Franz Liszt was to Schubert what the Internet and file sharing are to our current bands and singers: a medium which gets the word out, creates awareness and popularity, but offers no real financial recompense to the original musicians. Keyboards are involved in both cases, but instead of DSL and T-1, Liszt used the vast network of railways that began linking the great cities of industrialized Europe during the first half of the 19th century.
The second half of this evening's program consists almost entirely of transcriptions - arrangements for solo piano of music originally written, in the case of the first five pieces, for voice and piano. It is not possible to underestimate the effect that Liszt's advocacy had on the reputations of composers like Schubert. The tunefulness and emotional immediacy of Schubert's songs would have been slow to reach the wider public's attention outside of Vienna if Liszt had not performed his wordless versions throughout his constant touring. "Lisztomania," a phrase attributed to the poet and critic Heine, was rampant. His popularity was mythic.
The source of the first transcription, Ständchen (Serenade), dates from Schubert's last months. The song, based on a poem by Rellstab, was collected by Schubert's publisher in the posthumous cycle Schwanengesang. The text describes a lover's entreaties to the beloved - a poem of yearning - and the melody is one of Schubert's most famous creations. Aufenthalt (Resting Place) also derives from a Rellstab poem and is also found in Schwanengesang. It is a bitter and resigned song about rejected love - "Surging river, roaring forest, immovable rock, my resting place." Das Wandern (Wandering) and Wohin? (Where to?) originate in the song cycle Die schöne Müllerin from texts by Wilhelm Müller. The wandering referred to evokes the running of a stream as a metaphor for physical and spiritual excursions. The water music is heard again in Wohin? as the narrator contemplates a stream and reveals an innocent readiness for discovery - "Is this then, my path? O brook, say where it leads."
Liszthimself first set Petrarch's Sonnet No. 104 as a song for voice and piano, but would later rework his original idea in two further versions for voice (tenor and baritone) and two solo piano incarnations. It is the second piano version of 1858 that has achieved a lasting popularity in the virtuoso repertory. The text declares the pain of love - "Love has me in prison, he never unlocks it, he neither claims me for his own, or loosens my bonds. I dedicate myself to grief and, yet weeping, laugh; I have both death and life in equal measure; and to this state, Lady, I came because of you."
The Mephisto Waltz No. 1 is Liszt's virtuoso depiction of an episode from the Austrian poet Lenau's verse poem of the Faust legend. The devilish Mephistopheles takes Faust to a dance at a village inn. When Mephisto begins to play his fiddle the villagers are whipped into an orgiastic frenzy. At the climax a nightingale is heard, and as the dancers disperse, Faust and the innkeeper's daughter vanish into the forest.
-- Grant Hiroshima is Executive Director of a private foundation in Chicago and the former Director of Technology Development for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.