Liszt: Troisième Année of Années de Pèlerinage; Six Consolations; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 4

Années de Pèlerinage: Troisième Année

As a whole, the Années de pèlerinage ranks among Liszt’s finest works and arguably exhibits the widest range of his pianistic and compositional styles. Depicting scenes that the composer observed during his sojourns in foreign lands, these cycles of character pieces are noted for their mercurial moods, ranging from the rippling water effects of Au bord d’une source (première année, La Suisse) to the demonic bravura of Après une lecture de Dante (deuxième année, “L’Italie”) to the pious reverie of the Angélus! Prière aux anges gardiens (troisième année).

Unlike the first two sets, the troisième année is not identified by any national appellation (though Jeux d’eau and the two Thrénodies evoke scenes from Liszt’s stay at the Villa d’Este in Italy). Yet despite their apparent thematic amorphousness, these late-middle to late pieces (composed between 1867 and 1877) display a certain structural integrity. Because of the overall focus on religious and spiritual themes, it seems apposite to interpret the pilgrimage in the troisième année as a passage of the composer’s soul rather than as a physical wandering. Weary of life and in poor health, the former “eagle of the piano” himself described the mood that pervades his late works: “I carry a deep sadness of the heart which must now and then break out in song.” Examined from this perspective, the troisième année may signify Liszt’s contemplation of his impending death and of the judgment of his soul before God.

It thus seems no accident that Liszt would begin with the Angélus, a prayer to the guardian angels for protection against the spiritual desolation of evil, and end with the Sursum corda in a grand gesture of hope and spiritual resurrection. At the conclusion of the Angélus, the composer’s spirit fades into the mists with the final monotonal toll of a distant bell. The following two Thrénodies, literally “funeral dirges,” mark the restlessness of his spirit in death (a purgatory of sorts), akin to the literary journey of Virgil and Dante through the still nearly hellish circles at the foot of Mount Purgatorio. In a marked contrast, the end of the second Thrénodie foreshadows, through its quiet, downwardly modulating arpeggiandi, the pristine, Eden-like aura of the Jeux d’eau.

The Jeux d’eau, an evocation of the fountain at the Villa d’Este, is of central importance to the pilgrimage, both literally (it is the fourth piece of seven) and figuratively. It can be seen as the point at which Liszt finally looks upon the face of the divine and thus as the climactic point of his spiritual journey. The Jeux d’eau exemplifies the composer’s transcendentalist notion of aesthetic beauty, portraying the synthesis of nature and the divine through sound—in this case the virtuosic orchestration of limpid, glittering water effects. Indeed, the Jeux d’eau represents a perfect fulfillment of Liszt’s intentions as a composer who uses sound itself to suggest the beatific vision. The Jeux d’eau appears to free the composer’s spirit through a sort of catharsis. That is, as Liszt’s most perfect realization of sound on the piano, the Jeux d’eau suggests divine approbation for his life’s work as a com- poser. The Sursum corda confirms this triumph when its valedictory exultant clarion calls announce the ascension of Liszt’s soul to the heavens.

Written earlier than the first four pieces and the Sursum corda, the Sunt lacrimae rerum and the Marche funèbre (composed in 1872 and 1867, respectively) were later incorporated into the set and at first glance appear to interrupt its central structure. However, they fill out an overall symmetry. That is, like the two Thrénodies, they are pieces of a darker hue positioned between pieces of a more luminous character (the Jeux d’eau and the Sursum corda).

These two pieces are also apt additions to the set because they accentuate two especially important facets of Liszt’s music—his use of Hungarian folk themes and his obssession with the grotesque. The Sunt lacrimae rerum, though much more harmonically adventurous than the Rhapsodies hongroises, does not exhibit any less of a nationalistic flavor, and the Marche funèbre juxtaposes the grotesque and the heroic in typical Lisztian fashion. One might compare the latter’s final shrill trumpetings to the thundering octaves that conclude the Funérailles, a climax calculatingly preceded by a dour, lugubrious march that sets a tone of anticipation through a gradual crescendo. Though it is composed on a smaller scale, the Marche funèbre achieves a similar effect through the menacing tremolos that precede the heroic coda.

In the Sursum corda (literally “Lift up your hearts” from the preface to the Sanctus in the Latin Mass), we hear Liszt in arguably his most grandiose and heaven-storming moment in the entire Années de pèlerinage. In this piece, Liszt lays claim to his status as a divinely inspired composer who has finally triumphed over death and is now prepared to enter heaven to dwell as an artistic essence among the angels.

Thus, overall, we see a set with three classic focal points: beginning, middle, and end (Angélus, Jeux d’eau, and Sursum corda—pieces 1, 4, and 7). Liszt heightens the tension by interspersing the somber tone of first the two Thrénodies (pieces 2 and 3), then the Sunt lacrimae rerum and the Marche funèbre (pieces 5 and 6).

Such an analysis attempts to establish the significance of a wonderfully varied set of pieces that is today sadly neglected. Of these pieces, only the Jeux d’eau is played by today’s pianists with any regularity (and even that much less than most of the other celebrated pieces in Liszt’s oeuvre). As visually evocative as this piece is on its own, it has a greater effect when heard within the context of the others. Undoubtedly, pieces such as the Thrénodies and the Marche funèbre may seem more abstruse to audiences than many pieces in the two earlier sets, but the pianistic orchestration and tonal coloration are perhaps even more subtle. These pieces truly represent the “new music” envisioned by Liszt and Wagner. We especially hear this in the forward-looking harmonies, ranging from the quasi-impressionism of the Jeux d’eau, emulated by such composers as Debussy and Ravel, to the foreboding dissonances of the Marche funèbre, the Thrénodies, and the Sunt lacrimae rerum, which presage such late tonal experiments as the composer's La lugubre gondola and Nuages gris. Ultimately, the troisième année stands out, even beyond the earlier two sets, as exemplifying Liszt’s success with pianistic sound exploitation.

Liszt: Années de Pèlerinage, Troisième Année, I: Angelus! Prière aux Anges Gardiens

Liszt: Années de Pèlerinage, Troisième Année, II: Aux Cyprès de la Villa d'Este I: Thrénodie

Liszt: Années de Pèlerinage, Troisième Année, III: Aux Cyprès de la Villa d'Este II: Thrénodie

Liszt: Années de Pèlerinage, Troisième Année, IV: Les Jeux d'Eau à la Villa d'Este

Liszt: Années de Pèlerinage, Troisième Année, V: Sunt Lacrimae Rerum en Mode Hongrois

Liszt: Années de Pèlerinage, Troisième Année, VI: Marche Funèbre

Liszt: Années de Pèlerinage, Troisième Année, VII: Sursum Corda

Six Consolations

The Consolations represent Liszt’s cultivation of a diminutive form. These sketches display a profundity and sensitivity of musical expression that is sometimes lacking in the composer's larger-scale works. Although penned in Liszt’s early-middle period (1849–1850), the Consolations exhibit a maturity characteristic of the composer’s late works.

The Consolations are particularly noteworthy for their plangent melodies and deeply introspective tone. It is this latter quality that perhaps distinguishes them from the nocturne, which in Chopin’s hands becomes an impassioned extroverted lyric, especially in the tempestuous middle sections. Like the nocturne, however, the consolation exhibits what Chopin delineated as the interplay between the chef d’orchestre (the bass and its associated harmonics) and the chanteuse (the right-hand melody).

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the well-known third consolation. As in his third Liebestraum, here Liszt rivals Chopin in the coherence and continuity of his melodic lines. One can, in fact, hardly escape a comparison between this consolation and the equally celebrated Op. 27, No. 2, nocturne by Chopin in the same key of D-flat major. The two pieces begin quite similarly with the same sonorous pedal-point D-flats in the bass and exhibit similar harmonic patterms from the outset. Each piece conveys its composer’s distinctive melodic style, but the two works share a melancholic pathos that typify Virgil’s “There are tears in mortal affairs.”

In listening to the Consolations, one might wonder whether Liszt may have been better suited to miniature forms. The B minor sonata, for example, for all its epic grandeur and structural novelty, can leave one feeling a bit emotionally unsatisfied. The Consolations, though mere album leaves, sublimely and more immediately encapsulate emotions such as love, sadness, and longing. They are refined to a degree that might have won them even Chopin’s approval, had he lived to see their publication.

Liszt: Six Consolations, S. 172, I: Andante con Moto, E Major

Liszt: Six Consolations, S. 172, II: Un Poco Più Mosso, E Major

Liszt: Six Consolations, S. 172, III: Lento Placido, D-Flat Major

Liszt: Six Consolations, S. 172, IV: Quasi Adagio, D-Flat Major

Liszt: Six Consolations, S. 172, V: Andantino, E Major

Liszt: Six Consolations, S. 172, VI: Allegretto Sempre Cantabile, E Major

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 4 in E-flat Major

Often unjustly denigrated as fustian that merely showcases the virtuoso’s pianistic prowess, the Hungarian Rhapsodies explicitly express elements of Liszt's national heritage, representing an amalgam of various gypsy themes. Like most gypsy improvisations, they are divided into two main sections: the lassan (a slower introduction that tends to be either plaintive or majestic in character) and the friska (a fast, spirited, dancing section with a coda).

The fourth rhapsody is a particular favorite with audiences. Unlike many of the other rhapsodies, it presents its thematic material tightly and thus more successfully highlights its various moods, from the fleeting filigree and macho swagger of the lassan to the Pan-like octaves of the friska.

Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 4, E-flat Major      © Joseph Renouf 2012-2016