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October 21, 2021

Christopher Taylor Program Notes by Jonathan Minnick

In a letter written in 1837 to his fellow musicians prior to a tour, Franz Liszt stated that the piano should place at the “top of the hierarchy of instruments,” in large part because of its ability to capture the entire “scope of the orchestra,” and replicate the “harmony of 100 players.” Though for Liszt the orchestra was the vehicle for his most innovative compositional contributions, namely the symphonic poem, the piano lies at the heart of Liszt’s life as a composer and performer.

Franz Liszt, oil on canvas by Henri Lehmann
Franz Liszt, oil on canvas by Henri Lehmann, 1840; in the Carnavalet Museum, Paris.

Born in 1811, Liszt began playing the piano when he was seven years old. By 1820 he was performing public concerts that caught the ear of wealthy donors who paid for him to continue his piano studies in Vienna. There, he studied piano with Carl Czerny before moving to Paris in 1827 where he refined his skills further. By 1830, Liszt was an exceptionally talented pianist and, after attending a benefit concert hosted by Niccolo Paganini, he dedicated himself to becoming an equal virtuoso on the piano to Paganini on the violin. What made Liszt’s virtuosity so profound was how well he handled exceptionally technical music. One notable performance in 1838 of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata, widely recognized at the time as “incoherent” and “unplayable,” caught the ear of Hector Berlioz, who had never heard Beethoven’s infamous sonata performed with such excellence.

While there is no doubt Liszt’s letter ruffled the feathers of his symphony colleagues, Liszt understood the tremendous potential of the piano in a way that no other composer or performer before him had ever realized. By weaving together his prowess as a pianist and his creativity as a composer, Liszt discovered a musical niche which would set him apart from other composers during the nineteenth century: piano transcriptions.

Transcribing, the art of reformulating an existing composition to a new ensemble or instrument, is not as straightforward as it might sound. For Liszt, the goal of transcribing an orchestral piece for piano was not just to create a reduction of the score, which would overly simplify the music, but to remain as true to the original as possible, which often meant Liszt’s transcriptions were technically demanding (fitting for a performer of his ilk). Liszt transcribed everything from song to opera, often written by the many composers he met in his life. Liszt was an incredibly well-connected man: he studied with Czerny, taught Hans von Bülow, socialized with Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven in Vienna, drew inspiration from Paganini, was admired by Berlioz, championed the music of Richard Wagner (who married his daughter Cosima) and shared moments of his final years with Claude Debussy. For Liszt, these transcriptions showcased the capabilities of modern piano design but he also used them as an opportunity to share these celebrated pieces on his tours of smaller communities in the farthest reaches of Europe, where access to symphony orchestras was rare, if not entirely nonexistent.

Many musicologists, critics, and performers agree that Liszt’s Beethoven Symphonies S.464 are quite possibly the most technically difficult piano pieces ever composed. If you know Liszt’s piano works this comes as no surprise (“La Campanella” comes to mind). Musicologist Alan Walker, who dedicated most of his scholarly efforts to Liszt, believed that these transcriptions are “arguably the greatest work of transcription ever completed in the history of music.”

Liszt started transcribing Beethoven’s symphonies in the 1830s, having finished the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh symphonies by 1837. He completed the Third symphony in 1843, but then set the transcriptions aside for nearly two decades. At the suggestion of his publisher Breitkopf & Härtel, Liszt revisited the Beethoven Symphonies with the goal of completing all nine for publication. Liszt published the full set of nine symphonies in 1865, but at several stages during the compositional process, Liszt questioned whether the piano could ever replicate, or even approximate the sheer performance forces required by Beethoven’s symphonies. When working on the Ninth Symphony, Liszt wrote to Breitkopf & Härtel, “after a great deal of experimentation in various directions, I was unable to deny the utter impossibility of even a partially satisfactory and effective arrangement of the fourth movement.” Liszt eventually surpassed these hurdles and created a successful transcription of the renowned fourth movement, but his struggle with the most complex parts of Beethoven’s symphonies clues us into the difficult process Liszt undertook to maintain high fidelity in these transcriptions.

Because Liszt’s transcribing goal was to remain as close to the original as possible, you shouldn’t expect too many differences between these transcriptions and Beethoven’s originals. While composing these pieces, Liszt wrote, “the more intimately acquainted one becomes with Beethoven, the more one clings to certain singularities and finds that even insignificant details are not without their value.” Liszt refrained from editorializing during the transcription process and kept many of Beethoven’s original performance markings, including slurs, articulation, and dynamics. Liszt also attempted to bring the performer closer to the original music. At several points throughout the piece, Liszt notated to the performer the instruments that would be playing certain parts, perhaps as a way to inspire the performer to “imitate” the character of those instruments. Though these transcriptions would be immensely difficult for amateur players or for someone sightreading, in a few places Liszt included fingerings, as well as specific pedal indications to better guide the pianist.

What you will notice immediately, though, is a new experience of Beethoven’s symphonies, distilled through a single instrument. Indeed, the way Liszt paired nearly every note, every harmony from Beethoven’s symphonies to the 88 black and white keys of the piano is a feat on its own, but there is an element of intimacy in hearing Beethoven’s symphonies on a piano that a symphony orchestra could never replicate. This distinct musical intimacy may actually be of interest to those who have heard Beethoven’s symphonies performed many times by an orchestra. Hearing these symphonies on the piano, where balance is easier to control and details are more refined, you may discover musical features that you may have missed in conventional orchestral renditions.

Performing all nine transcriptions is also a relatively rare occurrence, with only a handful of pianists tackling the full series since Glenn Gould revived the transcriptions in 1967. While you may miss the rich, resonant sound of an orchestra filling Jackson Hall, Christopher Taylor offers an unparalleled musical journey and perhaps a new, refreshed perspective of Beethoven’s monumental symphonies.

—Jonathan Minnick

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