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Franz Liszt

Still An Unrecognized Genius?



MDR KLASSIK Vol. 4      CD MDR 1205


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  Still an unrecognized genius!
  Symphonic poems
  Prometheus unbound
  The storms of life
  Ambivalent Hero
  Life’s highest purpose
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Franz Liszt 1811–1886
01  »Prometheus« Sinfonische Dichtung Nr. 5 HS 99
»Les preludes« Sinfonische Dichtung Nr. 12 HS 106 nach Lammartine 15:31
03  »Hamlet« Sinfonische Dichtung Nr. 10 HS 104 15:31
04  »Die Ideale« Sinfonische Dichtung Nr. 12 HS 106 nach Schiller 26:55
I. Die Ideale
      II. Aufschwung
      III. Enttäuschung
      IV. Beschäftigung
      V. Apotheose

Total time: 71:06


MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra
Jun Märkl I Dirigent

Publisher | Breitkopf & Härtel
Radio recording February 15 – 18, 2011, in the main Auditorium of the Leipzig MDR studio on Augustusplatz
Producer | Matthias Winkler
Technische Aufnahmeleitung | Evelyn Rühlemann
Künstlerische Aufnahmeleitung | Alfredo Lasheras
Booklet in Deutsch & English
Booklet notes: Thomas Frenzel
Executiv Producer: Dr. Steffen Lieberwirth
LC 29357

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»In the concert hall«
Berlin caricature on Liszt’s concert successes
Hand-coloured title engraving by a. Brennglas (Glasbrenner), Leipzig 1842


Still an unrecognized genius!

As a composer and thinker, franz Liszt exerted decisive influence on musical developments in the nineteenth century and opened many new doors. As a pianist, he extended both the tonal and the technical potential of the instrument enormously, creating the basis of the piano technique that still holds today.
Liszt committed his improvisations to paper, creating new forms that enabled him to give musical expression to his fertile imagination. In the process, he broke the constraining moulds of the symphony and sonata and developed Berlioz’s idea of the symphonic poem. He took inspiration from literature, from a heroic figure of classical antiquity in »Prometheus«, from Shakespeare in »Hamlet« and from Lamartine’s idea that life is a prelude »to that unknown song of which death intones the first solemn note« in Les Préludes. In the works entitled »Die ideale« after Schiller, Liszt passes comment on contemporary issues by lamenting the loss of humanistic values, but reaches a positive conclusion at the end.
In striving to express the complexity of emotions in music, he made unprecedented technical and tonal demands on the musicians. The ominous beginning of Prometheus and the long-drawn-out introduction to Hamlet point far into the future.
The four symphonic poems presented here may stimulate listeners to confront this brilliant composer and to recognize his unconditional commitment to truthfulness and his readiness to go to extremes.
He was a revolutionary – not always a comfortable one – who stood both for extreme emotionality and for beauty of sound.

Jun Märkl



Symphonic Poems

Franz Liszt sitzt biLDenDen KünstLern in rom moDeLL aquarell von Nadine Helbig, 1880

Franz Liszt models for artists in rome
watercolour by Nadine Helbig, 1880

Franz Liszt was arguably the best known musician in all of Europe in the 1840s. As a virtuoso concert pianist he tirelessly travelled from one appearance to the next and gave performances in all the important centres of music between Lisbon and moscow, London and Constantinople.
He was celebrated everywhere for his exceptional playing and became the idol of innumerable musiclovers and well-born young ladies.
He also took up the baton and conducted concerts with many orchestras. Two concerts were occasionally even scheduled in two different cities on a single day, so great was the public’s ravenous desire to see him. Heinrich Heine spoke of »Lisztomania«.

That public was therefore astonished to learn in 1848 that the cosmopolitan and elegant virtuoso had suddenly terminated his concert tours and settled in the German provincial town of Weimar.
He had already been court kapellmeister in Weimar for some years, but had never spent more than a few weeks there each year. Now, however, he saw the small Thuringian electoral seat as »the place where his muse resided« and sought to bring new life to it after Schiller’s and Goethe’s death.


Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein
Daguerreotypie, 1847

Not altogether uninvolved in this decision was princess Elisabeth Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, whom Liszt had met in 1847 and who would be his most important companion and adviser in the ensuing years.
In spite of the modest musical opportunities at the grand-ducal court, Liszt’s unceasing efforts turned Weimar into an exemplary hub of operatic and concert activity in the space of a decade.

There he directed the world premieres of many operas and symphonies, among them Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin and peter Cornelius’s The Barber of Baghdad.

Liszt composed more than ever before in the Weimar years, not only writing a variety of piano works but also creating a completely new orchestral form: the symphonic poem. 

There had been forerunners of the genre since the early Baroque period, when composers decided to set to music without words programmes mostly inspired by literature.
In about 1675, for example, the Salzburg court musician Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber composed the Mystery Sonatas for violin and basso continuo, in which the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary were depicted in sound. In about 1730 Georg Philipp Telemann dedicated an orchestral suite to the popular story of Don Quixote, while between 1781 and 1785 Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf composed a cycle of twelve symphonies after episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

From about 1850, Franz Liszt’s symphonic poems lent programme music a new quality as well as a standardized form. Inspired by Beethoven’s overtures and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, Liszt established a one-movement orchestral form in which several striking themes are presented one after another and undergo a constant process of development. The symphonic poem is prefaced with a title, motto or programme, mostly of literary origin in the case of Liszt. His symphonic poems are thus concerned with prometheus, Hamlet, Orpheus and mazeppa.
This imitative aesthetic principle was suspect to numerous music critics, who saw it as a threat to the autonomy of music.
Liszt attempted to mediate in the conflict, writing in 1864:
»I subscribe completely and unreservedly to the principle that musical works which follow a programme in the generally understood sense must affect the imagination and the emotions independently of the programme. In other words, every beautiful piece of music must first of all and in every respect comply with the absolute and inviolable laws of music, which nobody can prescribe.«

Indeed, Liszt’s symphonic poems failed to produce evidence of obvious tone-painting of the kind the Baroque masters were fond of. Instead, the Weimar kapellmeister endeavoured in his music to convey a leading idea to the listener.
Notwithstanding critical opinions, Liszt’s symphonic poems enjoyed great popularity with a wide-ranging audience in the European centres of music, and they were taken up and developed by many other composers, including Bedrich Smetana, Antonín Dvorák, Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss.


Prometheus unbound


Herder monument in Weimar
Photo after 1850

Liszt wrote the Choruses to Herder’s Prometheus unbound to mark the unveiling in august 1850 of a monument to the poet Johann Gottfried Herder in Weimar.

He later rearranged the weighty overture as a symphonic poem, which he premiered under the simple title of Prometheus in Weimar in 1855. Liszt explained the content of the work in the foreword to the printed edition, saying that his composition did not represent a portrait of prometheus, the creator of mankind and antipode of zeus.

The composer’s intention was far rather that the music »allow the moods to develop which in the various versions of the myth constitute his being, his soul as it were: boldness, suffering, perseverance, redemption.«
Liszt realized his concept in a richly-contrasting sonataform movement prefaced by a dark, serious introduction. The main part is dramatic, climaxing in a fugue on a striking motif and closing triumphally.

Liszt described the course of the work in emphatic images:
»Suffering and transfiguration! Compressed in this way, the basic idea demanded an oppressive, stormy atmosphere for this all too true tale. Deep pain that triumphs by holding out in defiance determines the character of the music.«


The storms of life

aLphonse De Lamartine französischer Dichter (1790 – 1869) fotografie von Gaspard felix Nadar, paris 1865

Alphonse De Lamartine
french poet (1790-1869)
Photograph by Gaspard Felix Nadar, Paris 1865

In the case of Les Préludes, performed for the first time in 1854, it was actually after completing the score that franz Liszt found a programme that appeared suitable in a series of poems by the french writer and politician alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869). From Lamartine’s collection Nouvelles méditations poétiques, Liszt prefaced one of the movements with the following words:
»What else is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown song of which death intones the first solemn note?«
These »preludes« are presented in four programmatic places in the work:
Love – The storms of life – peaceful nature – Battle and victory. In spite of this essentially four-part conception, Les Préludes seems to constitute a one-movement form based on a single fundamental thematic core. That motif is heard in the introduction and reappears afterwards as a powerful principal theme that is often modified in the course of the work.

This principal theme of Les Préludes gained ill-fated notoriety during Nazi rule.
In view of the impending attack on the Soviet Union by Hitler’s Germany, composer Norbert Schultze (1911 – 2002) was commissioned on June 20, 1941 to compose a »special announcement fanfare« for the weekly newsreel.
According to an order given by Reich propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels personally, this signature tune was to contain the principal motif from Liszt’s Les Préludes. Schultze, who had attained celebrity mainly through the hit »Lili marleen« and various propaganda songs like “from finland to the Black Sea”, produced in just a few hours an arrangement of the desired passage, and that would serve in the coming years as the musical introduction for special newsreel announcements from the German Wehrmacht.
This grave abuse of Liszt’s music had far-reaching consequences. Les Préludes was at first seldom performed after World War II, and the music is still directly associated with the Nazi terror and bloodshed for many listeners. Norbert Schultze, who was deemed to be a »fellow traveller« by the Denazification Commission, later strove to clear his name, affirming that all royalties for the works he had composed between 1933 and 1945 went to the German Red Cross.


Ambivalent Helro

Through the centuries, William Shakespeare’s manyfaceted works have been a source of inspiration for numerous composers. Some 300 operas and 100 operettas or musicals have been based on Shakespeare’s plays, though the librettos deviate in various degrees from the original texts.
The number of instrumental works using Shakespearean motifs is much greater. The nineteenth century in particular produced an enormous array of musical works for the stage, concert overtures and symphonic poems using Shakespearean themes.
Franz Liszt was among the composers who could not resist the fascination Shakespeare exercised, and in 1858 he wrote the symphonic poem Hamlet. The work was initially intended as an instrumental prelude to the performance of the play, but Liszt later expanded it into a stand-alone concert piece.
Distinct themes symbolize the two main protagonists: Hamlet, the ambivalent hero, is given two motifs, one slow and brooding, the other vigorous and volatile, while the gentle, elegiac middle part of the composition is devoted to Ophelia. Closely reflecting Shakespeare’s drama, Liszt’s Hamlet ends with a dirge-like epilogue.



Liszt Weimar

Liszt at his desk in the music room and study of the »Hofgärtnerei« in Weimar
Photograph by Louis Held, c.1885


Life’s highest purpose

Finally, the symphonic poem Die Ideale is a musical homage to friedrich von Schiller, who had lived in Weimar half a century before Liszt.
The work uses Schiller’s poem of the same name of 1795, which laments the painful loss of youthful ideals.
The composition was occasioned by the unveiling of the Goethe-Schiller monument in Weimar in September 1857.

Liszt wrote the individual stanzas of Schiller’s poem into the score, so that it is not difficult to interpret the music.
A calm and sombre introduction is followed by a lively section that Liszt characterizes with the motto »Upsurge«. Here the fictitious narrator recollects his youthful thirst for action and erotic liaisons. The second main section is the »Disappointment« over lost ideals. Here pain, mourning and sighs prevail in the music. Contrary to the poem, Liszt closes on a grand apotheosis and ends the work optimistically.
Here he noted in the score:
»Holding on to the ideal and living it inexorably is life’s highest purpose. I have therefore taken the liberty of deviating from Schiller’s poem by jubilantly repeating the motifs of the first movement in an affirmative closing apotheosis.«

Dr. Bernhard Schrammek
© Texte aus dem Booklet



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