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ClassicsOnline Home » LISZT, F.: Wagner Transcriptions (Liszt Complete Piano Music, Vol. 36) (Wolfram)
By John Terauds
By David Denton
Franz Liszt (1811–1886)
Transcriptions of Wagner
Dans votre dernière lettre vous me demandez de vous entretenir de Wagner. Il y en aurait long à dire. Wagner a fait à lui seul par ses livres…et ses trois Drames—der fliegende Holländer—Tannhäuser et Lohengrin—la besogne de tout un corps d’ingénieurs et sapeurs. Il faut au moins une douzaine d’années pour que ses idées soient digérés et que les semences qu’il a jetées lèvent et produisent leurs moissons.
(In your last letter you ask me to tell you about Wagner. There would be much to say. Wagner by himself through his books…and his three dramas—The Flying Dutchman—Tannhäuser and Lohengrin—has done the work of a whole body of engineers and sappers. It will be at least a dozen years for his ideas to be digested and for the seeds he has sown to rise up and produce their harvests.)—Gotha 29 Mars 1854. Letter from Liszt to his cousin Edouard Liszt.
The son of Adam Liszt, a steward in the service of Haydn’s former patrons, the Esterházy Princes, Franz Liszt had early encouragement from members of the Hungarian nobility, allowing him in 1822 to go to Vienna for lessons with Czerny and a famous meeting with Beethoven. From there he moved to Paris, where he was gradually able to establish himself as a pianist in a city of pianists, his interest in virtuoso performance renewed when he heard the great violinist Paganini, whose technical accomplishments he now set out to emulate. The years that followed brought a series of compositions, including transcriptions of songs and operatic fantasies, part of the stock-in-trade of a virtuoso. Liszt’s relationship with a married woman, the Comtesse Marie d’Agoult, led to his departure from Paris for years of travel abroad, first to Switzerland, then back to Paris, before leaving for Italy, Vienna and Hungary. By 1844 his relationship with his mistress, the mother of his three children, was at an end, but his concert activities continued until 1847, the year in which his association began with Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a Polish heiress, the estranged wife of a Russian prince. The following year he settled with her in Weimar, the city of Goethe, with his career as a virtuoso now put aside. Here he turned his attention to the development of a newer form of orchestral music, the symphonic poem, and, as always, to the revision and publication of earlier compositions. In 1861 he moved to Rome, following Princess Carolyne, who had settled there a year earlier. Divorce and annulment seemed to have opened the way to their marriage, but they now continued to live in separate apartments in the city. Liszt eventually took minor orders and developed a pattern of life that divided his time between Weimar, where he imparted advice to a younger generation, Rome, where he was able to pursue his religious interests, and Pest, where he returned now as a national hero. He died in 1886 in Bayreuth, where his daughter Cosima, widow of Richard Wagner, lived, more concerned with the continued propagation of her husband’s music.
Liszt’s first meeting with Wagner had been in Paris in 1840, when the latter, struggling as a composer in Paris, came to call on him, apparently leaving no impression on Liszt. Four years later Liszt was present in Dresden when Wagner’s opera Rienzi was staged there. In the intervening years Wagner had won a measure of security, established as Kapellmeister in Dresden. Liszt, with his international fame as a performer, settled from 1848 in Weimar as Court Kapellmeister and from here was able to continue his altruistic mission to support the genius he perceived in others. In support of Wagner he staged Tannhäuser in Weimar in February 1849, and at the same time played an essential part in facilitating Wagner’s escape from Dresden, where Wagner had rashly supported the republican rising against the King, allowing him eventual refuge in Switzerland. In 1850 Liszt arranged the first performance of Lohengrin in Weimar and in the following years did as much as he could to bring about performances of Wagner’s operas elsewhere in Germany, while responding, as far as he could, to Wagner’s repeated requests for money and for help in securing an amnesty to allow his return to Germany. Liszt and Wagner became associated with what was described as ‘the music of the future’, represented by Wagner’s grandiose dramatic conceptions of the Gesamtkunstwerk and by Liszt’s virtual creation of the symphonic poem. While Liszt’s attitude to Wagner’s work was positive, Wagner was at the least ambivalent towards Liszt’s compositions, however favourable the opinions of it he expressed to the composer.
Liszt’s transcriptions of excerpts from Wagner’s stage works may be seen as part of his campaign to bring Wagner’s work to the notice of a wider audience. The four transcriptions from Wagner’s Lohengrin include Elsas Brautzug zum Münster (Elsa’s Bridal Procession to the Cathedral) , published with a transcribed excerpt from Tannhäuser in 1853. The mysterious knight Lohengrin has championed Elsa, defeating her enemy Friedrich von Telramund, who has accused her of killing her brother and usurping the dukedom of Brabant. Elsa is pledged not to question the knight as to his name, but, prompted by her enemies, does so. He reveals himself as Lohengrin, son of Parsifal, and dedicated to the Holy Grail, now bound to leave her. Before he goes, he restores Elsa’s brother to human form, breaking the spell cast on him, and Elsa falls dead in her brother’s arms. The bridal procession of the second act accompanies Elsa’s progress to the cathedral, soon to be interrupted by the challenge of Ortrud, Telramund’s wife. Liszt ends the excerpt with a short coda, marked Lento assai.
The transcription of the Festspiel und Brautlied (Festival and Bridal Song)  dates from 1854 and was revised nearly twenty years later. It treats the prelude to Act III, the wedding feast, followed by the very familiar Wedding March. In the transcription the opening prelude is then repeated. Elsas Traum (Elsa’s Dream)  draws on the first act. There Elsa tells the King of her sad life, Einsam in trüben Tagen (Alone in gloomy days), but the transcription starts before this, with Elsa’s entrance, her appearance before the King to answer her accusers, followed by her subsequent vision of the knight who will defend her honour. Lohengrins Verweis an Elsa (Lohengrin’s Admonition to Elsa) , published first in 1854 with Elsa’s Dream and the Festival and Bridal Song, is a straightforward arrangement of Lohengrin’s warning to Elsa in Act III, the left hand reproducing the aria melody of Lohengrin, Athmest du nicht mit mir die süssen Düfte? (Do you not breathe with me sweet odours?), while she is increasingly anxious to learn the forbidden secret of his name.
Isoldes Liebestod  is taken from the finale of the third act of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, first performed in Munich in 1865. Liszt’s transcription dates from 1867 and was revised in 1875. The Irish princess Isolde is to be escorted by Tristan to her proposed husband, Tristan’s uncle, King Marke. The administration of a love potion brings Tristan and Isolde together in a love that can only be resolved in death. Tristan’s consequent betrayal of King Marke results in his fatal wounding by a henchman of King Marke and his death, as King Marke brings a message of forgiveness. Tristan dies in the arms of his beloved Isolde, who revives, as the act draws to a close, for her final song of love and death. Liszt starts his transcription with a reference to the love duet of Tristan and Isolde in the second act, a motif of yearning, continuing with a motif associated with the second act So starben wir, um ungetrennt (So we might die, never to part), and motifs associated with Tristan the hero, ecstasy and the mysterious opening of the drama.
The grand tragic opera Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (Rienzi, the Last of the Roman Tribunes), based on an English novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, occupied Wagner intermittently from 1837 to 1840 and had its first performance at the Court Opera in Dresden in 1842. It deals with the conflict in Rome in the fourteenth century between feuding nobles, the intervention of the tribune Rienzi, the hostility fomented against him and his final death, as the Capitol burns in flames. Santo Spirito, Cavaliere is the battle-cry of Rienzi, as, in the third act, he leads senators and people against the two leading nobles and opens Liszt’s Fantasy Piece of 1859 . The other themes are Rienzi’s prayer, from the beginning of the fifth act, first heard in an expressive Andante molto sostenuto and then further elaborated. A trumpet call introduces the Aufruf zum Kampf (Call to Arms) of Act V, and there is a final return of Santo Spirito, Cavaliere.
Wagner’s romantic opera Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) was first staged in Dresden in 1843. The mysterious Dutchman is condemned to sail the seas with his ghostly crew until redeemed by the pure love of a woman. Allowed, now, after seven more years, to land in his quest for release, he moors his ship in a Norwegian fjord by the side of Daland’s, in whose house he seeks both hospitality and, as it transpires, the love of Daland’s daughter Senta, who has been haunted by legends of the Dutchman. In the second act girls sing their Spinnerlied (Spinning Chorus) , at their work together in Daland’s house, while Senta sits looking at the portrait of the mysterious Dutchman that hangs there. She sings her Ballade of the Dutchman , which, in Liszt’s transcription of 1872, is punctuated by hints of what is to follow, the love of Senta and the Dutchman and their release together in death. The Ballade starts with the horncall that has such motivic importance in the opera.
Wagner’s Tannhäuser was first staged in Dresden in October 1845, with a more elaborate version unsuccessfully mounted in Paris in 1861. In November 1848 Liszt conducted a performance of the Overture in Weimar and the following February mounted the opera there. He transcribed the Overture in about 1848 and in 1861 made a piano paraphrase under the title of the Pilgerchor (Pilgrims’ Chorus) , which is heard in Act III in the opera. Liszt bases his paraphrase on the reference to the coming chorus heard in the Overture. The opera deals with the conflict of the Minnesinger Tannhäuser, seen first enjoying the sensual delights of the Venusberg and then in penitence. At the singing contest on the Wartburg he meets and falls in love with Elisabeth, niece of the Landgrave, his sensuous view of love arousing the hostility of the knights gathered together for the contest. Joining pilgrims, in Rome he seeks forgiveness, denied him until the papal crozier should burst into flower. Elisabeth and the Minnesinger Wolfram await Tannhäuser’s return, but it is only through Elisabeth’s intercession, after her death, that Tannhäuser finds final redemption. The opera opens with a prelude that makes use of motifs associated with the pilgrims and with repentance.
Liszt’s transcription of the Feierlicher Marsch zum heiligen Gral (Solemn March to the Holy Grail)  from Wagner’s last stage work, Parsifal, was published in 1883, the year of Wagner’s death, and one year after the first performance of the work at Bayreuth. The pain of the sick King Amfortas, ruler of the kingdom of the Holy Grail, can only be relieved by one person, a blameless fool. This turns out to be the young Parsifal, who is led to the kingdom, defeating the magician Klingsor and regaining the Holy Spear, with which he heals Amfortas, whose place he takes. The ceremony of the Holy Grail is witnessed By Parsifal, who eventually becomes a participant in the rites. The Solemn March is heard in the first act, as the Knights of the Grail make their communion. Motifs used by Liszt include the solemn procession of the Knights, that of Parsifal and the Dresden Amen that is used to represent the Grail.
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