Piano Concerto No. 1 in Eb, No. 1, LW H4

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           In the pantheon of musical greats it would be difficult, indeed, to think of anyone whose reputation as man, performer, and composer has varied more with both scholars and the public.  He was clearly one of the most influential musicians of the nineteenth century, both as composer and as one whose virtuosity as pianist was—and probably still is—unexcelled.  Musical composition during the Romantic period in music tended to roughly align with two schools of thought:  those who believed there was significant life left in the traditional approaches inherited from Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and those who pushed ahead into the future with new approaches to basics of form, harmony, and æsthetics.  Only a moment’s reflection will remind us that the former group included Brahms, for example, and the latter, our friends, Wagner, Berlioz, and, of course, Franz Liszt.

            After World War I, with the advent of musical modernism and the waning of respect for the music of the nineteenth century, it became fashionable to deride just about everything to do with Liszt.  His compositions were viewed as lightweight, bombastic affairs that sacrificed integrity for cheap theatrics, borne by stellar, but empty virtuosity—too freighted with extra-musical romantic mush.  His personal life was a perfect exemplar of a nineteenth-century “rock star,” with swooning admirers and flagrant public violation of moral values.  No one, except perhaps Paganini, wowed the public more on the stage.   Liszt more or less thumbed his nose at every convention, musical and social, for the aggrandizement of his personal and musical life.  So was the story.

            Well, that was the common view until the advent of the revival of Romantic music after World War II.  Most all agree that the perceptions outlined above were a gross distortion.   Where to start?  His virtuosity was without peer, but in his compositions that very virtuosity—along with the important advances in the construction of pianos—laid the foundation for modern piano technique, and a myriad of possibilities for new textures in compositions for that instrument.   His contributions to modern piano study, performance and composition are fundamental.  As a teacher he was indefatigable, generous, and taught without compensation legions of students—whether they were of great talent or not.   Today, we have come to appreciate his prescience for the directions of advanced harmony that informed early twentieth-century composition.   His late piano works anticipate much of what we hear in the harmonies, scales, and economical textures of Debussy, Schoenberg, and others.   And Liszt knew it and predicted it.  The nineteenth-century’s answer to the symphony—the tone poem—was his creation.   Yes, he did notoriously live without the convention of marriage with other men’s wives, and fathered children with them.  But, those relationships were few, long lived, and with women the legitimacy of whose marriages were questionable, anyway.   He was devoted to them, loved his children deeply, and late in life, turned more and more to the solace of what was a lifelong sincere religiosity.   He lived in Rome at the Vatican, and took minor clerical orders, and became a dedicated associate of the establishment there, including the Pope.  So there.

            A prolific composer—with hundreds and hundreds of works—he wrote chiefly for the piano, but also for the organ, for chorus, solo voice, and the orchestra.  Among his works for solo instrument and orchestra are two fully completed piano concertos, out of many infrequently performed works, which entered the standard repertoire early on (a third recently surfaced).  He composed both of them during roughly the same period, from the 1830s to the1850s, revising them, and not giving the premières until long after the inception of their composition.

         The Eb concerto was first performed in 1855 with Liszt as soloist and another great musical proto-romanticist conducting, Hector Berlioz.  Liszt’s original title for the work, “Première Concerto Symphonique pour Piano et Orchestre,” gives us a strong clue to an important aspect of the overall form of this concerto.  It is, indeed, symphonic in its conception, with all four movements mirroring the traditional makeup of a symphony:  fast, slow, scherzo, and fast.   Liszt, ever the innovator, thus dropped the traditional three-movement scheme of concertos, and then went one further by designing his first concerto to blend all four movements together into one continuous, unified work.  Liszt was a master of the technique, “thematic transformation,” in which a given idea appears throughout a large work literally transformed into various guises.  These different appearances at first seem to be totally new ideas, but are in fact, cleverly derived from the original.   He pursed this in most of his large, single movement forms, whether for solo piano, or in another of his innovations: the symphonic poem.

            The main theme is impossible to miss, in the stentorian announcement by unison strings at the very beginning.  Listen well, for it subtly informs the other themes that follow.  The piano immediate answers with a Lisztian roulade, followed by an exquisite, lyrical phrase in the best Chopin tradition, and we’re off to the races. Each section, to be sure has its own themes, as does a sonata form, and Liszt exploits that idea in the concerto.   While the orchestra is clearly in a subordinate, accompanying rôle, there are nevertheless opportunities for the group to shine, especially in many of the “duets” between various orchestra soloists and the pianist—clarinet and viola, especially.  The virtuosity of Liszt, himself, is clearly on display throughout, with dazzling rapid octaves, and a plethora of other impressive digital pyrotechnics.  When the last movement arrives, we hear the main theme from the very beginning, of course in a new guise, and a review of all the themes from the other sections suitably transformed.  This jolly, but sturdy, march is comprised of all of this, new—yet familiar—and careens to a brilliant conclusion.   While this first concerto is representative of the dazzling virtuosity for Liszt is known, and does not yet show the abstruse paths to the future that his late works imbue, it is nevertheless a work of great integrity and beauty.   It is clear evidence of genius in a protean man now newly appreciated.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan