The noble Liszt, the song-inspired Liszt and “art that conceals art”



The piano literature is pervaded by the musical attitude of singing … Turning the piano into a vehicle of singing is not, to be sure, entirely Liszt’s doing.  But who else was able to make the vox humana vibrate so sensuously on the piano?

So wrote the pianist Alfred Brendel who also admitted,

I know I am compromising myself by speaking up for Liszt … Pianists tend to warn one another to avoid performances of Liszt in Amsterdam or Vienna, Munich or Stockholm … 

And, so he goes on:

It is a peculiarity of Liszt’s music that it faithfully and fatally mirrors the character of its interpreter.  When his works give the impression of being hollow, superficial and pretentious, the fault lies usually with the performer, occasionally with the (prejudiced) listener, and only very rarely with Liszt himself.”

In Liszt’s very large compositional output, there is much to discover that is very much about the “noble” Liszt and the song-inspired Liszt, or, to quote Brendel again,

With Haydn, [Liszt is’ the most frequently misunderstood among major composers”, 


The nineteenth century punished … Liszt for his undisputed supremacy as a performer”.

Liszt was a piano composer par excellence but one who wrote many songs: over 120 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; one only needs to listen to one of these, Kennst du das Land (set to Goethe’s poetry) to hear the nobility in Liszt’s music (you don’t hear one single superfluous note either).  There is of course also the more well-known Oh quand je dors, set to Victor Hugo’s poetry, a most beautiful gem of a song.  On top of songs, Liszt also wrote a number of religious choral works. 

In fact, he made piano transcriptions of a few of his own songs.  And interestingly, he made a piano variation on a song he called the “forgotten song” – we are not very sure today about the origin of the song that apparently was found by a friend in the form of a “fragment” at the Villa d’Este 30 years after (hence “forgotten”) – but the piano version of it (Romance oubliée” S.527) is beautifully elegiac and certainly not forgettable (and there is an earlier version of it too S.169 that Lang Lang plays nobly as an encore). 

This is also the piano composer who wrote piano transcriptions of great quality on many other composers’ songs.  This includes the songs of Schubert as well as Beethoven, Chopin, Rossini, Schumann, as well as a piano piece on 2 religious choral works called A la Chapelle Sixtine (S.461).  There is also the series of well-known piano transcriptions and variations on operatic fragments.

We turn to the apposite comment by the authoritative writer on much of the pianist’s repertoire Charles Rosen:

Some of Liszt’s [transcriptions] have an unsuspected fidelity, a genuine […] attempt to enter into the original composer’s skin. The arrangement of Chopin’s songs is a considerable improvement on the vocal version.” 

We refer you to the wonderful pianist Gyorgy Cziffra ‘s performance of Liszt’s transcription of one of Chopin’s small output of songs, “A maiden’s wish” (Życzenie) from his Polish Songs, a piece we included in our first list of “top 10 song-inspired piano pieces

Looking today, no one did more to popularize Schubert’s music in the nineteenth century than Liszt (in fact, Schubert’s songs were not fashionable during his lifetime; neither were his piano music, as a matter of fact), while Liszt scholar and biographer Alan Walker called Liszt’s Schubert song transcriptions “art that conceals art”.  Indeed Liszt was a tireless champion of the music of many composers, not just Schubert but also Chopin, Berlioz, Schumann, Grieg, and others. 

As for the nobility in Liszt’s piano works, we love especially this piece, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (“Blessing of God’ in solitude), from his set of 10 pieces entitled Harmonies poétiques et religieuses where we find Liszt marvelling at God’s creation and expressing deep religious sentiments in the music, though there are many other examples.  Liszt prefaced the piece with one stanza of the poem of famed French poet Alphonse de Lamartine (whose poetry inspired much of the set):

D’où me vient, ô mon Dieu! cette paix qui m’inonde?
D’où me vient cette foi dont mon cœur surabonde?
À moi qui tout à l’heure incertain, agité,
Et sur les flots du doute à tout vent ballotté,
Cherchais le bien, le vrai, dans les rêves des sages,
Et la paix dans des cœurs retentissants d’rages.
À peine sur mon front quelques jours ont glissé,
II me semble qu’un siècle et qu’un monde ont passé;
Et que, séparé d’eux par un abîme immense,
Un nouvel homme en moi renaît et recommence.

(Whence comes to me, O my God, this peace that overwhelms me?
Whence comes this faith in which my heart abounds?
To me who just now, uncertain, agitated,
And on the waves of doubt buffeted by every wind,
Sought goodness, truth, in the dreams of the wise,
And peace in hearts resounding with fury,
When barely on my brow a few days have slipped by,
It seems that a century and a world have passed;
And that, separated from them by a great abyss,
A new man is born again within me and starts anew.)


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