Composed: 1839-1849; rev. 1853
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, cymbals, triangle, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 7, 1920, with soloist Mildred Marsh, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
The present-day media would have been wild about Franz Liszt. With a matinee idol's good looks (Liszt was almost as well-known for his victories in the boudoir as for his triumphs in the concert hall), and with an enormous natural technical facility honed to dazzling brilliance, Liszt became the 19th century's first piano virtuoso superstar. Greatly influenced in his own early compositions by the Polish Chopin and the French Berlioz, both close associates in the musical circles of Paris, Liszt only came into his full creative powers after he startled everyone by retiring from the concert stage in 1848 at the age of 37. (Think of the TV coverage that would have gotten.)
Settling in Weimar as Kapellmeister to the Grand Duke, and earning but a fraction of his accustomed income, he 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 the important Faust Symphony, created in the symphonic tone poem a compelling 19th-century form emulated by many after him, and completed both of the piano concertos he was to finish.
The First Piano Concerto was started in the 1830s. After considerable revision, Liszt performed it in 1855, with Berlioz conducting. Although it is an unabashed showpiece - and a model for pianist-composers to come - it is more than just that, being a sterling example of Liszt's progressive, anti-Classical style in which sought-after unity is attained through transformations of a few basic ideas. There are, in fact, four movements, but only the first (and last, of course) ends conclusively, the other two being linked to the ones that follow.
The first movement opens with an urgent, forceful theme in the orchestra answered by the piano in a demonic octave passage replete with death-defying leaps. All of this material occurs again at the end of the third movement. The second, nocturnal theme is scored transparently for the solo instrument with clarinet and strings, and the movement ends as piano figurations float above the orchestra's quiet remembrance of the main martial air.
A lyric movement follows, and it is this material that is transformed (some say disfigured) into the march-like theme that pervades the finale. Between the lyricism of the second movement and the bravura of the final one, a capricious, singularly attractive Scherzo shimmers dazzlingly, with the tinkly triangle a quaint, virtually ever-present companion. As noted, within this Scherzo the first movement is recalled. Now, over a long piano trill, a melody that first appeared at the end of the second movement is sung by the flute, a melody which is yet to become, at a faster speed, the finale's second theme. (Believe me, it is not easy to follow these thematic transformations, but try.) Other threads are drawn in, but the goal now is to make a brilliant close, which Liszt accomplishes handily, paving the way for the grand piano concerto climaxes of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Grieg, etc., etc.
Indeed, with the finale of his First Piano Concerto as evidence, among extrovert composers, Franz Liszt is very nearly the champ of them all.
— Orrin Howard served for many years as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications and Archives.