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At-A-Glance

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About this Piece

The grandeur and boldness of Beethoven’s tradition-shattering piano sonatas – e.g., the “Appassionata,” the “Hammerklavier” – and the poetic expressiveness defined by Schubert, Chopin, and Schumann comprised the legacy appropriated and developed further by Franz Liszt. (It’s pertinent that Liszt arranged all nine symphonies of Beethoven and many songs of Schubert and Chopin for solo piano.) In the matter of keyboard technique, Liszt extended the existing possibilities immeasurably, demanding of ten fingers that which would have been unthinkable without the inherited traditions, but which would have been deemed unplayable by that tradition’s highest exponents. A human being of bewildering complexity, Liszt mirrored in his music an individuality that was part demon, part saint, part aristocrat, part panderer of easy emotionalism.

The Sonata in B minor reflects these qualities in a structure that is probably the most highly organized and thematically unified of any of the composer’s scores. It is a work that doesn’t have to be analyzed to be appreciated but, when analytically examined, is found to be one of the most ingeniously integrated of pieces.

The Sonata begins (and ends) in a kind of desolate mist, with a descending, tonally ambiguous scale in the piano’s bass. A sudden explosion brings on an impetuous, taut theme in octaves, followed by a brief rhythmic motif that begins with repeated notes. After these two ideas vie with each other, and the opening scale reappears, this time greatly intensified, there appears a simple but grandiose major-key theme with a repeated chord accompaniment – the apotheosis of the extravagant romantic spirit. In a work built almost wholly on thematic transformation, this theme alone remains unchanged in its reappearances, other than for its minor-key manifestations.

From this point on, the basic thematic materials are transformed into elements which rage demonically, caress angelically, disport themselves diabolically, and struggle monumentally. Throughout the work, the drama, which can be thought of as falling into movements, is projected through immensely difficult pianistics, and through lyricism requiring the most elegant tonal refinement. Ultimately, however, the demand on the performer for architectural delineation and poetic ardor is as great as for virtuosic command and superhuman strength, all these resources being required to bring this massive piano tone poem into Lisztian focus.