Should it surprise us that Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, widely accepted now as the summit of the entire Romantic piano repertory, was greeted with doubt and hostility at its inception? Innovation and change are often greeted with skepticism.
Clara Schumann, piano virtuoso and wife of the sonata’s dedicatee, Robert Schumann, found it “frightful,” and a Liszt pupil, William Mason, recounts an amusing incident when the young Johannes Brahms, just out of his teens, travelled to Weimar to meet the great master. At a small gathering of admirers, Liszt was asked to play his new sonata and was glad to oblige: “As he progressed he came to a very expressive part of the Sonata, which he always imbued with great pathos, and in which he looked for the especial interest and sympathy of listeners. Casting a glance at Brahms, he found that the latter was dozing in his chair. Liszt continued playing to the end of the Sonata, then rose and left the room.”
The year was 1853. Liszt was halfway through a decade he would spend in Weimar as court conductor for the grand duke. It was a period of intense compositional productivity, given that his previous career as a travelling virtuoso gave him no time for composing. From his late 20s to his late 30s, Liszt had become an international sensation. He commanded unprecedented fees and ceaseless adulation for nearly a decade – a rock star in the age of steam. And at the height of his fame in 1847, he walked away from the concert platform, only rarely ever playing in public again, and moved to Weimar, where the population numbered little more than ten thousand.
In the years since Brahms’ snooze, Liszt’s sonata (amazingly, considering the sheer volume of his musical output over a long life, it is his sole composition in this form) has rightfully been recognized as his supreme masterpiece. Much has been written about possible programmatic narratives which serve as unspoken foundations for the innovative single-movement structure. And musical analysts have never tired of deconstructing its formal intricacies.
But for an audience, the sweeping drama of this continuous 30 minutes of music renders explanation unnecessary. Growing out of silence, the sonata progresses through four distinct sections – our ears recognizing the familiar structures of the traditional sonata: an expository opening section, a lyrical andante, a scherzo-like fugato, and a dramatic final peroration. We hear, too, a cyclical organic regeneration unique to this sonata as themes are introduced, extrapolated, combined, subsumed, and reborn.
We know from the manuscript that Liszt’s original intention was to end the sonata with a bang, a brilliant virtuosic climax. But his reconsidered ending is surely the mark of genius. Make no mistake; there is no want of pianistic bedazzlement in the sonata. In fact, the extreme demands made on the performer are partly responsible for the sonata’s slow acceptance by a wider musical world. But Liszt, the ultimate piano showman, chose to eschew a final explosion in favor of mystery and silence. There is grandeur in the enigmatic.
– Grant Hiroshima