Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Étude No. 11,“Harmonies du Soir” is part of a set of twelve demonically difficult technical studies for piano. It appeals to a certain euphoria we feel in the presence of danger…the amusement park ride which seems to be on the verge of spinning out of control, but miraculously never does. In the case of Étude No. 11, danger comes in the form of furiously fast broken chords, quick jumps from one end of the keyboard to another, dense chromatic harmony, and more. Franz Liszt was the rock star who walked this musical tight rope and never fell off. Pandemonium erupted at Liszt’s concerts throughout Europe, leading to a phenomenon known as “Lisztomania”. The concert experience became half spectator sport.
But there’s so much more to Liszt’s Transcendental Étude No. 11 than its obvious daredevil virtuosity. From the mystery and anticipation of the opening bars a powerful musical drama is unfolding. Throughout the piece, we drift from one emotional landscape to the next in the way thoughts flow in a dream. Single chords take on unexplainable emotional meaning. Étude No. 11 is harmonically adventurous in ways which were shocking in the 1850s and still grab our attention today. The home key is D-flat major, but we find ourselves in other strangely remote places like G and E, leading to tonal ambiguity.
There is no evidence that Liszt was inspired by Baudelaire’s poem, Harmonie du soir, but Sara Zamir and Juliette Hassine make some interesting connections between this music and the “sunset” theme in French Romantic poetry here.
To hear more music by Franz Liszt visit my post on Liszt’s Faust Symphony.