Tablet - Portrait

Tablet - Landscape


Franz Liszt

In 1826 the firms of Boisselot of Marseille and Dufont & Dubois in Paris simultaneously published a slender volume by the 15-year-old Liszt, Étude en 48 exercices, though it contained but 12 pieces -- precursors of the Études d'exécution transcendante, which would assume their definitive form a quarter century later. Liszt is on record as having been but 13 when they were composed. Already, the style brillant of Steibelt, Herz, Pixis, and countless others who held Europe in thrall with their empty formulas and arid fripperies, has been suffused by a new and startling personality of genial winsomeness, though no one could have predicted the efflorescent ways in which it would be transformed into the radiantly whelming utterance of a titan. About this time, Alkan, two years Liszt's junior and already recognized as a phenomenal talent, encountered him in the salon of the Princesse de la Moscova. Young Liszt's keyboard manner proved a stunning revelation, occasioning Alkan a sleepless night, a decisive spur to striving, and a tacit lifelong rivalry. These early etudes afford a glimpse of what Alkan witnessed. The fifth study, in its 1851 recension titled Feux follets -- legendary creatures of air owing their origin in folklore to the eerie flickering of swamp flares, and which Berlioz would immortalize in the eldritch Menuet of La Damnation de Faust (1846) -- possesses a chiming, chirruping charm that would be expanded in ever more capricious fantastications. Following his "duel" with his closest rival, Sigismond Thalberg, March 31, 1837, Liszt was the undisputed monarch of the piano, provoking "Lisztomania" wherever he appeared, and the following year the publication of the first version of the Études d'exécution transcendante d'après Paganini and the Grandes Études (12) -- in which the exercices of 1826 have exfoliated into a superhuman dimension -- demonstrated the technical fiat enabling his magic, though perhaps only Liszt (or Alkan) could have played them. Liszt felt them to be overloaded and pared away what he felt to be gratuitous difficulties in the definitive Études d'exécution transcendante of 1851. Curiously, Feux follets is one of the few that had not undergone major change between 1838 and 1851, its scintillant play of intervals -- fifths, thirds, fourths, sixths -- creating a shimmering texture against which darting figures suggest spritely volatility. Busoni noted, "In 'Feux Follets' ornament is united with colour. Their combination, which reaches its summit in Jeux d'eaux à la Villa d'Este was not without influence in the origin of Wagner's Waldweben and Feuerzauber."