Pilgrimage to Switzerland and Italy

At the lake of Walenstad, Liszt wrote a melancholic tune for Marie d'Agoult. © Charles Thibo
At the lake of Walenstad, Liszt wrote a melancholic tune for Marie d’Agoult. © Charles Thibo

On the road again! In last Thursday’s post, we traveled with Schubert, but today we will journey with Franz Liszt through Switzerland and Italy. Between 1835 and 1838, he composed “Années de pélerinage” (Pilgrim Years) – a piano cycle of three suites inspired partly by Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s novel “Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre”, a prime example of Romantic literature, partly by a turbulent turn of events in his own life. As we have seen with the German composer and pianist Fanny Mendelssohn, the longing for antique ideals of beauty and wisdom – to be looked for in Italy – has inspired more than one artist from the Romantic period, and at the time when Liszt wrote this cycle, he was like Goethe’s hero on a quest for his true self.

The first section of the cycle touches upon different impressions from Switzerland, while the second and the third year deal with Italy. The French pianist Bertrand Chamayou will be our guide today as he has recorded all 26 pieces in 2011 for the label Naive. That endeavor has been at least as ambitious as Liszt idea to compose the three suites, which represent the essence of Liszt’s style and genius.

Liszt was born in 1811 in today’s Hungary and raised in Vienna and Paris. His family had a long musical tradition. Both his father and his grand-father had been amateur musicians (keyboards and strings). Liszt began his musical education at the age of seven and started composing simple tunes a year later. At the age of nine, he gave his first concerts. His extraordinary talent as a pianist would gradually make him a celebrity all over Europe. At the same time he would also come up with new playing techniques and thus set new standards for pianists’ training valid for many decades to come.

When he started the compose “Les Années de pélerinage”, he was himself about to become a pilgrim, or should I rather say a refugee? As a young man, he started an affair with Marie d’Agoult, the unhappily married wife of a French officer. They met in secret, wrote hundreds of letters to each other, but Paris would not be Paris if such a secret liaison would remain secret for very long, especially after Marie d’Agoult gave birth to a child in December 1835.

A scandal was in the air, and the two lovers escaped to Switzerland, traveled to some of the locations mentioned in the first suite, then moved on to Italy until the composer went back to Vienna in 1838 to raise money for the victims of a flood disaster by giving concerts. Let me just mention that Liszt fathered a second child in 1737 while staying in Northern Italy: Cosima Liszt, who would later marry the German opera composer Richard Wagner.

Albeit this piano cycle goes back to Romantic literature and is equally representative of the German romantic period in the field of music to Schubert’s or the Mendelssohn’s songs, I find it difficult to identify specific moments of Liszt’s biography with specific pieces of the three suites. If it weren’t for the titles… but those titles partly derive from Lord Byron’s work “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”.

That’s why I will consider the “Années de Pélerinage” absolute music as opposed to programmatic music (Programmusik). This will explain why I will not even try to describe what you will hear, but rather encourage you to find out by yourself what you are looking for in this brilliant piece. The beauty of some of the piece will strike you immediately, others will reveal their brilliance only after you have listened to them two or three times. Please enjoy. This is piano music that will survive for many decades as it appeals to our inborn sense of beauty.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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