Isoldens Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Transcribed for piano by Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

During the 19th century, popular songs found their way to a broader public through live performance. Composers arranged arias from operas, songs, or symphonic movements, for solo piano, four-hand piano, or a variety of chamber ensembles. Franz Liszt made hundreds of such transcriptions, often transforming pieces into virtuoso vehicles while making other composers’ music better known. His transcriptions divide into two principal types: free paraphrases that effectively recomposed the original, adding new material; and literal transcriptions that are faithful to the prior work. Fifteen of these adaptations drew from Richard Wagner’s operas.

Tristan und Isolde (1859) was Wagner’s giant leap into the future. Structurally, harmonically, and philosophically, this opera is worlds apart from its predecessors. Tristan focuses on feelings rather than actions. Biographer Barry Millington has written:

Every element of Tristan, poetical and musical, is geared to the generation and intensification of tension -- the tension of promised but evaded fulfilment.

Elsewhere, Millington refers to Tristan as "the ultimate glorification of love." The closing segment of the opera, which we hear in Franz Liszt’s 1867 transcription for solo piano, is in many ways a microcosm of the whole.

Inevitably, listeners have hypothesized that the tale must have been prompted by events in Wagner's chaotic life. There are indeed autobiographical parallels. He was romantically involved in the 1850s with Mathilde von Wesendonck, whose husband Otto was a friend of Wagner's. Thus one could extrapolate that Wagner viewed himself as Tristan, Mathilde as Isolde, and Otto as King Marke (Tristan's uncle, and Isolde's betrothed, in the opera).

Liszt’s decision to transcribe this particular excerpt is intriguing, because he had an extraordinarily conflicted relationship with Wagner. They first met in 1841. Their relations became warmer after Liszt moved to Weimar in 1848. During the 1850s, the friendship developed into a strong bond with positive artistic symbiosis.

Wagner’s affair with Liszt’s daughter Cosima, which began in 1864, compromised the friendship. Cosima was then married to Liszt’s protégé, the conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow. Ironically, Bülow led the première of Tristan und Isolde in June 1865, two months after his wife gave birth to Wagner’s illegitimate child. It says a great deal about Liszt’s high regard for Wagner’s music that he undertook the Liebestod transcription – one of his most ambitious – at a time of estrangement from both his daughter and Wagner.

Tristan und Isolde is a celebration of sensuality. Much of the second act consists of an extended and passionate duet between the lovers that takes place after Isolde has married King Marke. Wagner's ecstatic music raises their tryst to a metaphysical level that transcends the carnal: they have ascended to a level of love that can only exist in death. The king's hunting party surprises the lovers, and Tristan allows himself to be wounded. At the conclusion of the opera, he expires in Isolde's arms from the wounds he sustained, and the lovers are united in eternity. Isolde's lament is traditionally known as the Liebestod ["Love-Death"]. Wagner referred to this excerpt as Isolde's transfiguration. Isolde's musical material is derived from the music of the opera’s famous Prelude. Her Liebestod illustrates the yearning for death as the only possible dénouement to the consummation of perfect love.

Aside from the addition of four measures at the beginning to establish the harmonic world of the opera’s Prelude, Liszt’s transcription of Isoldens Liebestod is faithful to Wagner’s original. He faced a challenge because of the inherent expressive limitations of the piano, which does not allow for a surging increase in volume once a note or chord has been struck. The piano has no possibility for sustained notes the way a string or wind instrument does -- or the human voice. Liszt solved the problem by using tremolo, in most cases where Wagner specified tremolando in the strings, and by transferring the orchestral texture to a series of intricate lines that emulate the opulent Wagnerian orchestra.

Sonata in B minor
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

The 19th century’s Brahms/Wagner divide hinged on the merits of absolute music and programme music. Brahms was a champion of absolute music: the art form for its own sake, abstract works cast in the traditional forms and genres of sonata, symphony, variations. Wagner believed that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony had sounded the death knell of the symphony. In his view, the future of music lay in multi-sensory artistic packages that embraced other arts such as literature. The ultimate artistic creation was opera: a Gesamtkunstwerk [complete art work] that combined music and libretto along with the visual arts of costume, lighting, and set design.

Franz Liszt was firmly in the Wagnerian camp. Though Liszt did not compose operas, most of his original works are somehow linked to an extramusical source. Indeed, Liszt effectively invented the symphonic poem, and he was the first to employ that term (in 1854, for a performance of the orchestral work Tasso). His piano music abounds in programmatic references, ranging from concert fantasies based on operatic themes to travelogues memorializing his years abroad (Années de pèlerinage).

Thus the Sonata in B Minor seems something of an aberration. Why would Liszt tackle a sonata, that most revered and intellectual of solo vehicles? The answer is complex, and has close connections to another significant contribution that Liszt made to music: the concept of thematic transformation.

Among Liszt’s hundreds of piano works there are only two sonatas: the Dante Sonata, a programmatic work related both Dante’s Inferno and a poem about Dante by the French author Victor Hugo, and the Sonata in B minor. Both works date from the early 1850s and employ sonata principles within the framework of a large, one-movement form. Thereafter the similarities diminish. Whereas the Dante Sonata is part of the Années de pèlerinage, the B minor Sonata stands independently: a brilliant experiment in form.

Liszt took two icons of absolute music as his points of departure: Beethoven and Schubert. He had studied the bold structural inventions in Beethoven’s late piano sonatas and particularly admired the mighty sectional finale to the Ninth Symphony. Among Schubert’s piano works, his principal model was the Wanderer-Fantasie, which Liszt played frequently in recital and also arranged for piano and orchestra.

The melodic material in Liszt’s Sonata is amorphous. He waits a while before he gives us something to hold onto, yet the quiet opening measures contain a motive that will recur in various guises throughout the sonata. This motive, a descending scale in the lower register, resembles Wagner’s Leitmotif for Wotan’s sword in the Ring cycle. Liszt employs it as a unifying device.

Then comes the first explosion: a sharp, angular burst in double octaves, answered by a sinister rumble in the bass. The repeated notes, the fits and starts, the stark contrasts have their roots in both Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata and his late C minor Sonata, Op.111. In the first fifteen measures, Liszt has put nearly all his thematic cards on the table – but he has barely begun to shuffle or recombine those cards. This man was an expert poker player.

He takes us on a spectacular journey of big chords and dazzling passage work, crossed hands, and fearsome cascades of double octaves. We hardly know what key we are in through the tumult. This ‘music of gesture’ and ‘music of mood’ has ample precedent in the romantic era, and Liszt was a master of romantic keyboard technique. The bravura segment ushers in the next Big Theme, marked Grandioso, and initially stated in D major. Remarkably, for a work that is so tonally unstable at its start, Liszt has landed us in the relative major, precisely where we would expect to be at this point in a conventional sonata.

The Grandioso music is the last major new idea that Liszt introduces. Now begins the thematic transformation – a process of extended development through which the newly evolved themes become the form itself. Liszt adheres to the structural ideas he set forth and explored in his symphonic poems, many of which date from the same period of the early 1850s. His transformation maintains the overall shape of each melodic unit and, in many cases, the actual pitches, but he alters the harmony, mood, rhythm, and character as well as tempo. The pianist and writer Charles Rosen has written:

Even more profound is the tendency of all the themes of the sonata to turn into one another. This fluidity of thematic identity is perhaps the greatest sign of Liszt’s mastery. . . .Three different themes . . . [spring] clearly from a common source: one motif slips easily into the others.

Just as Liszt blurs the contours and distinctiveness of his melodic material, so does he erase the boundaries between sections of music. The Sonata contains no distinct movements, and musicians have long debated whether it consists of three or four principal sections. Passages of recitativo, mini-cadenzas, and the momentary silence of a fermata [pause] all serve as transitions. The music includes intimate passages that seem like eavesdropping on a confessional, such as the central Andante sostenuto that is sometimes cited as the sonata’s “slow movement.” Some listeners perceive the brilliant fugato – whose subject combines two of the motives introduced on the sonata’s first page – as a scherzo. The seamless narrative flow argues otherwise, however, transporting us back to more double octaves, a reacquaintance with the descending scale motive, and two more transcendent statements of the grandioso theme.

Liszt’s original conclusion was big, bold, and loud, marked triple forte. He reconsidered that ending, ultimate realizing that the heroism and grandiosity had already occurred. The Sonata ends with a final statement of the three ideas on its opening page, now in radiant B major. The first is piano, sotto voce [quiet, subdued, ‘under’ the voice], gradually dissipating to triple piano.

If one listens to surface detail, the B minor Sonata sounds free, improvisatory, and episodic. Liszt’s use of Phrygian mode and Central European Gypsy scales enriches the harmonic palette. His larger scheme is dazzling in its complexity and discipline. The complexity arises from the sophistication of Liszt’s thematic metamorphosis. The discipline is inherent in the composer’s simultaneous attention to detail and to the architecture of large structure.

With the Sonata in B minor, Liszt was trying to move the venerable, prestigious sonata form forward to the next era, to give this traditional vessel a future in what he regarded as the correct path for music. When the Sonata was published in 1854, admirers heralded it as a masterpiece. Detractors scorned it as an ill-conceived, overwrought exercise in virtuosity. Posterity’s judgment has been generous. Kenneth Hamilton has written that, if Liszt had composed nothing else, the Sonata alone “would still be enough to rank him as one of the greatest Romantic composers.” By any measure, the Sonata is incomparably original and one of musical romanticism’s defining leaps forward.


Is the Sonata in B minor really a work of absolute music, or does it have a programmatic subtext? Recent scholarship has been all over the map on this question.

One theory links the Sonata to Goethe’s Faust, finding a direct parallel to Liszt’s musical treatment of its themes in his orchestral portraits of Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles in the Faust Symphony. Another hears in the Sonata a direct analogue to the Creation, the fall of mankind and expulsion from Paradise, and mankind’s redemption through Christ’s crucifixion. A third camp perceives the Sonata as an autobiographical work, Liszt’s self-portrait in music.

Liszt would likely have repudiated these interpretations, despite the fact that he was a staunch advocate of programme music. Neither he nor the students who studied this work with him wrote about any programme for it.

The Sonata in B minor is a rare abstract composition that is more a study in his individual adaptation of traditional form to suit his own perception of thematic treatment and pianistic technique. Writing in 1965, John Gillespie called it “incredibly disciplined, molded with meticulous attention to detail.” As listeners, we may marvel at its micro and macro qualities. No note is wasted, yet Liszt keeps us grounded in a sense of narrative sweep and inevitability. His music is its own story.

10 Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, Op.75
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Prokofiev’s most significant contribution to the piano literature is his nine solo sonatas, written from 1909 to 1947. Somewhat lesser known are his nearly one hundred additional keyboard pieces. An important subgroup comprises transcriptions of his orchestral works. These include the Classical Symphony and selections from ballet and film scores. The Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet that close Mr. Abduraimov’s recital are the most popular of Prokofiev’s transcriptions.

Many operas and orchestral works have been based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Sergei Prokofiev was the first to compose a ballet. That decision was a stroke of genius and a monumental challenge, because Shakespeare's drama was difficult to convey through ballet. The dancers would have to be able to act in order to project the emotional and psychological nuances of the story. Prokofiev developed the ballet scenario with Sergei Radlov (1892-1958), a Soviet stage director with considerable Shakespearean experience.

Most of Romeo and Juliet dates from 1935, the year before Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union after nearly 20 years living abroad. The orchestral excerpts he published as concert suites became well known in Russian concert halls even before the ballet was produced. He made these piano transcriptions in 1936 and 1937, performing them in Moscow in 1937.

The ten movements he transcribed for piano loosely follow the trajectory of Shakespeare’s drama. ‘Folk Dance, ‘Scene,’ and ‘Minuet’ introduce the uncomplicated melodies and direct harmonic appeal that characterize most of Prokofiev’s score – a far cry from the thorny, often dissonant vocabulary of his sonatas.

“Juliet as a Young Girl” portrays the innocent heroine before she has met Romeo. Still half girl, half woman, she is untroubled and teasing. Responsibility, passion and tragedy have not yet clouded her life. This movement was a personal favorite of Prokofiev’s. He often played it independently in his solo recitals.

“Masks” is the music for Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio arriving uninvited at the Capulets’ ball in disguise. Yes, the young men are at a social event and intend to be on their best behavior, but the uncompromising march rhythm makes clear they could be looking for trouble.

In the orchestral version, percussion is essential to establishing a martial mood for this movement. Prokofiev approximates that effect with thickly textured writing in both hands, even though his dynamics range from pianissimo to fortissimo.

He presents the tension of the families’ feud and potential for violence with “Montagues and Capulets,” communicating their menacing antipathy. Here again, the transcription is dense, probing the piano’s limits with ominous octaves in both hands that span the full range of the piano. Only the central Moderato tranquillo passage – listen for a switch to triple meter and quieter dynamics – provides momentary respite.

“Friar Laurence” and “Mercutio” are two of Prokofiev’s superb character portraits. The first suggests the sympathetic priest’s gentle wisdom. Prokofiev uses “Mercutio” for the fight with Tybalt. Mercutio’s music bursts with energy, bounding up and down the keyboard with dazzling agility. Prokofiev suggests that Mercutio has the quixotic, mercurial personality of his namesake. Jagged rhythms bring the thrusts and feints of the duel vividly to life.

At the end of Act III, Juliet has nominally agreed to her parents’ wish that she marry Paris, but Friar Laurence has given her the potion that will make her appear to have died. “Dance of the Antilles Girls” (also known as ‘Dance of the Girls with Lilies’) takes place after she has drunk the potion and fallen asleep. The girls arrive with flowers in anticipation of the wedding. Prokofiev’s music is delicate and understated.

“Romeo and Juliet before Parting” communicates the depth of feeling between the newlyweds. They share a few quiet moments of intimacy in some of Prokofiev’s tenderest and most passionate love music. Throughout these ten transcriptions, he is a master at capturing both the vibrance and tragedy of their doomed love.

By Laurie Shulman © 2018
First North American Serial Rights Only