Tablet - Portrait

Tablet - Landscape


Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt's short, two-page piano piece Nuages gris (Grey Clouds) is, among certain circles, a very famous piece of music. Outside those circles, which are inhabited mostly by musicologists and theorists fascinated by the amazing modernity of Liszt's late music, it is essentially unknown. One rarely hears it played, and the reason for its obscurity on the one hand is probably the same as the reason for its limited fame on the other: it is, for 1881, a bizarre piece of music, and audiences today are as baffled by it as audiences in the 1880s would have been had they ever gotten a chance to hear it (they did not -- Liszt was writing for himself in the 1880s, and himself alone). When Liszt's late music started trickling out of publishing houses during the early twentieth century, many musicians were simply amazed by how progressive the aged Liszt had been. Throwing traditional laws of harmony and voice-leading to the wind, he created in pieces like Nuages gris music that is bitingly dissonant, and, perhaps even more striking, utterly "non-Lisztian" in texture.

Nuages gris bears a two-flat key signature, and it is in fact in G minor. But this is not a functional G minor as those in the nineteenth century would have understood it -- the music unfolds in multiple simultaneous layers (one at the very start, two for most of the piece, and three during the last several bars), each of which seems to care not one whit what the others are doing. A two-bar mini-theme is played twice by the right hand at the beginning; it is then played twice more as a tremolo in the bass register and rises up like a gust of soggy air. Soon, the tremolo takes the form of a repeating oscillation between pitches B flat and A natural, above which the right hand plays a series of descending augmented chords that often clash harshly with the underlying tremolo. Later on, the initial two-bar theme is taken over by the left hand as the right hand offers a thin countermelody.

The most startling music, however, is that at the end. The B flat/A natural oscillation returns (now no longer in tremolo form) in the left hand, which also plays a new form of the augmented chord idea heard earlier; the right hand plays a line that slowly rises up, chromatically one half-step at a time, until finally reaching a pair of complex seven-note chords that have nothing whatever to do with G minor (or, from a traditional view, any other key), but nevertheless are its closing cadence -- if you can call it that. The tempo of Nuages gris, Andante, may be relaxed, but not much else in it is.