Franz Liszt Dazzles With Virtuosity in His Concerto For Orchestra
Franz Liszt, the consummate master of piano composition and piano music in the Romantic period may have had a glamorous career as a virtuosic performer of the music of his contemporaries as well as his own, but his unique craft really comes out in his concertos for piano and orchestra. In these, the features so prominent in his performances and concert tours up to 1847 really shine through to give us an idea of the artist and the pieces that make up his art. The piano is taken to new heights in a brilliant display of color and unprecedented technique in his Erest Konzer fur Pianoforte und Orchester, First Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in E-flat major. The melodies for the concerto began in 1831 shortly before leaving Paris for Weinmar for a period. In the time period in between Paris and Weinmar, Liszt secluded himself in Italy. While in Italy, the piece was first composed and partially revised in its first edition. This edition of the concerto was to be premiered in 1839 at the start of the fall season.
However, there were subsequent editions made to the piece posthumous before publication. The editions date back to 1848 in the midst of composing many other brilliant works such as his first twelve symphonic poems and his “Dante” and “Faust” symphonies. The piece consists of four distinct movements, the allegro Maestoso, quasi -adagio, another allegro Vivace (perhaps a scherzo like movement), and the finale marked presto. The Allegro is a movement within itself, comprising of four distinct sections marked A through D. The allegro begins with an opening theme: E-flat, D, E-flat, D, E-flat, D, D-flat and a chord on the notes G, E, and G, D-flat, C, D-flat, C, D-flat, C, B, etcetera. This is followed by a sweeping cadenza of octaves at fortissimo volume. The introductory theme carries through the whole piece in several different modulations including one going up to E major via landing on an A-flat minor chord and following up to the dominant of E major, a B major chord. This theme is followed by much chromaticism and modulations to F major, C major, A minor, and to a C augmented chord leading to C# major. The piece has several chromatic sweeps which allow for the many modulations to different keys closely related by fifths or thirds of varying degrees. After all of the chromaticism and momentary modulations we end up back in E flat major with the sounding of the theme with an arpeggiated sweep at the end of it. The logic behind all of these chromaticism and modulations suggests that Liszt is trying to break the traditional dominant-tonic progression in tonal organization and organize harmony in thirds. This is the start of what would culminate in the works of Wagner and in Richard Strauss at the end of the Romantic period.
The rhythmic notation is also interesting in many ways. First, in the first measure of the Allegro Maestoso we have the starting motive that features the dotted half note followed by the sixteenth note. This is reminiscent of Scottish folk music or the Scottish snap. The notation of the cadenza in the first movement is simply astounding with its many different rhythmic devices happening and the fact that one player is instructed to play these chordal shapes in a rapid sixteenth note pattern. The rapid scale-like passage in which 30 thirty-second notes are played in the space of 32 is quite brilliant if not baffling.
Liszt is responsible for setting the foundation for the importance of color in the orchestra. The piano concerto is a sure resemblance of that. As with many of his works for orchestra, Liszt applies massive blocks of color in precise fractions of notation. Also, the color of the piano itself resonates against the orchestra creating a frenzy of intense emotion all throughout the piece. We also must look at the nature of Liszt's solos, especially in the quasi-adagio movement. There's a long dotted note melody beginning in the right hand while the left hand does these arpeggios outlining various chords of the melody.
Other decorations of color that Liszt uses include his use of ornamentation. In particular, the flutter tongue in the brass and woodwinds in the Quasi-Adagio movement adds a vivaciousness of a certain hue to the music. String tremolos also add a hint of tension to the music recreating the kind of sound that is projected in his symphonic poems. Other colorful and perhaps harmonic structures include the double bowing techniques while performing tremolos. These are present in the violin I and viola parts in the Quasi-Adagio movement. This would add a sense of richness to the string part and color to the whole score.
Color helps the Liszt's themes rouse moods and affections of the listeners. Liszt does a fabulous job of combining virtuosity and color to help the listener’s ear and mind get a lift. It is a great piece that one could write volumes about. Check out this wonder and see that your mind is blown. If you’d like more information, you can check out the book Portrait of Franz Liszt. It will give you a brighter look at the musical mind of this Romantic-Era giant.