Solitary Liszt

Supreme serenity still remains the Ideal of great Art. The shapes and transitory forms of life are but stages toward this Ideal, which Christ’s religion illuminates with His divine light.

-Franz Liszt

We often think of Franz Liszt (1811-1886) as a kind of nineteenth century rock star whose piano music is filled with dazzling displays of bravado and virtuosity. But there’s another more contemplative side of Liszt which seems to transport us into a solitary dreamworld. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the 1845 solo piano work, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (“The Blessing of God in Solitude”), part of a larger ten-movement cycle called Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (“Poetic and Religious Harmonies”). The title refers to a collection of poems by Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869).

This piece is set in what pianist Philip Thomson calls “the luscious key of F-sharp major”- a key which feels strangely remote with its abundance of sharps. Within the frame of F-sharp, a fascinating harmonic scheme takes shape. Each new episode falls a third (F-sharp, D, B-flat) until we return home to F-sharp in a moment of glistening ecstasy. You can hear seeds of Wagner (the falling seventh at 2:08), Mahler, (there are echoes of the rising line of the Fifth Symphony’s Adagietto), and even Debussy (listen to these parallel chords).

Here is Stephen Hough’s recording:

Impromptu “Nocturne”, S. 191

Written in 1872, Liszt’s Impromptu “Nocturne”, S. 191 delivers more F-sharp major solitude. What I find particularly interesting about this piece is its harmonic ambiguity. Listen to the way the strange chromatic progression in the opening defies all of our expectations. Each chord carries a universe of emotional meaning. Throughout this short, improvisational piece, you’ll hear this opening motive transform, at one moment surging ever higher in a tumultuous frenzy before finding ultimate serenity in the final bars.

This performance is part of Shai Wosner’s Impromptu album, featured in this July Listeners’ Club post.

Recordings

  • Liszt: Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, Stephen Hough iTunes
  • Liszt: Impromptu “Nocturne”, S. 191 Shai Wosner iTunes

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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