Franz Liszt: Rossinian Dreams (Piano Transcriptions, Variations and Impromptu)


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    From piano to piano
    That an opera, that a melodrama score is born at the piano to be then orchestrated by the author and find its place in a theatre is quite obvious: from the original musical themes fixed on a keyboard with polyphonic possibilities we then move on to further development, the result of creative genius and the ability to create those sounds, those “colours” which will then delight the enthusiasts in the theatre. It is also obvious that it is the most significant themes of a melodrama that remain in the memory, in affectionate appreciation of many, even if the revival of an opera in the years following its first performances remains a privilege that only some works, those destined for the Olympus of masterpieces, can claim. Well, and for all the other operas? Simply in the past we moved on to something else: thanks to the great fortune of the melodrama genre and with a veritable group of excellent composers who dedicated themselves to it, other works that took the place of the previous ones and many operas that had also thrilled audiences and stages in the theatre gradually passed into oblivion, destined to be remembered first by a few, then by very few and finally to be mentioned only in music history manuals or in theatre registers.
    With some exceptions however, thanks to other musicians, struck by the beauty of some themes heard in the theatre and who have taken them as a starting point, as a recognizable starting point for some of their Variations, fixed on the music paper… again almost always on the piano, in their return to the emblem of beauty and virtuosity. Bringing back the echoes of an opera through the piano with pieces destined to private entertainment, in front of a musically cultured and rich audience, was a widespread practice throughout Europe and there were countless pianists who dedicated themselves to this particular practice, that of transcription, which often also revealed a precocious or very precocious talent.
    And this is certainly the case of Franz Liszt, initiated by his father into music and who moved to Vienna when the boy was twelve years old and where he studies composition with Antonio Salieri and piano with Carl Czerny, and then in Paris with Ferdinando Paer. It was certainly like this, thanks to the musical readings with his Maestri and the frequent visits to the theatre that comes the idea of composing a series of Variations on a theme from an Italian opera, the Ermione written by Gioacchino Rossini in 1819 for the San Carlo theatre in Naples, a libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola. A tragic story based on Andromaque by Racine, in turn taken from the Andromaca by Euripide. It was not a success, far from it, also because the Neapolitan audience had an evident preference for comic plots. But obviously the very young Liszt was able to approach the score and came across the Third Scene of the First Act of the opera, in which Oreste si avanza fuori di sé. Pilade procura calmarlo. After the agitated Recitativo Reggia aborrita! Oh quanto l’aspetto tuo mi affanna! Here is Oreste who bursts into the Aria Ah! Come nascondere/La fiamma vorace/Se in petto quest’anima/Smarrita ha la pace?/Se amor mi fa vittima/Di un crudo poter?
    It is precisely this theme that the very young Liszt – who was little more than ten years old at the time – puts at the basis for his Sept Variations Brillantes R 28 SW 149 dedicated to Cécile Panckoucke, whose portrait by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres is exhibited in the Louvre. After the Allegretto in the Introduction the Theme is followed by Variations with a brilliant tone: the first concludes with a very fast descending chromatic scale in semi-demiquavers, the next two insist on the chords of the original Theme.
    Naturally the technical difficulties on the piano become increasingly greater, the sixth Variation is a lively Polonaise and the seventh, Brillante con forza, rushes towards grave with very fast scales.
    Immediately following the Sept Variations Brillantes is the Improvviso Brillante su temi di Rossini e Spontini op. 3 for which Liszt draws on four themes from as many Italian operas, first two by Rossini with La Donna del lago and Armida, then the Olympie and Fernand Cortez (La conquista del Messico) by Gaspare Spontini. The Improvviso opens with a wide Introduction that alternates the Largo with the Allegro before reaching the first Rossini Theme, that of La Donna del Lago which passes between some Variations and a reference to the rhythmic initial theme before presenting the second Theme, that of a duet from Rossini’s Armida. Naturally the very young Liszt, choosing the form of the Improvviso, allows himself a wide freedom in dealing with operistic themes, proposing typically piano figurations taking care however to preserve a perfect recognition of the original operistic material: as in the Andante religioso of the Chorus of the Olympie by Gaspare Spontini, an opera which, moreover, is later than that Fernand Cortez, which was a great success for this Italian opera composer. Olympie is based on Voltaire’s tragedy of the same name and has as its subject the – legendary – killing of Alessandro Magno but had a not exactly lucky outcome, though not for artistic demerits: after the first appreciated replicas of 1819 at the Paris Opéra here is a tragic event, the assassination of the Duke of Berry – second son of Carlo X, stabbed on the street by an anti-monarchist saddler in February 1820 in Paris. Gaspare Spontini’s opera was thus suspended and was proposed again only years later, but in the meantime Gioacchino Rossini himself had earned such a reputation as to overshadow many other composers. Going back to the Improvviso Brillante op.3 Liszt arrives at the last theme of the piece by quoting a “guerresco” theme from that Fernand Cortez (La conquista del Messico) which, as we remembered, was one of the previous operas by the composer from Le Marche region and which, in 1809 had given him new and unchallenged fame two years after another of his tragédie lyrique, that of the La Vestale. And in the theme quoted by Liszt in his Improvviso Brillante op.3 appears the one that evokes in an unequivocal way, with its Allegro, the advance of the Spanish conquistadors. The piece concludes with a brief riexposition of the previous themes and with a series of flyers in semiquavers, typically of Liszt’s agile pianism.
    With the piano transcription of the Cujus Animam from Gioacchino Rossini’s Stabat Mater we go almost twenty years later, compared to the very first works of the young Liszt, those of 1824.The Stabat Mater, in fact, had seen the light in 1842 in Paris with some of the most acclaimed voices of the time, those of Giulia Grisi, Emma Albertazzi, Giovanni Mattedo De Candia and Antonio Tamburini. The Stabat Mater had had a tormented history starting from its birth, insistently requested from the composer by Manuel Fernàndez Varela, a Spanish prelate who imagined a “Rossini version” of Pergolesi’s masterpiece. Needless to say, Rossini’s sensibility was totally different, but the man from Pesaro still wanted to pay homage to the prelate with a score which, he asked, would not be published and therefore remained a “private homage”. The Stabat Mater, passed into the hands of an unscrupulous musician like Giovanni Tadolini, who completed it by rearranging it, was performed in this “dirty” version and it was only several years later that Rossini authorized its publication by the musical types of the publisher Troupenas, not without having revised deeply the original manuscript.
    The result is the Stabat Mater as we know it today and from which Franz Liszt chooses to transcribe the second of the ten numbers that compose it for the piano, the tenor’s Aria Cujus animam gementem. In the piano version he maintains the dramatic configuration but also gives particular emphasis to the recurring rhythmic element that runs through the entire piano page, up to the last bars, in which all the modulating passages that have made this Rossini piece famous are also carefully underlined.
    Even Rossini’s pages dedicated to the three theological virtues, of which La Charité is a part, also date back to the last period of Rossini’s life: published in 1844 in Paris they were religious choirs intended for female voices accompanied on the piano and the text of La Charité is by Louise Colette. Liszt’s transcription maintains the serene and delicate character of the original, abounding in arpeggios without naturally renouncing delicate embellishments in the various repetitions of the main theme, shifting the melody several times to the bass. A pensive but serene atmosphere, certainly with a thought to the text sung in the original, which in the Italian translation ends with the verses L’ira, l’orgoglio fian vinti allor/da un sacro vincolo d’eterno amor.
    The piano version of the Ouverture of La gazza ladra by Rossini – performed a few years before the Variations of very young Liszt – is not of the Hungarian genius but is placed in the highly successful practice of piano transcriptions of pieces but also of entire Italian works, certainly for study but also for those “reserved concerts” so appreciated throughout the nineteenth century. Here the piano is committed to rendering the effect of the score as much as possible, from the initial tambourine to the orchestral crescendos, up to the real explosions typical of Rossini’s style, passing from one theme to another that the enthusiast undoubtedly awaits. But let us not forget that the Ouverture, in its glittering performance, also reflects the most dramatic moments of Rossini’s work: the drum rhythm evoked at the beginning of the piece by the piano and then resumed, alludes to the theme of justice, indeed of injustice towards the poor Ninetta, falsely accused of theft and who risks the gallows. But it is extraordinary how this piece, even in the piano version, manages to communicate such vitality that it is almost inevitable to forget the dramatic consequences of the story narrated by Rossini: it remains an unsurpassed model of Ouverture, where the extraordinary quality of its themes also emerges superbly in its “restitution” on the piano.
    Luigi Fertonani © 2023
    Translation: F. C


    Fiammetta Corvi is a highly skilled and passionate pianist who fell in love with the instrument at the age of three. Her interest in the piano began when she visited acquaintances who owned a grand piano and was captivated by its presence. After ten years, Fiammetta began her studies in Como and then in Brescia, where she graduated in 1997. Her love for the music of Mozart, Chopin, Brahms, and Liszt continued to grow, and she became increasingly interested in specializing in piano performance.

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    Franz Liszt: (b Raiding, (Doborján), 22 Oct 1811; d Bayreuth, 31 July 1886). Hungarian composer, pianist and teacher. He was one of the leaders of the Romantic movement in music. In his compositions he developed new methods, both imaginative and technical, which left their mark upon his forward-looking contemporaries and anticipated some 20th-century ideas and procedures; he also evolved the method of ‘transformation of themes’ as part of his revolution in form, made radical experiments in harmony and invented the symphonic poem for orchestra. As the greatest piano virtuoso of his time, he used his sensational technique and captivating concert personality not only for personal effect but to spread, through his transcriptions, knowledge of other composers’ music. As a conductor and teacher, especially at Weimar, he made himself the most influential figure of the New German School dedicated to progress in music. His unremitting championship of Wagner and Berlioz helped these composers achieve a wider European fame. Equally important was his unrivalled commitment to preserving and promoting the best of the past, including Bach, Handel, Schubert, Weber and above all Beethoven; his performances of such works as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Hammerklavier Sonata created new audiences for music hitherto regarded as incomprehensible. The seeming contradictions in his personal life – a strong religious impulse mingled with a love of worldly sensation – were resolved by him with difficulty. Yet the vast amount of new biographical information makes the unthinking view of him as ‘half gypsy, half priest’ impossible to sustain. He contained in his character more of the ideals and aspirations of the 19th century than any other major musician.

    Profile from The New Grove dictionary of Music and Musicians