Tablet - Portrait

Tablet - Landscape


Franz Liszt

Over his final decade, Liszt's works turn nostalgic, premonitory, and death obsessed, even as their harmonic technique anticipates the twentieth century dissolution of tonality in composers such as Busoni and Schoenberg. The latter, in his treatise on harmony Harmonielehre (1911), found much that was revelatory in these late works -- thus did Liszt realize his desire to "throw my lance as far as possible into the future," while Busoni's Berceuse élégiaque (1909), for small orchestra, one of the foundation works of early Modernism, delves and extends the visionary vein of late Liszt in a transport of grief composed in memory of his mother. As Liszt's art turned retrospective it became haunted, a series of spiritual prehensions, windows on another world. Musical epitaphs crop up -- Mosonyis Grabgeleit (1870), for instance, recalling a composer Liszt championed, or Dem Andenken Petöfis (1877), an elegy for revolutionary poet Sandor Petöfi (1823-1849), who lost his life in the struggle for Hungarian independence. The series of elegies and remembrances reaches its apogee in the seven Hungarian Historical Portraits for piano in 1885, commemorating artists and statesmen who died tragic or violent deaths. Among the most eldritch of the late pieces are the four concerned, directly or implicitly, with Wagner -- the two versions of La Lugubre gondola (1882), anticipating the black gondola hearse that would carry Wagner's body away from the Palazzo Vendramin in Venice following his death on February 13, 1883; R.W. -- Venezia, composed in the immediate aftermath of Wagner's passing; and Am Grabe Richard Wagners (At Richard Wagners Grave), composed on what would have been Wagner's 70th birthday, May 22, 1883. An inscription on the score reads, "Wagner once reminded me of the likeness between his Parsifal theme and my previously composed Excelsior! May this remembrance remain here. He has fulfilled the Great and Sublime in the art of the present day. F. Liszt." At the same, time he arranged it for organ and for four violins with harp. The piece is a scant two pages -- little more than an album leaf, though fraught with conciliatory intent for a relationship that had often been marred by periods of alienation -- the initial theme from the opening of Liszt's Bells of Strasbourg Cathedral (a choral setting of Longfellow's poem "The Golden Legend"), similar to the theme opening the Prelude to Wagner's Parsifal, followed by now serene, now anxious bell evocations, ending with an allusion to the bell motif in Parsifal as Liszt and Wagner figuratively join hands.