Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major

FRANZ (FERENC) LISZT

BORN: October 22, 1811. Raiding, Hungary 

DIED: July 31, 1886. in Bayreuth, Bavaria (Germany) 

COMPOSED: Begun around 1830, reworked through that decade, and composed into its eventual form mostly from the late 1840s through 1853, and revised in 1855-56. It is dedicated to pianist and composer Henry Litolff 

WORLD PREMIERE: February 17, 1855, at the Ducal Palace in Weimar, Germany, with Hector Berlioz conducting the Court Orchestra and the composer as soloist

US PREMIERE: December 2, 1865, with Theodore Thomas’s Symphony Soirée at Irving Hall in New York, Sebastian Bach Mills playing the solo part 

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—December 1912. Gottfried Galston was soloist with Henry Hadley conducting. MOST RECENT—June 2012. Jeremy Denk was soloist and Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets,2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, triangle, cymbals, and strings 

DURATION: About 20 mins

THE BACKSTORY Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was composed, and re-composed, and revised again and again over a quarter of a century. Liszt could turn out facile piano solos at the drop of a hat; in fact, he had no trouble improvising dazzling showpieces on the spot. On the other hand, he tended to anguish over those of his works that he envisioned more for posterity, works in the “big” forms of the symphony or the concerto, for example.He completed two full-scale concertos for piano—his Second, in A major, would follow this work in 1861, also following a long gestation period—but he also composed about twenty other pieces for piano with orchestra, including such still-programmed pieces as his Hungarian Fantasy and Totentanz. (A third piano concerto, also in E-flat major, was unearthed in 1988, pieced together from pages in libraries in Leningrad, Weimar, and Nuremberg. It dates from roughly the same period as Liszt’s other two concertos—it was penned largely in the 1830s—but the composer never signed off on it in a finished state, never published it, and never performed it.)

Liszt jotted down the opening theme of his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1830, and on December 12,1832, he reported in a letter, “I have prepared and worked out at great length several instrumental compositions, among others … a concerto after a plan that I think will be new and whose accompaniment remains to be written.” This is generally taken to refer to the concerto played here, which Liszt brought to a tentative conclusion in 1834 in the standard three-movement form of most Classical and early Romantic concertos. But this early version was never performed, and Liszt set it aside until 1839 when he rewrote the piece almost entirely, though retaining the imposing principal theme. At that point he turned his concerto into a single-movement piece—or, if you prefer, a piece in which the disparate movements were fused into a single span. (In the final edition of the score, the music is in fact divided into four movements, but performing tradition reflects the work’s musical logic, which is to continue from one section to the next without any substantial pause.) He was also struggling at the time with his Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major—and with his other E-flat-major Concerto, it seems—and set all of these projects aside to germinate more fully. The Piano Concerto No. 1 underwent a great deal of further evolution until it reached an almost-finished state in 1853; and then following the work’s premiere, in 1855, the composer continued to alter some of the its details.

THE MUSIC A single theme dominates the entire concerto. Liszt later attached to this melody the words: “Das versteht Ihr alle nicht, haha!” (None of you understand this, ha-ha!)—or perhaps it was the conductor Hans von Bülow (Liszt’s sometime son-in-law) who came up that motto, depending on which version of the story you subscribe to. As the piece progresses the melody undergoes all manner of thematic transformation, a technique Liszt had found in certain works of Schubert and, more immediately, in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, which was premiered precisely when Liszt set down his first sketch for this concerto. As it happens, the Symphonie fantastique (along with its sequel, Lélio, ou le retour à la vie) was also on the program at this concerto’s premiere, which was part of a Berlioz festival in Weimar that also included that composer’s opera Benvenuto Cellini and his oratorio L’enfance du Christ. The premiere of the concerto held particular interest as it marked a public intersection of Berlioz (as conductor) and Liszt (as composer and pianist). Berlioz had arrived in Weimar only five days before the scheduled premiere of the concerto, and it was only then that he got the first glimpse of its score. He must have mastered it efficiently, even amid the swirl of other performances, receptions, and festivities, and the premiere of the concerto seems to have gone smoothly, with Liszt being backed up by an ensemble in which extra musicians from Erfurt and Gotha were imported to swell the usual ranks of the Weimar orchestra.

Although there is no question that Liszt was a champion of Berlioz’s music, it is unclear whether concomitant admiration went in the other direction. Some performances that Berlioz planned of this and other Liszt works ended up falling through, although usually at least some of the circumstances were beyond his control. In any case, he wrote warmly to Liszt about the concerto, which he called “your magnificent composition, so vigorous, so new, so brilliant and fresh and glowing.” The piece was soon taken up by other pianists, including von Bülow (in Berlin) and Henri Litolff; the latter’s performance of this work in a private concert in Braunschweig in October 1855 pleased Liszt so much that Litolff became the concerto’s dedicatee.

A young French pianist named Alfred Jaëll asked for (and received) Liszt’s permission to play it, but Liszt warned him about potential pitfalls: “I venture to advise you not to perform this concerto until you have had two or perhaps three thorough rehearsals. I would like the entry of the Allegro marziale for the theme on the oboes and clarinets … to be very strongly accented and rhythmically defined. In Berlin there was still a little hesitancy in the attack of the woodwind instruments, which must function like trumpets at this moment, in a military style, and not like the national guard, helter-skelter.”

But the woodwinds did not raise the most comment in this piece. That honor was reserved for the triangle, which is spotlighted in a soloist way in the concerto’s scherzo section. Conservative critics were already skeptical of Liszt’s more-than-normal enthusiasm for the percussion section, but thus elevating the triangle left them aghast. The critic Eduard Hanslick condemned it as “a lapse in taste,” and the piece was dubbed the “Triangle Concerto.” Liszt defended his choice and even upped the ante. “In the E-flat major Concerto,” he wrote to his pupil Dionys Pruckner, “I have now hit on the expedient of striking the triangle (which aroused such anger and gave such offense) quite lightly with a tuning-fork.”

Liszt launches the concerto with a stentorian phrase in the strings (the “Das versteht Ihr alle nicht”), with a response from the winds (“haha!”), and then the piano enters with impressive octave passages that promptly turn into an impressive cadenza. In the course of the piece the opening material of the strings and winds is massaged into such disparate shapes that a casual listener would hardly notice that the notes and contours are indeed related. What in the opening measures seems the musical equivalent of a furious shaking of the fist becomes in the slow movement a weightless cavatina worthy of Bellini or, in later sections, a pondering recitative and a triumphant march. Béla Bartók would call it the “first perfect realization of the cyclical sonata form with common themes, treated in the manner of variation form.” The soloist’s part qualifies as a catalogue of the possibilities available to the ultra-virtuosic pianist (a species epitomized by Liszt): blazing octaves, intricate ornamental figurations, arpeggios running up and down the entire keyboard, and many other things that can keep pianists awake at night.—James M. Keller