Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Liszt - Piano Concerto No. 1 In E-flat Major

The early part of the 19th century was a time of great change in music.The shift from a composer depending on the patronage of the church or royalty, to being an independent artist began with Mozart, as he was one of the first major composers that was free-lance. Beethoven also was a free-lance composer in the sense that he was not a paid member of a royal court.  Composers more and more were dependent on publishers looking to make a profit by printing their works, and the more popular the work the more money it made.

As there was no sound recordings, the piano was a popular instrument and most well to do households had family members that took lessons and played the instrument in varying degrees of ability. This was the age of the pianist composer,  and many times the way these composers made a name for themselves (thus drawing the attention of publishers and patrons) was by writing and performing their own piano concertos. In this they were following the lead of Mozart who did the same thing early on. Beethoven also made his first big splash as a composer/performer of his first two piano concertos. Chopin wrote two concertos and performed them in his debut in Vienna, and the list goes on all the way to the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.

Franz Liszt was in his prime as a touring virtuoso in the 1830's and 1840's when the composer/pianists were in full swing. Although he wrote a few pieces for piano and orchestra (one of them being Malédiction for piano and strings) it is interesting that he wrote no piano concertos during this time, at least ones that he finished, performed and published. The Piano Concerto No. 1 wasn't written until 1849. He continued to refine the piece and it was premiered in Weimar in 1855 with Liszt at the piano and Berlioz conducting. After the premiere he continued to work on the score and it was published in its final version in 1856.

Some of the themes for the first concerto were written in a notebook by Liszt as early as 1830, so the concerto had a long gestation. Liszt wrote a lot of music when its all added together, over 700 pieces of all kinds. Sometimes he wrote fast, and it can be said that he wrote too much. But he took especial care with this concerto, and it is one of his best pieces.

The concerto has 4 movements played without pause:
I. Allegro maestoso - The first movement begins with the strings playing part of the main theme of the entire work. This fragment is played twice with the rest of the orchestra answering each time.
The piano then enters in thundering octaves. After a short solo, the orchestra resumes playing the main theme while the piano comments upon it with another solo. Orchestra and piano alternate until the piano and clarinet enter into a short dialogue. The piano introduces a second theme with the solo clarinet and then a solo violin commenting on it. The entire string section enters and the music segues back to the main theme. A chromatic run from the piano signals the end of the first movement and the second movement begins without pause.

II. Quasi adagio - Muted strings play a mellow version of the main theme and the piano enters and transforms the main theme into a lyrical, gentle nocturne. The orchestra enters playing part of the theme while the piano comments upon it in a feeling of slight agitation. The piano calms once again and returns to a dreamy mood. Trills in the piano are accompanied by solo winds playing a new theme. This continues until the trills cease and the third movement begins without pause.

III. Allegro vivace - Allegro animato - A triangle begins the movement and is answered by pizzicato strings. The piano plays a theme, and themes from the other two movements enter in a scherzo for piano and orchestra. After some prancing from piano and orchestra, the main theme that began the work reappears as in the beginning. The next section begins without pause.

IV. Allegro marziale animato - The orchestra begins a new rhythmic theme complete with the triangle. previous themes now begin to reappear and the piano sparkles as it comments. The pianist has to play some of the most difficult music ever written for the piano as the main theme reappears and the tempo increases to break-neck speed. The music modulates to the home key of E-flat major and roars to a thundering conclusion.  Liszt had this to say about the last movement:
"The fourth movement of the concerto from the Allegro marziale corresponds with the second movement, Adagio. It is only an urgent recapitulation of the earlier subject-matter with quickened, livelier rhythm, and contains no new motive, as will be clear to you by a glance through the score. This kind of binding together and rounding off a whole piece at its close is somewhat my own, but it is quite maintained and justified from the stand-point of musical form."
Eduard Hanslick
The first piano concerto was roundly criticized when it became known. It is, after all, a piece that looks forward in form and material, and is a fine example of Liszt's cyclical technique of basing an entire work on a few short themes. It deviated from the form of the 'conventional' concerto in that it is played without pause. It also is in 4 movements, more like a symphony than a concerto.  The Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick, a proponent of anything Brahms and opponent of anything Liszt, dubbed it the Triangle Concerto when it was played in Vienna in 1857. Hanslick's influence in Vienna caused the concerto to not have another performance in that city until 1869. Liszt addressed his use of the triangle:
"The Scherzo in E-flat minor, from the point where the triangle begins, I employed for the effect of contrast. As regards the triangle I do not deny that it may give offence, especially if struck too strong and not precisely. A preconceived disinclination and objection to instruments of percussion prevails, somewhat justified by the frequent misuse of them. And few conductors are circumspect enough to bring out the rhythmic element in them, without the raw addition of a coarse noisiness, in works in which they are deliberately employed according to the intention of the composer. The dynamic and rhythmic spicing and enhancement, which are effected by the instruments of percussion, would in more cases be much more effectually produced by the careful trying and proportioning of insertions and additions of that kind. But musicians who wish to appear serious and solid prefer to treat the instruments of percussion en canaille (lowly people, riff-raff), which must not make their appearance in the seemly company of the symphony. They also bitterly deplore inwardly that Beethoven allowed himself to be seduced into using the big drum and triangle in the Finale of the Ninth Symphony. Of Berlioz, Wagner, and my humble self, it is no wonder that 'like draws to like,' and, as we are treated as impotent canaille amongst musicians, it is quite natural that we should be on good terms with the canaille among the instruments. Certainly here, as in all else, it is the right thing to seize upon and hold fast [the] mass of harmony. In face of the most wise proscription of the learned critics I shall, however, continue to employ instruments of percussion, and think I shall yet win for them some effects little known."
Hanslick is but a footnote in musical history. The first piano concerto of Liszt is firmly in the repertoire. Score one for the triangle.

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