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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Franz Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Flat Major


The final version of Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, S. 124 dates 1856, however, the beginning of the composition dates to 1830 when Liszt sketched the main theme in a notebook. Liszt commenced serious work on the composition in the 1840s. It could be said that Liszt spent so long on the composition because he was fairly new at this point to the realm of orchestration. Up to this point, almost everything he wrote was for the keyboard. He even enlisted the help of his pupil Joachim Raff with the task of orchestration. The concerto was completed in 1849, but Liszt revised it several times until he arrived at the form we know and love today. There are at least six complete drafts of the concerto. Many bear the title Concerto symphonique showing Liszt's intention to have the orchestra play just as vital a role as the soloist. Liszt was influenced by Henry Litolff, to whom the work is dedicated, in this idea of equal parts for orchestra and soloist.

The concerto consists of three main sections: Allegro maestoso, Quasi adagio-Allegretto vivace-Allegro animato, and Allegro marziale animato. These three sections form one large-scale seamless whole with no pauses in between. The first movement begins with a very powerful and recognizable motif of which Liszt allegedly wrote, "'Das versteht Ihr alle nicht' ('This none of you understands'). Liszt employs blistering octave passages for the piano as he so frequently does. The main theme then reappears in a more tranquil form. The piano introduces the second subject after which the piano is joined by the clarinet in a serene duet. This charming passage is soon overtaken by the main theme again, but this time in an overpowering and almost furious tone.

Muted strings introduce the second section with a cantabile melody. The piano soon takes up the theme. As the mood grows more reflective, dramatic bursts from the orchestra ensue with improvisatory passages for the piano interspersed. The tempo quickens with flute, and then oboe and clarinet taking up the theme. A more lighthearted mood follows being introduced by the sounding of a triangle. It is with the use of the triangle that Liszt incurred much unnecessary criticism. Present day listeners may think nothing of the use of the triangle, but at the time of the concerto's premiere it was nothing short of revolutionary. A particulary sneering critic, Eduard Hanslick described the work as Liszt's "Triangle Concerto."

The piano soon introduces a cheerful theme in its upper register with other instruments gradually joining in, and all the while, the notorious triangle adds to the effect. The mood soon turns darker with the reappearance of the main theme. The piano introduces the final section with a quicker guise of the cantabile theme. Various themes make reappearances in some form or another until the concerto comes near an end with thunderous phrases and virtuosic octave passages for the piano. The concerto closes in the bravura style which Liszt has become known for.

For more on Liszt, see my Dante Symphony posting.

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