L’art pour l’art and brilliance as a proof of virtuosity is the law – Franz Liszt’s lifelong guiding principle. While he lived in Paris and Italy, he edited a collaborative piano work called “Hexaméron” with the subtitle “Grandes Variations de Bravoure sur la Marche des Puritains de Bellini. Liszt recruited upon a suggestion of Princess Cristina Trivulzio Belgiojoso five pianist-composers to write variations on a march from Vicenzo Bellini’s opera “The Puritans”, following Ludwig van Beethoven’s example who has written a little earlier the “Diabelli Variations”.
Frédéric Chopin, Carl Czerny, Henri Herz, Johann Peter Pixis and Sigismond Thalberg participated in the creation of S. 392. Liszt did not lack self-confidence. “Hexaméron” refers to the six days of creation from the Bible. The piece is a shining example of pure, brilliant piano music requiring, but even more astonishing is the occasion it was written for: a charity concert for Italian refugees on 31 March 1837 at the princess’s salon in Paris. The refugees belonged to the radical-democratic movement “Giovine Italia” (Young Italy). This is Franz Liszt: high-flying artistic ideals married to a strongly developed political conscience, flirting with revolutionary ideas both in music and in politics.
However, the piece was not ready by the time the concert in Paris took place. The concert became the topic of the day in Paris: the rivalry between Thalberg and Liszt culminated in a piano contest in front of a selected audience. A highborn Paris lady summed the event up as follows: “Thalberg is the first pianist of the world, Liszt – the only one!” It was only in 1839 that “Hexaméron” was published by Liszt’s Viennese editor. The piece is divided into nine parts:
- Introduction: Extremement lent (Liszt)
- Tema: Allegro marziale (transcribed by Liszt)
- Variation I: Ben marcato (Thalberg)
- Variation II: Moderato (Liszt)
- Variation III: di bravura (Pixis) – Ritornello (Liszt)
- Variation IV: Legato e grazioso (Herz)
- Variation V: Vivo e brillante (Czerny) – Fuocoso molto energico; Lento quasi recitativo (Liszt)
- Variation VI: Largo (Chopin) – (coda) (Liszt)
- Finale: Molto vivace quasi prestissimo (Liszt)
Liszt was one of the first composers I discovered when I was young, and his “Marche Funèbre” form the piano cycle “Années de Pélerinage” was the first piece by Liszt that I came across. I marvelled at the expressiveness of the piano as such – this piece made me fall in love with the instrument I would much later learn to tame. “Hexaméron” is one of Liszt’s works that I can listen to again and again – it shows the composer’s talent much better then the march and it shows that he was less aloof than his many critics said. Liszt, just like Schubert, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich continue to fascinate me through their ambivalent personality, the impetuous character of their music, the rebellion you sense behind their works, the wish to overcome the old and to break free.
Let’s break free with Liszt’s “Hexaméron” as recorded by Leslie Howard.
© Charles Thibo