Just before my thirtieth birthday, I decided to take a break from the fast pace of the performer’s world. My retreat was a quiet, utterly charming village in the French Alps, far from the well-worn paths of tourists. For reading, I brought along several biographies of my favorite pianist-composers, Frederic Chopin andFranz Liszt, the two giants who dominated the piano music of the 19th century. Familiar as I was with their music, my first pages of reading made it clear I knew only the barest outline of their lives. Soon I was fascinated: the parallels in their lives were as striking as the differences in their character.

Drawn To The Flame

Both were extraordinary child prodigies. Both emigrated from Eastern Europe, drawn by the cultural brilliance of Paris in the early half of the 19th century. Improvising, performing and composing at will, each of them earned their living teaching piano to the children of noblemen. And both had long, passionate affairs with aristocratic married women. At the same time, they were almost polar opposites in temperament and demeanor: Chopin was refined, sensitive and introspective; Liszt was a brash and flamboyant showman. Despite these differences, the two became fast friends.

At the same time that Chopin and Liszt were first making their way in Parisian society, the piano itself was changing rapidly—and achieving a nearly universal presence in the salons of Europe. The instrument was becoming larger and louder, the action faster and faster, allowing pianists a wider range of dynamic expression and technical brilliance. Chopin and Liszt were among the first composers to fully exploit these new possibilities of the piano. They wrote prodigiously for the evolving instrument: études, dances, transcribed improvisations, impressionist sketches and, of course, large scale works like sonatas and concertos.

Opposite; in B Minor

Together with Chopin and Liszt’s biographies, I had brought several scores to study. I soon focused on their monumental B minor sonatas as a perfect way to come to grips with the two friends’ starkly contrasting personalities.

The four movement Chopin sonata, the last of his three piano sonatas, is dignified and majestic —and retains its fidelity to classical form—even in its most passionate moments.

Less than a decade later Liszt wrote his only piano sonata, also in the key of B minor. He brazenly cast his sonata in a single movement, shattering a hundred years of sonata tradition. The music is by turns flamboyant, demonic, spiritual, sensual, delicate—all starkly juxtaposed.

Grandeur Amidst Personal Tragedy

Chopin composed his B minor piano sonata in the summer of 1844 at a trying point in his life: his health was deteriorating rapidly, his father had died in May, and his seven year love affair with George Sand was falling apart. These tragic events surely led Chopin to reveal the depth of his musical genius in this sonata, one of his greatest masterpieces. Each of the four movements of the sonata makes a coherent emotional statement. Although the contrast between movements is profound, there is an organic architecture to the complete sonata.
Maestoso (majestic) is Chopin’s marking for the tempo and mood of the first movement. A sense of majesty is indeed evident throughout, even in the opposing lyrical and dramatic themes.

The second movement, a scherzo or joke in Italian, displays an optimism and light-heartedness not often found during this period of Chopin’s life. In the middle section or trio of this movement, there are two brief moments that resemble trumpet calls; they foresage the tragic processional that opens the slow third movement. That processional brings in an exquisite melody followed by a slow central section with an ethereal timelessness.

The final movement marked presto, non tanto (very fast, not too much!), begins with a crashing introduction that mirrors the beginning of the preceding slow movement: the opening of the slow movement is a descending passage while the last movement’s intro ascends. The music that follows this ascent, marked agitato, reflects a tremendous sense of underlying tension and excitement building towards a heroic ending, one befitting the grandeur of this chef d’oeuvre.

Mereurial and Mephistophelian

By the time he was in his teens, Franz Liszt was being acclaimed as the greatest piano virtuoso alive. He had an unrelenting performance schedule that took him from one end of Europe to the other, even as far as Turkey and Moscow. Suddenly, when he was 36 years old, he abandoned his performing career to devote himself to composing and conducting.

Six years later, in 1853, Liszt composed his B minor sonata. That was one year before he began work on the “Faust” symphony. The sonata makes it clear that the Faust legend had already captured Liszt’s imagination (after all, Liszt was fond of striking Mephistophelian poses in public).

Goethe’s version is woven around three characters: Faust, the old scholar who falls helplessly in love; the object of his obsession, the beautiful, young and pure Marguerite; and Mephistopheles, the devil. Liszt’s music paints a thematic portrait of each of these three—but the real brilliance lies in his transformation of the themes to fit the characters’ unfolding relationships. At the end of the piece, we can easily imagine Faust being dragged down to hell, soon followed by Marguerite being led up to heaven. But the final and last laugh is given to the devil, as you would expect from Liszt. It is interesting to note that, in Liszt’s original manuscript, he ends the piece with a tumultuous and frenzied build-up to a terrifying ending. Remarkably, Liszt changed his mind and crossed out the final half page, inserting a most unusually quiet, intensely dramatic closing for this epic.