Liszt Gives the “Young Italians” a Voice

La Fontana di Trevi – a Rome classic that withstood the times. © Charles Thibo

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”.

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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.

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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.

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How a Romantic Composer got Hijacked by the Nazis

Luxembourg under German occupation: Liszt's tune had become the prelude to lies and propoganda. © Marcel Schroeder/Photothèque de la Ville de Luxembourg
Luxembourg under German occupation. © Marcel Schroeder/Photothèque de la Ville de Luxembourg

Oh Franz, what did they do to you? The Austrian composer and pianist Franz Liszt wrote between 1848 and 1854 a wonderful symphonic poem called “Les Préludes” in the best romantic tradition. The “Préludes” reflect the different phases of a human life before death: torments, battles, love, pain, consolation, enjoying nature. But in 1941, the Nazis stole the triumphant tune at the beginning of the first movement and used it until their fall in 1945 as a jingle announcing the weekly army broadcasts with all their propaganda about Germany winning the war!

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