Crafting a musical jewel with Schubert’s gems

Passion and elegance. © Charles Thibo

Songs? Definitely. Meditations? Certainly. Prayers? These pieces feel like musical prayers, and Franz Liszt must have felt that way when he transcribed four songs written by Franz Schubert and performed them as “Franz Schuberts Vier Geistliche Lieder” (Franz Schubert’s Four Spiritual Songs, S. 562). Schubert composed lyrical delicacies when he wrote the three songs “Litanei, auf das Fest aller Seelen” (All Saints Litany), “Himmelsfunken” (Heaven’s Gleam), “Die Gestirne” (The Firmament) and the piece “Hymne/Geisterchorus”, (Hymn/ Ghost Chorus) from his incidental music “Rosamunde”. And Liszt, a deeply spiritual man, transformed them into something that transcends the worldly life.

Liszt – the master of harmony

Liszt was the best known pianist of his time, in terms of brilliance he had no equal.  He was such an authority in the field of harmony, that Richard Wagner, a very proud man, did not hesitate to borrow from Liszt. Liszt venerated Schubert and owed him a lot. And his musical ear must have had the same sensitivity as Schubert’s, for he crafted a magnificent piece of jewelry out of four highly polished gems. The French music editor Jacques Drillon goes even further: “[Liszt], through additional arabesques, resounding octaves and sparkling phrasing, revealed Schubert’s essence even more than [Schubert] himself.”

Liszt composed more than 800 pieces; almost half of them are transcriptions, transformations, variations of works composed either by himself or someone else. He wrote them, performed them, re-wrote them. The four pieces originally composed by Schubert have truly gained in emotional power through Liszt’s masterful intervention. They have a confusing effect upon myself: stirring and comforting at the same time. There is only one appropriate word to describe it and it is a German one: Ergriffenheit. The music resonates both in my heart and in my soul, they are so moving that it makes me shiver. So beautiful that it frightens me a little.

Vienna’s star wants to shine

The four transcriptions saw the light in 1840, after Liszt had moved from Italy to Vienna for some time. He delighted the audience by his brilliant piano recitals and had a huge demand for works that he could perform. He was a star and he had to shine.  As much as Liszt loved being in the limelight, he also had a mission: to promote works that he admired and that the audience didn’t care about. Schubert’s piano works for instance.

Liszt is a confusing figure. On the one hand his way of life does not stir my admiration: a womanizer, a political troublemaker, a vain bohémien,  a bitter, resentful man once he had grown old. On the other hand: a child prodigy, a passionate composer, a promoter of avant-garde music and humanistic ideas, a loyal friend and an untiring teacher. And his piano music… He once wrote in a letter: “My piano – it’s me, my voice, my life […] there rest my desires, my dreams, all my joys and all my sorrows.” Howard Leslie has done a tour de force to record all of Liszt’s piano works. “Franz Schuberts Vier Geistliche Lieder” is on volume II of “The Schubert Transcriptions”.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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