing tears to my eyes, an artistic friend, the Baron von Schönstein, present Schubert’s lieder. The French translation renders only a very incomplete sense of how this mostly-very-lovely poetry connects to the music of Schubert, the most poetic musician ever to live. The German language is so admirable in the area of sentimentality, perhaps only a German is capable of comprehending the naiveté and fantastic aspects of so many of these compositions, their capricious appeal, their melancholy letting-go.

In Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert’s songs and of his own choral works, he often provides the words of the original over the piano score

These transcriptions are all rather faithful to the original, while Liszt also made a different kind of transcription that is much more of a free variation on the original, more improvisational, taking a work and building it in his own image, and these are often called paraphrases, reminiscences, or fantasies.  This is Horowitz playing the Liszt transcription of Wagner’s Isolde’s Liebestod.  More on this in a next piece.  

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