Great Music Chapter 9
For this week’s chapter of Great Music we again return to the world of Classical music. This time for the famous Hungarian composer, Franz Liszt. He was born in 1811 in what is now Hungary, then part of the Austrian Empire, and lived a long and full life dying in 1886. His father was a musician and Franz learned much from his father’s teaching. Like other promising musicians of that age, Franz moved to Paris at age 16 and met and associated with the many musicians, like Chopin, living in the city at that time.
Lizst was known primarily for his brilliant piano playing. He had very large hands which allowed him to play some difficult passages with ease. In fact, he had to rewrite some of his early compositions since ordinary humans were not capable of playing chords spanning 12 notes on the piano. Nonetheless, Liszt’s large hand span allowed him to write numerous compositions that will test the skills of even the best pianists in the world, like his Hungarian Rhapsodies.
Liszt primarily supported himself by giving piano concerts all around Europe. In fact, he could be considered the world’s first “Rock Star”. He made enormous amounts of money with these concerts, the majority of which he gave away to large scale charitable projects like building Cathedrals etc. Like any “Rock Star”, Liszt was very popular with women. He had numerous girlfriends in every tour city, married and unmarried. One of the reasons he was so popular with women was not only did he cut a handsome pose, but most of his music included delicate and beautiful melodies which made women swoon.
As an example, I want you to listen to his Concert Etude #3 in Db which most of the music world knows as UN SOSPIRO . The term Un Sospiro in Italian means “ the Sigh”, an apt term for this piece of music. Most composers wrote “etudes” as study pieces for themselves or their students to build good technique to handle particularly difficult parts of music. In Un Sospiro, Liszt uses both hands to play a continuous pattern of rolling chords called arpeggios to provide a background for the melody which consists of single notes played by alternate hands. Once again I chose a YouTube of one of my favorite pianists, Valentina Lisista playing her beloved Bosendorfer Imperial 290, the world’s most expensive piano and maybe the best.
Notice the set of keys at the bottom of the bass register. Those keys are colored black and consist of an extra octave of bass notes. The reason they are colored black is to warn the pianist that playing these notes are uncharted waters. Normal piano music never uses these extra notes. They were added by Bosendorfer to specifically handle transcriptions of some of Bach’s organ works to replicate the low notes produced by large Pipe Organs.
Liszt wrote a number of piano works to specifically show off his awesome piano technique and to “wow” and audience. He was a showman and piece like the Hungarian Rhapsody #2 which included hand over hand chords, trills and long fast arpeggios, produced many wows from the audiences. Yet, the music that made him so popular in Europe was the romantic pieces of pure melodic heaven like this one of Horowitz playing Liszt’s CONSOLATION #3 . Most piano teachers dread students watching Horowitz play the piano because he uses very flat fingers when playing. Piano teachers have it drilled into their heads from an early age to cup and curve your hands when playing and use your fingertips to press the keys and that is what they pass on to their students. However, what I tell my students is when you can play as well as Horowitz, I don’t care if you use your nose or the back of your hand to play the keys, until then….