9. Liszt and the Piano
9. Liszt and the piano.

During the 1830s and 40s Liszt made an unprecedented advance in piano technique, introducing a range of new technical and expressive possibilities. This breakthrough, coupled with the related evolution in the instrument itself, its greater strength, its bigger sound and wider dynamic range, allowed a richer variety of pianistic textures. The instrument could encompass symphonic and vocal works, and imitate a wealth of colouristic and timbral effects. Modern piano technique owes much to Liszt’s pioneering developments during these years. Pianists still turn to his music for its technical resources. When Busoni began to study the piano afresh at the age of 30, in order to remedy what he considered to be defects in his own playing, Liszt’s music was his chief guide. Out of the laws he found there Busoni rebuilt his technique. ‘Gratitude and admiration’, he wrote, ‘made Liszt at that time my master and my friend’.

The works most representative of Liszt’s virtuoso years are the six ‘Paganini’ Studies and the 12 ‘Transcendental’ Studies. The sets were published with the titles Etudes d’exécution transcendante d’après Paganini and Grandes études respectively, before they were revised in 1851 with their final titles of Grandes études de Paganini and Etudes d’exécution transcendante. In their earlier versions these works remain among the most daunting challenges in the piano literature, and they offer telling proof of Liszt’s pre-eminence among the pianists of his time.

The ‘Paganini’ Studies, with the exception of La campanella, are based on the caprices for solo violin, and each study concentrates on a particular technical or musical device, equivalent to those in the original violin works:
1. G minor, tremolando (based on Paganini’s Caprice no.6, with introduction and coda based on Caprice no.5); 2. E major, scales and octaves (Caprice no.17); 3. G minor, leaps and rapid note reiteration (La campanella); 4. E major, arpeggios and crossing hands (Caprice no.1); 5. E major, echo effects and glissandos (Caprice no.9); 6. A minor, theme and variations (Caprice no.24)
The 12 ‘Transcendental’ Studies are closely related to the ‘Paganini’ Studies in style and virtuosity. These pieces exist in three versions (Mazeppa has an additional version dating from 1840 as well as an orchestral version as a symphonic poem), since the 12 Grandes études are elaborate reworkings (with the exception of no.7, later called Eroica) of the juvenile Etude (1827). It was not until the final version that Liszt added the poetic titles. The tonal plan of these 12 studies follows that of the original 1826 set. Liszt unfolds a descending circle of 5ths, with each alternate study in the relative minor of its predecessor. Since 24 studies were announced for the 1838 publication, we infer that Liszt originally intended to continue the key scheme and complete the circle. Robert Schumann reviewed this 1838 version for the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, and aptly described them as ‘Studies in storm and dread … fit for ten or 12 players in the world’.

The 1851 revisions of both sets of studies were designed to allow the pieces to ‘speak’ more effectively. Liszt smoothed out some of the more intractable difficulties and clarified the textures, giving the pieces a leaner, more brilliant sound. The revisions made these works more widely accessible and accommodated the changing requirements of the modern piano, with its heavier action. Nevertheless, even with the more complicated textures ironed out, these works make enormous demands on the pianist.

A comparison between the later versions of each study and the corresponding juvenile model reveals the immense strides that Liszt made as a pianist over 25 years (ex.4. The original 1826 (untitled) version of Wilde Jagd was unremarkable, influenced as it was by Cramer and Czerny. Yet it contains the seeds of one of the most difficult concert studies ever written for the piano.

Liszt’s hands were long and narrow, and lack of webbing between the fingers allowed him to take wide stretches with comparative ease. Because his fingertips were blunted rather than tapered, they gave maximum traction across the surface of the keyboard. Another physical advantage for Liszt was that his fourth fingers were unusually flexible, and this made it easier for him to play shimmering textures with several things going on inside the same hand simultaneously. His keyboard textures often assume that the player can stretch a 10th without difficulty (ex.5). Liszt’s fingerings are of absorbing interest. They arise naturally from the keyboard and from the anatomy of the human hand. The layout of the double-3rds scale in the Sixth ‘Paganini’ Study seems perverse, until we consider the alternatives. Liszt forms the hand into a two-pronged fork (second and fourth fingers only), an unusual shape which permits him to move across the keyboard at high velocity (ex.6).

‘Interlocking scales’ show Liszt at his inventive best. One of the basic models may be found in the first volume of Technische Studien; it finds a home in such shining passages as found in La campanella (ex.7). The challenge turns out to be mental rather than physical. Rather than dividing his resources between two hands, each with five digits, Liszt in effect sees a single interlocked hand of ten digits.

One of Liszt’s most sensational effects still bears his name: ‘Liszt octaves’. They are played with alternating hands, thumbs overlapping, creating the illusion of regular double octaves at unattainable speeds. Difficult as they sound, such passages are highly economical. The player achieves double the power with half the output. A well-known example occurs in the Second ‘Paganini’ Study, in E major (ex.8).

The more dramatic devices in Liszt’s music required larger halls for their full effect. It was Liszt who took the piano out of the salon and placed it in the modern concert hall. When, in early 1837, he gave a recital before 3000 people in Milan, at La Scala, he was democratizing the instrument. Nevertheless, in order to achieve this end he had to overcome much prejudice. There were many musicians whose thinking was rooted in the 18th century, and who regarded the piano – much as the harpsichord had been regarded before it – as a chamber instrument to be played before a small circle of connoisseurs. Chopin, Hummel and Moscheles had all made their reputations in this way. When Chopin played in the salons of Paris before a select audience drawn from high society, he gave his incomparable performances on the silvery toned Pleyel, with its light action. Liszt had often played the Pleyel and found it wanting: he disparagingly called it ‘a pianino’. The seven-octave Erard, with its heavier action and larger sound, was more suited to his pianistic style. This was the instrument that he preferred during his tours of the 1830s and 40s. Even so, it could not always withstand the onslaught of his more powerful pieces, and Liszt occasionally broke a string or snapped a hammer. Not until the firms of Steinway and Bechstein produced their reinforced instruments in the 1850s did Liszt’s repertory of the 1840s come into its own.

In Erard’s double-escapement action Liszt perceived some unexplored possibilities. His music abounds in streams of rapid note reiterations which, when properly executed, delude the ear into believing that the piano has been turned into a sustaining instrument. One of the finest examples occurs in the Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli, a supplement to the Italian Années de pèlerinage (ex.9). Into a similar category falls the tremolando, a dangerous device in the wrong hands. Some of his later compositions (Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este, for example, or his arrangement of Isolde’s ‘Liebestod’ from Tristan) rely heavily on the effect and can be ruined in performance. Liszt advised that the tremolando be played as rapidly as possible, with the keys already halfway depressed and brought to life by the slightest trembling of the hand. A notorious example occurs towards the end of the ‘Dante’ Sonata (ex.10).

Leaps were a particular speciality. Liszt himself enjoyed taking risks and he sometimes asks the pianist to perform some difficult feats. The first version of Au bord d’une source (1840) contains an invitation to disaster, which is generally declined in favour of the revision of 1855 (ex.11). The glissando was another effect with which Liszt dazzled his audience. The Tenth Hungarian Rhapsody, Les patineurs, and Totentanz all contain extended glissandos of an unprecedented range and power (ex.12). In a letter to Olga von Meyendorff, incidentally, Liszt advised her to use ‘only the nail, either of your thumb or of your index or third finger, without even the tiniest area of flesh’ (his italics; Waters and Tyler, C1979, p.390).

In the 1830s Liszt developed some unconventional marks of expression. The impulse to do so arose from a youthful desire to control every aspect of interpretation, especially tempo rubato.

The 1838 version of the Transcendental Studies offers an abundance of such devices. In later years, when he revised much of his early output, Liszt dropped them, presumably because he felt that such matters are best left to each individual player. Their chief interest today is that they tell us how Liszt himself might have interpreted his own music.

Alan Walker