Liszt first began this work he was about fifteen years old and
he gave this work a title which was rather heavy: 'Etude en
quarante-huit exercises dans tout les tons majeurs et mineurs
(Op. 6)'. He would not go beyond more than twelve pieces - pieces,
however, which would constitute the first stone of a construction
(growing in the wake of his astonishing technical development)
which would culminate in 1851 with the 'Studi Transcendentali'
dedicated to his maestro, Carl Czeni.
pianists venture to undertake this work because of the extreme
difficulties which are encountered in its performance. After
a performance at 'La Scala' in Milan in 1838 Liszt wrote in
the 'Musical Gazette' of Paris: 'the word 'study' immediately
made a bad impression; a gentleman who at that moment represented
a frightening majority exclaimed: "I come to the theatre to
enjoy myself and not to study!" I was not able, therefore, to
make the audience appreciate the baroque idea of performing
a 'study' outside my private room...' Despite this fact, during
his tour of Italy, and during the subsequent years of his exceptional
career as a pianist, Liszt continued to propose such studies
at his concerts, with a reworking of his original idea.
I - Preludio Presto, in do maggiore, in C major An authoritative
beginning which is striking and short, suited to affirm that
this series of studies have the characteristic of being a 'concerto'.
Almost an improvisation, to be played freely...in order to loosen
up one's fingers.
II Molto vivace, in la minore, in A minor This piece does not
have a title but at least two have been given to it - Fusée
(razzo) or Capriccio. Perhaps the most appropriate would be
Capriccio because in form and character this work recalls the
Capricci of Paganini, a figure much admired by Liszt. This piece,
too, is very brief, and demands great technical capacity and
an absolute command of the keyboard in order to achieve the
dynamic gradation and the strong contrasts which it requires.
III - Paysage - Paesaggio - Landscape Poco adagio, in fa maggiore,
in F major This piece is a search for sound, a picture in half-light
in which Liszt plays the card of poetry. In order to take part
in its charm, its performance plays upon a closely linked and
sweet touch, and upon the wise use of the pedals.
IV - Mazeppa Allegro, in re minore, in D minor Liszt gave definitive
form to this study in 1851 and with it we enter the heart of
the cycle. Mazeppa is a Cosack military leader who lived between
1644 and 1709. He was the protagonist of a sentimental-heroic
story which inspired, in various forms, both writers and musicians
- Voltaire, Byron, Slowacki, Pushkin, Hugo, Cajkovskij, and
Pedrell. Mazeppa, the page of Casimir V of Poland, has an affair
with the wife of a powerful man. He is discovered, bound naked
to the back of a stallion which crosses the whole of the steppe,
and when found dying by Ukrainian peasant he is proclaimed king.
The playing of the study requires great skill. A pianist who
does not have a technical capacity well above the normal, who
does not have the courage to deal with the piece with the necessary
verve, would be better advised to abandon the attempt. There
are no technical alternatives in which he can hide. Octaves
and running chords, very quick chords of two notes played with
hands which cross over: we have here music and techniques in
such a state of symbiosis that at the level of sound it seems
that more than two hands are playing. The whole of the study
is developed in the form of a theme which has variations always
marked by a difficult way of writing music. The study ends with
the last words of Victor Hugo: 'il tombe enfin!...et se relève
roi'. Emotional in its contents, this piece immerges those who
listen to it in an atmosphere of tension.
V - Feux Follets - Fuochu Fatui. Will o' the Wisps Allegretto,
in si bemolle maggiore, in B flat major This is one of the most
well known of the series, a brilliant moto perpetuo. Lightness
and a sweetness of touch, a highly imaginative quality and very
broad-ranging - these are the characteristics of its playing.
The passages with double notes which are closely linked, its
marked speed, the quantity of chromatic appogiature, give rise
at certain moments to an uncertain sound which make the study
interesting at a harmonic level as well. This piece is marked
by major technical difficulties and the need for absolute command
of finger use.
VI - Vision - Visone - Vision Lento, in sol minore, in G minor
Another study organised around the theme of variations. In which
vision or impression is Liszt making us take part- A funeral
procession (the funeral of Napoleon)- The cadence of the rowing
of a group of galley slaves- Space is left to the imagination.
Whatever the case, this piece remains a fine expression of Romantic
torment. In the playing of the first part the left hand dominates,
and it is at the same time called upon to follow the theme,
the basso, and the arpeggio. The dynamic gradation requires
strength and special care.
VII - Eroica Allegro, in mi bemolle maggiore, in E flat minor
The introduction to this study goes back to a piece of 1824:
the 'impromptus sur des thèmes de Rossini et Spontini'. It develops
around a marching theme (but which is comodo, according to the
annotation of the author), a triumphant march which makes us
think of the return home of a hero. Orchestral effects emerge
(almost horns, almost trumpets) which require great musical
sensitivity in touch and an able use of the pedal, rhythmic
incisiveness, and virtuosity.
VIII - Wilde Jagd - Caccia Selbaggia - Wild Hunt Presto furioso,
in do minore, in C Minor The title is in German to call our
minds directly to the theme of the wild hunt, an element widely
present within German romantic literature. A furious beginning,
hammering, a suggestion of Sabba, a hunt fanfare...increasing
difficulties which provide expressive force and epic intensity.
Here there is the Liszt who dares and who presents himself in
all his reckless virtuosity.
IX - Ricordanza - Remembrance Andantino, in la bemello maggiore,
in A flat major This is perhaps the best known of the series,
the favourite choice of concert programmes. This is a sensitive,
intimate piece, light and brilliant in its various passages;
made more valuable by the imaginative inquiry into timbres borrowed
from the harp and other instruments.
X Allegro agitato molto, in fa minore, in F minor This is another
famous study. It does not have a title but musical literature
has bestowed upon it more than one: 'Allegro Appasionato', 'Appassionata',
and 'Restlessness' ('Inquietudine'). In musical terms this piece
is important both because of its form and because of its emotional
contents. The composing technique employed by Liszt - the mass
of produced sound, the multiplicity of sound levels - made people
speak, at the time, of pure magic.
XI - Harmonies du Soir - Armonie della Sera - Evening Harmonies
Andantino, in re bemolle maggiore, in D flat major This is one
of the most poetic of the series and has an 'andamento' which
induces self-abandonment. A host of beautiful details are encountered
- the mysterious atmosphere created by the harmonies of the
beginning, the 'più lento con intimo sentimento' movement, and
then the 'trionfante' which leads to the conclusion.
XII - Chasse-Neige - Tempesta di Neve - A Blizzard Andante con
moto, in si bemolle minore, in B flat minor The title evokes
a French image - impetuous winds which whip up flurries of snow.
The constant tremulo which characterises the piece evokes the
visual aspect. It begins quietly, alternates with greater and
lesser force, reaches the heights of tension, and then becomes
calm. One could well imagine its performance by an orchestra
- the wailing of the wind represented by the chromatic figures
played by the left hand; the initial tremulo as the lowest cords
of the violins, the oboe in the principal melody, the pizzicato
of the cellos. This study is imbued with a shadow of melancholy
which makes the composition fascinating.