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ClassicsOnline Home » LISZT / BRAHMS: Piano Variations
Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886)
Fantasia and Fugue on the Theme B.A.C.H
Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24
The name of Bach was to provide a theme for a number of subsequent composers,
following the example of Johann Sebastian Bach himself, who had used his own
name as a fugal subject in The Art of Fugue, to be followed by his youngest son,
Johann Christian, who w rote his own fugue on the same subject. The letters
represent in German notation the notes B flat, A, C and B natural, an angular
figure well suited to fugal treatment.
Franz Liszt, the son of a steward employed by Haydn's patrons, the Princes of
Esterhazy, was to become not only one of the most dazzling virtuoso pianists of
the nineteenth century, but in later life exercised extraordinary influence over
generations of younger composers and players. Early ability took him to Vienna
at the age of ten, and there he had lessons in composition from the old court
composer Antonio Salieri and from Beethoven's brilliant pupil Carl Czerny. Two
years later Liszt moved with his parents to Paris, where he was to rermain for
the next twelve years, travelling from the French capital to other parts of
Europe on a series of concert tours that won him the unbounded adulation of
female enthusiasts and the more grudging admiration of their men.
A liaison with the Comtesse d'Agoult, the mother of his three children, led
Liszt to years of travel abroad as a virtuoso, and, after a breach in their
relations, to a more settled existence in the Grand Duchy of Weimar, where
Goethe had held court until his death in 1832. There Liszt became a conductor
and music director, turning his attention also to composition. In Weimar he was
able to revise many of the works that had formed part of his stock-in-trade as a
pianist and to write orchestral music in which he attempted to translate some of
the greatest works of literature into musical terms.
In Weimar Liszt lived with the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, the estranged wife
of a Russian nobleman. Their plans for marriage were frustrated in 1861 by the
refusal of the Vatican to grant the Princess an annulment of her first marriage.
Thereafter the couple took up separate residence in Rome, where Liszt took minor
orders, while continuing to divide his time between his interests in Rome, the
remaining demands of Weimar and his concern with music in his native Hungary,
which had achieved a measure of autonomy after 1848.
The monumental Fantasia and Fugue on the theme B-A-C-H was written for organ
in 1855 during Liszt's period of residence in Weimar. The composer arranged the
work for piano in 1871, creating music of incredible power and intensity. The
opening Fantasia makes immediate use of the B-A-C-H motif, which re-appears as a
subject of mysteriously shifting tonality in the subsequent magnificent fugue.
Liszt shared the enthusiasm of a number of his contemporaries for the
achievement of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose music he had studied from childhood,
in earlier years reserving performance for a limited circle of friends. In
Leipzig, where his success as a performer had not at first been recognized, he
played Bach's Concerto for Three Harpsichords, at the insistence of Felix
Mendelssohn, who, with Ferdinand Hiller, joined him in the performance.
The Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, written in 1862 and
dedicated to the Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein, take as a motif a figure from
the bass line of Bach's Cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, written
while Bach was in Weimar, but given its final form in 1725, when the composer
was established in Leipzig. The origin of the work, which demonstrates all the
power and strength of Liszt's imagination, as well as his phenomenal technical
ability, is proclaimed further by the introduction, in a mood of contrasting
tranquillity, of the chorale that ends Bach's original cantata, Was Gott tut,
das ist wohlgethan - What God doth, Surely that is right. It is tempting to
find in this the composer's resignation before the will of Rome, in the matter
of his proposed marriage, and the beginning of that mood that he was to
describe, in his final years, as santa indifferenza.
By 1861 Franz Liszt had become disillusioned with life in Weimar, where he
had hoped to establish a generous centre for the new music of Wagner and his own
conflation of music and poetry. The same year found the young Brahms, who had
failed to ingratiate himself with the great virtuoso when he had visited Weimar
eight years before, once again in his native Hamburg. Liszt was accustomed to
deference, and this Brahms had not shown, while open hostility had been
proclaimed in 1860 with an ill-timed manifesto to which he had put his
signature, expressing strong condemnation of the music of the future propounded
by Liszt and Wagner.
It was in 1861 that Brahms wrote one of his most successful works, the Variations
and Fugue on a Theme of Handel. The Variations even elicited praise from
Wagner, who remarked that it was interesting to see w hat could still be done
with the old forms, although his later attitude to the composer was distinctly
less complimentary. A year later Brahms was to settle permanently in Vienna and
the Handel Variations were included in one of his first public concerts there,
later to become one of his most popular works.
The theme that Brahms uses appears in the second of Handel's harpsichord
suites, where it is also the subject of variations. After a simple statement of
the theme Brahms proceeds to a thoroughly pianistic version of it in the first
variation, following this with a series of variations that we can now recognize
as entirely characteristic of the composer in their contrasts of mood and in
their revelation of the possibilities inherent in the theme itself.
The fugue, forming a great climax to the whole work, demonstrates the mastery
that Brahms had acquired in his early studies of counterpoint, as the variations
show his skill in using the restrictions of the form to the greatest musical
advantage, something that he had tried to achieve in earlier sets of variations
on which he had been working.
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LISZT / BRAHMS: Piano Variations