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PROGRAM NOTES: Louis Lortie, piano

by Eric Bromberger

LISZT AT THE OPERA — MOSTLY WITH WAGNER On this evening’s recital Louis Lortie plays a program of music from operas that has been arranged for piano. Such arrangements were common in the nineteenth century, when virtuoso performers would use themes from popular operas–tunes their audiences would already recognize–to create completely new works with which they could demonstrate their own virtuosity. These pieces went under a variety of names–fantasy, reminiscence, paraphrase–and they were essentially new compositions based on themes by other composers. But sometimes composers would make literal piano versions of music from opera–or the concert hall–and here their intentions were more generous: they wanted to bring unfamiliar music to audiences that might not otherwise hear it. The name for such faithful arrangements was transcription, and Liszt made piano transcriptions of such works as Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, Beethoven’s symphonies, Weber’s overtures, and many more.

On this program Mr. Lortie offers both these approaches, including a reminiscence of a Mozart opera and a paraphrase of the end of a Wagner opera, plus fairly literal transcriptions of music from Wagner’s operas, made by a number of different composers.

Prelude und Liebestod (trans. Liszt) from Tristan und Isolde (trans. Louis Lortie)

RICHARD WAGNER
Born May 22, 1813, Leipzig
Died February 13, 1883, Venice
Approximate Duration: 18 minutes

During the 1850s Wagner was at work on the operas that would make up The Ring of the Nibelungen. He completed Das Rheingold in 1854 and Die Walküre in 1856 and immediately set to work on Siegfried. Partway through Act I of Siegfried, however, Wagner’s plans took an unexpected detour when he became fascinated by the ancient Irish legend of Tristan and Iseult, lovers who find fulfillment only in death. He laid aside his work on Siegfried for three years and composed Tristan und Isolde between 1856 and 1859.

Even before the opera was premièred in Munich in 1865 Wagner had led orchestral excerpts from it in concerts, and the most important of these involves a remarkable piece of compositional surgery: Wagner took the very beginning of the opera–its opening prelude–and the very ending–Isolde’s farewell to life–and fused them in an orchestral work he called Prelude and Love-Death. This reduces the four-hour opera to a sixteen-minute distillation that moves directly from its yearning beginning to Isolde’s ecstatic fulfillment in death at the very end, and it has remained one of the most popular orchestral excerpts from Wagner’s operas.

It is also one of the most remarkable works in the repertoire, so remarkable that many feel that modern music (whatever that is) begins with the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde. The Prelude opens this tale of unfulfilled love with music that is itself the very embodiment of unfulfilled longing–a falling cello line intersects dissonantly with a rising oboe line, and that harmonic clash does not resolve. That same pattern repeats in a new key, again without resolution. It will never resolve. The music’s failure ever to find harmonic stasis mirrors the lovers’ failure to find fulfillment in life, and–despite the beauty of the music–its effect is intentionally unsettling. Berlioz confessed that he was “completely baffled” when he heard Wagner conduct the Prelude in Paris in 1859, and he was quite right to feel assaulted. This music annihilated the conception of a tonal center decades before those other two works that have seemed to launch modern music–Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring–were conceived (and before either of those two composers had even been born).

The Prelude–built on a series of longing, surging phrases– comes to a quiet close on two deep pizzicato strokes, and the music continues directly into the concluding Liebestod, or Love-Death. It was Wagner himself who invented that name, though he considered calling this concluding excerpt Verklärung, or Transformation. Tristan has died, and Isolde– dying herself–clings to his body and finds in death the union that the two could never achieve in life. The Liebestod is built on a sonority quite different from the Prelude, full of shimmering sounds that mirror Isolde’s transfiguration.

Magic Fire Music from Die Walküre (trans. Hugo Wolf)) Approximate Duration: 5 minutes

At the end of Die Walküre, the second opera of the Ring cycle, Wotan faces a horrifying decision. Siegmund and his enemy Hunding are about to fight to the death, and Wotan and his daughter Brünnhilde clash over that fight. As king of the gods, Wotan must abide by the rules of marriage and cannot protect Siegmund, but Brünnhilde disobeys him and sides with Siegmund. The furious Wotan allows Hunding to kill Siegmund, then kills Hunding with a wave of his hand. In the opera’s final scene, Wotan punishes Brünnhilde by making her mortal and putting her to sleep on the top of a mountain. In a moving farewell to his daughter, he surrounds her with a magic fire that can be penetrated only by a hero worthy of her love, and this is accompanied by some of the most beautiful music in the entire Ring, Wotan’s Farewell to Brünnhilde and the Magic Fire Music. The Magic Fire Music begins quietly. Tentative at first, the flames slowly expand to surround and protect Brünnhilde, and Die Walküre winds down to its quiet and very moving conclusion as the flames flicker around Wotan’s sleeping daughter.

The Magic Fire Music is heard on this recital in a little-known arrangement by Hugo Wolf. One of the most ardent of Wagnerians, Wolf made what he called a Paraphrase über Die Walküre von Richard Wagner in 1880, when he was still a 20-year-old. That substantial paraphrase, well over twenty minutes long, freely treats themes from throughout the opera, but it concludes with a fairly literal version of the Magic Fire Music. On this recital Mr. Lortie plays only the Magic Fire Music.

Réminiscences de Don Juan, S.418

FRANZ LISZT
Born October 22, 1811, Raiding, Austria
Died July 31, 1886, Bayreuth, Germany
Approximate Duration: 15 minutes

The “Don Juan” of this French title is actually Don Giovanni of Mozart’s great opera. Liszt wrote this paraphrase on themes from Don Giovanni in 1841, just as he turned 30 and was at the crest of his fame as a touring virtuoso. Unlike some of Liszt’s paraphrases, which string together tunes from an opera, the Réminiscences de Don Juan is a much more carefully conceived composition. Liszt chose three characteristic scenes from the opera and treated each in turn and at some length. The result is a very serious piece of music–it has been described as “symphonic”–which is remarkable not just for the virtuosity of the writing but for imagination of Liszt’s treatment of Mozart’s ideas.

The three scenes Liszt chose are quite different, and each shows us a different face of Mozart’s opera. The opening section is a powerful extension of the music that accompanies one of the most dramatic moments in the opera– the appearance of the statue at Don Giovanni’s dinner party at the very end of the final act, when the Don is dragged down into hell. Liszt then turns to Don Giovanni and Zerlina’s great duet from Act I, Là ci darem la mano, as he attempts to seduce her. This is one of the best-loved melodies in all music (Chopin and others have also written variations on it), and here Liszt evolves two long variations. The extended final section is based on what has been called the “champagne aria”–Don Giovanni’s Finch’han dal vino from Act I, when he orders Leporello to prepare a party at which he plans to seduce as many women as possible. It is a sparkling aria in the opera, and Liszt uses its drive to energize his own virtuoso treatment. It all comes to a brilliant close, and it is no surprise that Liszt performed this music so often (or that it proved so popular with nineteenth-century audiences).

In our own day, when it may seem sacrilegious to “tamper” with a masterpiece like Don Giovanni, it is important to remember that we do not come to this music to hear Mozart but to hear what Liszt does with Mozart: Humphrey Searle has remarked that this piece is “Mozart- Liszt and not Mozart, and one should appreciate it for what it is.” And what it is, is quite impressive: over its nearly twentyminute span this paraphrase reminds not just of the greatness of Mozart but of Liszt’s own powerful musical personality.

Siegfried Idyll (trans. Josef Rubinstein)

RICHARD WAGNER
Approximate Duration: 20 minutes

An understanding of Wagner’s lovely Siegried Idyll requires some knowledge of the details of that composer’s irregular personal life. In 1864, at the age of 51, Wagner began an affair with 27-year-old Cosima von Bülow, daughter of Franz Liszt and wife of pianist-conductor Hans von Bülow. Wagner and Cosima’s daughter Isolde was born the following April, on the same day von Bülow conducted the first rehearsal of Tristan und Isolde. All concerned agreed to keep details of the situation a secret, and the infant’s birth certificate listed von Bülow as the father, Wagner as the godfather. Cosima bore Wagner two more children, a daughter Eva in 1867 and a son Siegfried in 1869, and moved in with him in 1868. Finally, in 1870–after a six-year relationship and three children–the couple was married.

That fall, Cosima became aware that Wagner was working on a project he would not describe to her, and for good reason–it was to be one of the best surprises in the history of music. On Christmas morning, Cosima–asleep with eighteen-month-old Siegfried–awoke to the sound of music. Her husband had secretly composed and rehearsed a piece for small orchestra, and now that orchestra–arranged on the staircase leading to Cosima’s bedroom–gave this music its most unusual première.

This music was not just a token of love and a Christmas present, but also a birthday present–Cosima had turned 33 a few weeks earlier. She treasured this music, which is full of private meanings for the couple: it is based on themes from Wagner’s (as yet unperformed) opera Siegfried, but it also uses a child’s cradlesong and other themes with personal meaning for Wagner and Cosima. Their private title for the piece was Tribschen Idyll: they were living at Tribschen on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland at the time, and Cosima felt that the music was an embodiment of their life and love in these years. When in 1878, pressed for cash, Wagner had the music published (under the now-familiar title Siegfried Idyll), Cosima confessed in her diary: “My secret treasure is becoming common property; may the joy it will give mankind be commensurate with the sacrifice I am making.”

As good love music should be, Siegfried Idyll is gentle, warm, and melodic. Listeners familiar with the opera Siegfried will recognize some of the themes, all associated with the young hero Siegfried: his horn call, the bird call from the Forest Murmurs sequence, and others. Wagner also quotes, in the oboe near the beginning, the old cradlesong “Sleep, Little Child, Sleep.” The Siegfried Idyll is heard on this concert in a transcription by Josef Rubinstein.

“O du mein holder Abendstern” from Tannhäuser (trans. Franz Liszt) Approximate Duration: 6 minutes

Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner shared a long and–at times–difficult relationship. During his years as music director in Weimar, Liszt championed Wagner’s music and conducted a number of his operas, including Tannhäuser. But in 1865 Liszt’s daughter Cosima abandoned her husband Hans von Bülow, ran off with Wagner, and eventually married him. Liszt was furious with both Cosima and Wagner and remained estranged from them until a reconciliation was worked out in 1872.

If Liszt could disapprove of Wagner’s actions, he nevertheless admired his music, and he made piano transcriptions of music from eleven of Wagner’s operas. Liszt’s paraphrases or transcriptions of other composers’ opera excerpts could sometimes be quite free, as in the Réminiscences de Don Juan heard earlier on this program, but it is a measure of Liszt’s respect for Wagner’s operas that these transcriptions were usually quite respectful–they were almost always straightforward and literal, as are the two hear on this program.

The idea of the redemptive power of love would engage Wagner throughout his life: it lies at the core of Der fliegender Holländer, Tristan und Isolde, the Ring Cycle, and even in some ways in Parsifal. It is also central to Tannhäuser, which Wagner composed between 1843 and 1845. Set in the thirteenth century, the opera tells of the minstrel-knight Tannhäuser, who is trapped by the sensual claims of Venusberg and is living a dissolute life in that grotto of love. Weary of the flesh and longing for something purer and finer, he appeals to the Virgin Mary and instantly finds himself back in his native Thuringia, where he once loved the pure Elizabeth. Sensing where he has been, the locals turn piece was Tribschen Idyll: they were living at Tribschen on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland at the time, and Cosima felt that the music was an embodiment of their life and love in these years. When in 1878, pressed for cash, Wagner had the music published (under the now-familiar title Siegfried Idyll), Cosima confessed in her diary: “My secret treasure is becoming common property; may the joy it will give mankind be commensurate with the sacrifice I am making.”

As good love music should be, Siegfried Idyll is gentle, warm, and melodic. Listeners familiar with the opera Siegfried will recognize some of the themes, all associated with the young hero Siegfried: his horn call, the bird call from the Forest Murmurs sequence, and others. Wagner also quotes, in the oboe near the beginning, the old cradlesong “Sleep, Little Child, Sleep.” The Siegfried Idyll is heard on this concert in a transcription by Josef Rubinstein.

Overture to Tannhäuser (trans. Franz Liszt) Approximate Duration: 15 minutes

The overture to Tannhäuser is built on the same conflict that underlies the opera: the collision between the pure and the sensual. The overture opens with stately music from the “Pilgrim’s Chorus,” sung in Acts II and III by those on their way to and from Rome. This soon gives way to the Venusberg music, which accompanies the bacchanalian sensuality that has seduced the young knight. This music seems powerful enough to us today, but to generations past it was overwhelming in its sensuality. In The Victor Book of the Symphony (1941), Charles O’Connell described it as “the maddest music in the orchestral repertoire; a music so delirious, so powerfully suggestive of forbidden orgies, of insanely drunken exuberance, of fearsome passions turned loose in terrible play, of frenzies and rages and fierce intolerable ecstasies, as to leave the senses reeling and words stopped in the mouth.” Wagner builds the overture on the collision between these very different kinds of music, and it eventually drives to an overpowering climax, full of great cascades of instrumental sound.

Liszt made his (fairly literal) transcription of the overture in 1849, just a few years after the première of Tannhäuser. It has always been regarded as one of the finest of his Wagner transcriptions, particularly for the way Liszt is able to make a single piano unleash the same sort of furious sonority an orchestra can.

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