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Finished on February 2, 1853 according to Liszt’s own manuscript note, the Sonata in B minor came to fruition during the composer’s incredibly prolific and busy Weimar period. The Sonata has often been interpreted as a programmatic work with inspirations ranging from Milton’s Paradise Lost and the biblical tale of Adam and Eve, to speculations that the Faust legend as well as the story of Genesis – of God and the devil, creation and annihilation, sin and redemption – are at its core. Liszt himself never even hinted at such a possibility and there is no clear evidence to support such interpretations. However, it would be fair to assert that the composer’s deep spirituality, strong Catholic values, and faith influenced his music in general and specifically the Sonata’s rich thematic material and strong emotional charge.
Often considered as Liszt’s greatest solo piano work, while also a subject of scholarly disputes over its form, the Sonata in B minor is a single movement in sonata form, within which one can distinguish the four movements of a sonata cycle – first, slow, scherzo, and finale. Only a composer with great skill and musical finesse could have achieved the result of “a sonata within a sonata” or a “double-function form,” where the middle Andante, for example, serves both as a development section to the entire piece and a slow movement to the four-movement sonata structure here encapsulated in one continuous whole. The fugue following the Andante bears characteristics of a scherzo, while the recapitulation also acts as a finale to the cycle.
The opening motive of the Sonata is a slow, descending scale on G, outlining at first the Phrygian mode, and upon repeat the Balkan/Eastern European (or sometimes vaguely called “gypsy”) sound of the biharmonic scale. This motive articulates the sonata’s seven-measure introduction, marked Lento Assai. Its tonal ambiguity not only seems quite far removed from the key of B minor, but its murky and tentative atmosphere appears in total contrast with the spirited Allegro Energico that follows after a moment of silence. With this fast alla breve we hear the second motive represented by majestic octaves outlining diminished triads and immediately followed by a descending triplet. The last octave has barely rung out when we hear the introduction of the third motive with a marcato repetition of five Ds in the low register of the piano. Its chromatic quality and rapid staccato give it a sinister quality often described as Mephistophelean. Thus, only in 17 measures on the first page of the Sonata, Liszt has managed to present three of the four main themes of the piece.
What follows is a substantial section of cascades of 16th-note arpeggios, virtuosic rapid octaves, and walls of repeated notes. This section dissects those three motives into cells mashed up in waves of sound with one purpose - building up the tension until the explosive introduction of the majestic fourth theme. This theme, a massive chorale set as a regal melody on top of repeated chordal accompaniment and marked Grandioso by the composer, has been attributed to the composer’s devoted Catholic nature. It certainly attains an almost religious significance as it is introduced after the disturbed and dark nature of the first three motives. Once having presented the themes in their entirety, Liszt skillfully manipulates them through the use of thematic transformation – altering the motivic material with each appearance and developing its harmonic and rhythmic structure in varying contexts and textures. The coda brings back all of the thematic elements in a virtuosic prestissimo whirlwind before surrendering to an otherworldly chord progression played pianissimo. The Sonata ends on a B-major chord – a true heavenly light, which we finally see after feeling the tumultuous cleansing power of this monumental work of art.
Notes by Milen Kirov