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FRANZ LISZT (1811-1886)

Selected Songs

March 29, 2015 – Matthew Polenzani, tenor; Ken Noda, piano

To Liszt’s annoyance, his more than eighty songs were largely ignored by a public caught up in the “Lisztmania” surrounding his dazzling piano performances. And critics, who considered him a composer of showy trifles, generally dismissed the songs as well. Nor have the songs received their due from posterity, despite their containing some of Liszt’s most poetic, economic, and progressive utterances. The songs did have their champions—the lyric tenor Franz Götze above all, but also Rosa and Feodor von Milde and Emilie Genast—all of whom had the great advantage of having been accompanied by the composer himself at his “matinées” in Weimar. Liszt set mostly German poets, represented in this afternoon’s first group, but he was also sensitive to French poets, reflected here in the group of Victor Hugo songs.

German Songs

Liszt composed “Wie singt die Lerche schön” (How beautifully sings the lark) in 1855 on a text by his friend, poet, literary historian, and composer August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, best known as the author of the words of Germany’s national anthem. Liszt’s shimmering, harmonically radical setting imaginatively conveys the poet’s images of bird song, nature, and hope after darkness. Liszt’s arpeggiated ninth chords and open ending anticipate Impressionistic sonorities by some fifty years.

“Der Glückliche” (The happy one), with its energetic chords and surging harmonies, brims with youthful exuberance and the intoxication of love before ending in peaceful repose. Setting a poem by playwright, novelist, and journalist Adolf von Wilbrandt, Liszt was returning in 1878 to a powerful style he had cultivated decades earlier.

In “Die stille Wasserrose” (The quiet water lily), composed in 1860, Liszt set the words of Emanuel Geibel, whose poems were esteemed for their classical elegance while still appealing to Romantic aesthetics. Here again Liszt’s harmonies are daring, now in a lovely introspective setting. Particularly striking is the harmonic shifting as the moon’s rays illuminate the heart of the snow-white blossom.

Liszt composed “Im Rhein, im schönen Strome” (In the Rhine, in the beautiful river) in 1840, setting of Heinrich von Heine’s famous poem. He later made a second version, in 1855; the original is performed here. Heine’s poem describes the reflection of the impressive Cologne Cathedral in the river—aptly represented by Liszt’s Impressionistic rippling piano figuration—and almost irreverently compares the famous Madonna there to the poet’s own beloved. Liszt represents the comparison ecstatically at first, but his light postlude suggests that he realized the poet’s impudence.

“Es rauschen die Winde” (The wind rushes) sets a poem by Ludwig Rellstab, now remembered especially for nicknaming Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Liszt again made two very different versions (1845 and 1849), of which we hear the more stormy first, which remained unpublished until 1921. The text laments a lost love, which Liszt dramatically represents with both restlessness and resignation, the latter often associated with his personal life at the time—failure in Weimar, the death of two of his children, and obstacles to his marrying Princess Sayn von Wittgenstein.

French Songs

Liszt was particularly inspired by French Romantic literature and had a close personal relationship with several poets, among them Victor Hugo, who also won renown as a novelist, dramatist, and statesman. Liszt set seven Hugo texts between 1842 and 1844, including the four best known on today’s program. He made alternate versions of several of them in 1849–59.

“S’il est un charmant gazon” (If there be a lovely lawn), a Hugo setting from 1844 and revised between 1849 and 1859,  effuses in two parallel but varied sections evoking the beloved’s constant heart. Liszt’s lovely inconclusive ending later gave him second thoughts, and his 1860 publication included an ad lib concluding cadence—unnecessary and happily not included in this performance of the idyllic second version.

Again in two versions, “Enfant, s’il j’était roi” (Child, if I were king) makes a stirring statement in both versions, of which we hear the second from 1859. Liszt nicely juxtaposes the dramatic grandeur of each verse’s opening with its more contemplative close.

In “Comment, disaient-ils” (How, they asked) the moods shift dramatically with the questions of the men on board a small boat and the female oracular answers they receive. Liszt composed his first version in 1842, revising it to great effect in 1849–59 (heard here). Some of his piano effects reflect the Spanish theme of Hugo’s original poem, entitled Autre guitare.

The French set concludes with the tender and passionate “Oh! quand je dors” (Oh! while I sleep), which yet again elicited two versions—1842, composed during one of his concert tours, and 1849, not only revised with unusual harmony at the outset, but rewritten melodically and harmonically for the second stanza, and including a vocal cadenza between the second and third stanzas. This later version, sung today, became his best known French song.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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