The Creation Of The Modern Piano Music Language
The technique of playing the keyboard instruments can be
roughly summarized as starting with the use of fingers only, i.e. the
early Virginal, harpsichord music, going towards the use of the entire
upper body for grasping a larger range of a wider keyboard and a bigger
sound volume with the appearance of the modern piano. This evolution
which can be seen clearly in the works of Orlando Gibbons; William
Byrd; followed by J.S. Bach, specially the Goldberg Variations are a
turning point in keyboard playing technique, then the composer sons of
Johann Sebastian Bach, specially Johann Christian and Carl Philipp
Emanuel Bach radically changed not only the musical style but also,
inevitably, the keyboard technique.
F. Liszt The Transcendental Études (S.139) complete recording by D.E.
Those techniques which include wide-range running scales and arpeggios,
alternating and double thirds and sixths, newly put in use by the
composer sons of J.S. Bach were then emancipated mainly by Joseph Haydn
and by W. A. Mozart. Beethoven took them from there and drove up.
Starting from his sonatas opus 2, opus 7 and opus 10 these techniques
attained their limits. With his later sonatas, Beethoven emancipated on
Here intervenes Carl Czerny (1791 - 1857) who actually made a series of
"catalogs" of that technique for use in piano learning, that is his
"famous" Etudes. Franz Liszt, learning from Czerny (himself) worked
creatively and arduously on his own piano technique and conceived a
further higher level of playing. His use of the arms and upper body are
best described in a few caricatures which were published in newspapers
of his time.
With the advent of the first "modern" pianoforte, released in 1851 by
Bösendorfer which has a huge body, thick and long crossed strings,
specially in the lower bass region, the instrument as we know today was
here. The playing technique, the sound volume needed by larger halls
and audiences and the musical language associated with it was there
Since then neither the technique or the instrument changed radically.
Ravel, Scriabin, Prokofieff, but also Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky all
elaborated on techniques revealed by Franz Liszt.
A radical step
forward not only with its predecessors (Beethoven, Czerny) but also
with its contemporaries (Chopin, Mendelssohn)
Where Liszt's contemporaries, like Felix Mendelssohn were mainly
concerned about "using" the new instrument and its playing techniques
to express their musical ideas, Liszt attempted to have the new playing
possibilities make for new musical ideas. That is where the "modernity"
of Franz Liszt resides. A new language, complete with its new
vocabulary and grammar was possible with this "new" instrument with its
deep basses, long resounding pedal and huge volume and dynamic range.
This is also the main point where all the production but specially the
Etudes by Liszt differ from that of Chopin.
Even when not referred to directly, most or all of Liszt's Etudes draw
their inspiration from literary sources. The pianistic "subject matter"
(technical things like octaves, scales etc.) is not the "subject" of
the Etude. The Etude is a free-form piece which makes use of the widest
possible pianistic possibilities imagined, made possible or expanded by
The above point is the main difference with the Etudes by Chopin. In
Chopin the pianist "subject" makes the central theme of the Etude which
then develops it into a full piece. In Liszt the piece is imagined
independently from the pianist "subject" or "subjects" and the
pianistic possibilities required to render the musical idea to its
fullest are drew, if needed expanded, developed or even created, from
the pianistic virtuosity the composer crafted since his early years.
The modernity in
Liszt's music comes from disdain of the traditional musical forms.
Even when he adopts one like the "Sonata" (in B
minor) or "Symphony" ("Faust" and "Dante") he turns them into
"free" symphonic or pianistic poems. In this sense he is more close to
Schumann than to Chopin for instance. The musical form's freedom is
then easily reflected over the harmonic language which in turn easily
frees himself from the tonal framework.
Franz Liszt created the modern piano technique. As Saint-Saens put it:
"On the contrary of Beethoven who did not care of the limitations and
the morphology of the pianist's hands and imposed upon them his musical
ideas, Liszt trained and emancipated the pianist's technique and
abilities so as to obtain without constrains the maximum results."
Without being a "revolutionary" composer, Liszt did
make the piano sound as one totally new, previously unheard instrument.
Changes in the piano building, mostly initiated by
Bösendorfer, resulted in an instrument as we are familiar with today:
coiled bass strings, huge body. This instrument appeared around
1850's, some ten years after the death of Chopin thus unknown to the
Polish composer. Liszt was the one who has used its possibilities: deep
and long resounding basses and huge sound output with his typical
double octaves, tremolos in both extreme-high and extreme-low registers.
Virtuosity is one keyword most often associated with
Liszt. But as Alfred Brendel said it, if Liszt sounds "flashy" and
"vulgar" it is because it is played that way! Actually for Liszt,
virtuosity is always a means to another end. This end is to transcend
the possibilities of the instrument or of the music (of his time) by
means of a precise, powerful and many has put it this way: a diabolic
The Etudes d'Execution Transcendente are fully original compositions,
not transcriptions or arrangements. The series which makes the
foundation for all piano music which has been composed afterwards, gets
its final aspect in 1851.
As early as 1826, when he was fifteen, Liszt started "Etudes pour le
piano-forte en 48 exercices dans tous les tons majeurs et mineurs".
They are actually didactic exercises in the spirit of a Cramer or
Czerny. Twelve of them were finished and published. In 1837 Liszt was
in quest of expanding the piano technique to new territories and
started to rework on this early attempt. He kept the initial thematic
material and rewrote them including amazing and incredible new
technical "tour de forces".
However it would be erroneous to see in this series of Etudes just a
showcase for pianistic virtuosity display. The composer was then
immersed into romantic poetry and literature. Many of the Etudes then
got a suggestive title which refers to a piece of literature. As such,
these Etudes are, according to Claude Rostand, "the first state of an
embryo which will evolve into the core of the programme-music."
The tonal succession of the Etudes are remarkable too. They move as
tonic, relative, sub-dominant. That makes a descending scale by thirds:
C - A - F - D - B-flat ... a feature which is going to be seen in many
of Wagner's harmonic progressions.
Even though mostly heroic in character, The Transcendental Etudes
(S.139) cover the entire spectrum of feeling translated for the piano.
They can be extremely delicate, tender, impressionist as well.
Etude No. 1 (Preludio) in C major
Despite the appearances, the Etude No. 1 in C major: "Preludio", is not
just a "warm-up" exercise, but a powerful and evocative introduction to
the series. It swiftly expands to the entire spectrum of the keyboard
and raises the curtain for the dramatic pieces to follow. To be noted
in this short number is the plagal cadence which undoubtedly adds to
the grandeur of this prelude.
Etude No. 2 (untitled – Molto vivace) in A minor
The Etude No. 2 in A minor, (untitled: "Molto vivace") is a
bravoura piece full of vehemence and expressionism. It is somewhat
close to Paganini etudes in a few aspects of its ecriture but certainly
not in content. The "diabolical" minor second interval used with
insistence makes its particular style.
Etude No. 3 (Paysage) in F major
A serene pastoral scenery with a beautifully simple charm characterizes
the Etude No. 3 in F major: "Paysage". The piece oscillates
between an evanescent imagery and dense, oppressive feelings. The
intricate "orchestral" writing proves that even the young Liszt was
able to "think orchestra" when composing for the piano.
Etude No. 4 (Mazeppa) in D minor
From the magnificent large scale Etude No. 4 in D minor:
"Mazeppa", dedicated to Victor Hugo, Liszt will later extract the
substance for his Symphonic Poem with the same title. A large scale
"tragedia" one of the most revealing compositions for the piano of the
The trepidations of the hero, riding tied up on the back of a horse in
the steppes of Ukraine is revealed after a short introduction. The
dramatic main theme is presented with block chords in both hands with
alternating thirds, also in both hands, at the middle section of the
keyboard. This theme, of the riding of the hero, will be exposed four
times with its rhythm getting more and more squeezed: periods of eight,
six, three and two units.
After one lighter section in B-flat major the "story" reaches its
climax and the hero falls at last. A recitative marked: "il canto
vibrato ed appassionato assai" with evocative calls of the name
"Mazeppa" over diminished seventh intervals ("D - C-flat-up - D" as "ma
- zep - pa") seems to bring a tragic end to the story. Suddenly
trumpets announce the resurrection and Mazeppa rise as a king in a
glorious coda in D major. Added to the closing of the score is the
quote from Victor Hugo: "il tombe enfin et se releve roi" ("he falls at
last and raises as king").
Etude No. 5 (Feux Follets - Irrlichter) in B-flat major
The Etude No. 5 in B-flat major: "Feux Follets" is a gleaming, almost
impressionistic goblins dance. A "leggiero" etude in perpetuum mobile.
The theme is based on an alternating succession of the intervals of
major and minor seconds. This is turn creates an undulating motion in
double notes. Altogether the perception of vertical harmonies are
loosened while the feeling of the tonality center is weakened too.
Harmonically, this Etude is one of the most advanced of the series. The
most audacious harmonic innovations of the composer, which are to come
only several decades later in his life, are present here in an
Etude No. 6 (Vision) in G minor
In one totally different concept of piano writing, the strong Etude No.
6 in G minor: "Vision" is a bravoura piece in wide arpeges and
tremolos. The "vision" here is dark and daunting as well as
Etude No. 7 (Eroica) in E-flat major
Even though the developments of the brilliant ideas exposed in the
introduction of the Etude No. 7 in E-flat major: "Eroica" may seem
somewhat naive as compared with what Liszt will do with similar ideas
("heroic" themes) in his future works, the scope and power of this
Etude is nevertheless remarkable. The "heroic" themes are fully
developed and expanded using the widest possible keyboard range. The
famous double octaves section is specially remarkable.
Etude No. 8 (Wilde Jagd) in C minor
With its typical imitations of the hunt horns, whip slamming,
syncopated rhythms, strident, Berlioz-like (i.e. "La Damnation de
Faust") harmonies, the Etude No. 8 in C minor: "Wilde Jagd - Wild
Hunt", spreads as a demoniac journey. A middle section in E-Flat major,
softer but still animated makes this large piece fit in an almost
Etude No. 9 (Ricordanza) in A-flat major
The Etude No. 9 in A-flat major: "Ricordanza" is a youthful romance
which is not as naive as it may appear at the first glance. The
reworked version of 1851, while keeping the original naivete of the
themes, makes it to a piece of deep lyrical poetry.
Etude No. 10 (untitled – Allegro agitato molto) in F
On hearing the first theme of Etude No. 10 in F minor, originally
untitled – Allegro agitato molto, so-called "Appassionata", one can not
stop remembering the theme of the Etude op.10 N.9 in F minor by Chopin.
However the declamatory and warmly expressive theme develops here
through all the range of the keyboard with brilliant intermediary
sections and ends with an octaves coda in the purest "Lisztian" way.
Etude No. 11 (Harmonies du Soir) in D-flat major
The poetic atmosphere of the Etude No. 11 in D-flat major: "Harmonies
du Soir" is in the purest "Lamartinian" style. Alphonse de Lamartine
(1790- 1869) was a French writer, poet and politician who was
instrumental in the foundation of the Second Republic. This particular
sensitivity is both contemplative and captivating. The piece deploys on
large range chords sometimes built on resonating bells-like basses. One
"elegiac" middle section in E Major creates a "crepuscular" atmosphere
of a rare beauty.
Etude No. 12 (Chasse-Neige) in B-flat minor
The Etude No. 12 in B-flat minor: "Chasse-Neige" is a sound-scape
depicting a pale and heavily loaded sky. Fast and light chromatic runs
as well as many tremolos notated with small-size notes evoke large and
small snow whirlwinds. The sound-scape evolves from the distant
contemplation of a dark and menacing landscape to the most raging