Influenced in his own early compositions by the Polish Chopin and the French Berlioz, both close associates in the musical circles of Paris, to which his family had moved when he was 12, Liszt came into his full creative powers only after he startled everyone by retiring from the concert stage in 1848 at the age of 37.
Settling in Weimar as Kapellmeister to the Grand Duke and earning but a fraction of his accustomed income, Liszt tirelessly dedicated himself to championing new music and to teaching any and all who appeared at his doorstep seeking help. Most important, he found time to pursue his own composing, and it was during the Weimar period that he produced, among a massive output, the important Faust Symphony, and created in the symphonic tone poem a compelling 19th-century form emulated by many after him.
In the tone poems, Liszt relied heavily on the technique of thematic transformation, a system that became the basis for Wagner’s leitmotifs in his music dramas. The relationship of Liszt and Wagner was musically a close one, and in fact became a familial one when Wagner married Cosima von Bülow. Cosima, you see, was one of Liszt’s three love children (with the Countess Marie d’Agoult), thus Liszt became Wagner’s father-in-law. But even before that relationship began, Liszt championed Wagner’s music to the public by playing his transcriptions or paraphrases of themes from many Wagner operas, among them Rienzi, Tannhäuser, and this program’s Tristan und Isolde. Liszt’s treatment of Isolde’s Liebestod is entirely respectful of its source, an unadorned realization for piano of the orchestral/vocal original.
— Orrin Howard, who served the Los Angeles Philharmonic as Director of Publications and Archives for more than 20 years, continues to contribute to the Philharmonic’s program book.