Just before my thirtieth birthday, I
decided to take a break from the fast pace of the performers
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
At the same time that Chopin and Liszt
were first making their way in Parisian society, the piano itself
was changing rapidlyand 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 Liszts 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 formeven in its most passionate
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, delicateall 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 Chopins 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 Chopins 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
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 movements 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 doeuvre.
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 Liszts imagination
(after all, Liszt was fond of striking Mephistophelian poses in
Goethes 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. Liszts music paints a thematic portrait of each of these threebut 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 Liszts 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.