Thursday, 23 September 2021

Throwing down the symphonic gauntlet: piano music by Beethoven-Liszt, Schubert, and Prokofiev

Humanist Heroism

Unveiling of the Beethoven monument, Bonn, in 1845. Liszt ensured that the project succeeded, contributing money, advocacy, performances, and his own music.

In his Third Symphony, Beethoven threw down the gauntlet: to himself, to contemporaries and to successors in the 19th and even 20th centuries. The scale and public quality of its utterance seem, like the composer’s visage in glowering, ineffably human portraits, to speak of and with something new: Beethoven’s heroic voice.

In the sonata-form first movement, generative simplicity and development of unprecedented length and complexity prove two sides of the same coin. Its opening E flat major triad, heard first vertically then horizontally, gives the appearance of organic necessity in informing all that is to come; so too does its subsequent – consequent? – turning away: E flat–D–C sharp. This music is in a dramatic, persistent state of becoming as opposed to being, not least a coda functioning as fully fledged second development. The monumental ceremonial of the Marcia funebre, the funeral games of the Scherzo and the thrills and spills of the Finale’s set of ultimately fugal variations present not only Beethoven’s titular ‘memory of a great man’ but also a present and future for heroism that lies in common humanity. Dedication to one man, Napoleon, even had his memory not been tarnished, could never have been enough. As Wagner would argue in a programmatic explanation to accompany a performance he conducted, ‘the term “heroic” must be taken in the widest sense, and not simply as relating to a military hero’; ‘understand “hero” to mean, above all, the whole, complete man’.

Liszt stood equal to Wagner in formulation and development of the 19th century’s Beethoven. Having met the composer in 1823 – alleged occasion of the mythical ‘Weiheküss’ (consecration kiss) – Liszt proceeded to act as champion in multiple ways: pianist, arranger, conductor, benefactor (to Bonn’s Beethoven Monument), custodian (to Beethoven’s Broadwood piano) etc. As recitalist – he invented the term – Liszt brought Beethoven’s piano sonatas to a rank of public utterance close to that of the symphonies; he likewise brought the symphonies to audiences that would rarely, if ever, hear an orchestra. Liszt transcribed the Marcia funebre of the ‘Eroica’ as early as 1837, alongside the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. The remaining three movements of the Third were added in 1863, after which he revised the slow movement. That first transcription afforded a model from which to work – literally, for Liszt wrote his modifications into an old copy – with certain difficulties now benefiting from more graceful solutions. In 1865, the Symphony was published as part of a complete set of nine, dedicated to Hans von Bülow.

Large hands are a prerequisite, with stretches of a tenth commonplace. If amateur pianists can happily make their way through the piano duet versions of orchestral music popular throughout the 19th century and even much of Liszt’s transcription of the First Symphony, the Third is another matter – the Ninth still more so. What is readily accomplished by orchestra is not always by piano, and vice versa. Liszt’s solutions, however difficult, are comprehending and ingenious. He notes instrumentation, and lines impossible to incorporate are included on a separate stave. Ossia passages for the more adventurous (and dexterous) cross hands to include further material, or to do so at the correct octave. Suggestions for pedalling are well thought out and imaginative, always deserving of consideration. To ask whether the purpose is interpretative or to further acquaintance with Beethoven’s score is to miss the point; Liszt rarely trades in the either/or.

The notes are on one fundamental level Beethoven’s. How much do they become Liszt’s and/or the pianist’s? Such questions would in a sense always be present: how much did they become Wagner’s or Furtwängler’s? We cast our imaginative net as wide or as narrow as we wish. Yet there is something more here, thanks not only to Liszt’s presence as intermediary – how ‘faithful’ will or should the pianist be to him? – but also to demands of transcendental piano virtuosity. What Romantics such as Liszt and Wagner would have called Beethoven’s ‘poetic idea’ is both treasured and transformed. The heroism of transcription and performance for solo piano offers a study in fidelity, infidelity and the complexity of their dialectical relationship.

Breadth and Introspection


A pallbearer at Beethoven’s funeral, Schubert long fell too readily under his shadow, especially in the realm of instrumental music. If Schubert’s stature as songwriter – further inspiration to Liszt the arranger – no longer eclipses his instrumental achievements, it can remain tempting to consider them in relation to divergence from an alleged Beethovenian model. That said, when hearing Schubert immediately after Beethoven, some degree of comparison seems inevitable; it does little harm so long as it does not over-determine our response. For, in John Daverio’s words, ‘whereas Beethoven, especially in the symphonic works of his “heroic” phase, drives headlong from the present into the future, thus emulating the teleological thrust of drama, Schubert treats the present as a pretext for summoning up or mulling over the past, tending as he does toward epic breadth and lyric introspection’. That bardic impulse may be heard in Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke. These three pieces, composed in Beethoven’s wake, in 1827–8, may have been intended to contribute toward a third set of (four) impromptus, although a different paper type for the third may indicate otherwise (or simply earlier composition). They went unpublished until 1868, collected and edited (anonymously) by Brahms.

An E flat minor winter wind blows through much of the First, though oscillation with the tonic major renders its chill more uncertain, if hardly consoling. For consolation, we await the warm, almost hallucinatory lyricism – recognizable from Winterreise – of the central Andante section; in remote B major, it is not itself without moments of tragic vehemence. Schubert’s original conception of a five-part rondo, ABACA, became a ternary ABA form, the ‘C’ episode crossed out entirely in the manuscript. His motive remains a matter for speculation; René Rusch has recently pointed to differences in Schubert’s use of modal mixture (borrowing chords from E flat major) in the first two pieces. Some pianists follow Schubert’s deletion; others are unwilling to resist the lure of extra material and follow Brahms’s editorial reinstatement. Who knows what Schubert would have decided in performance or preparation for publication.

Schubert, in any case, employed that five-part form next, the second piece’s tender barcarolle, taking up where its predecessor had left off, in E flat major. Enharmonic means, similar yet different, take us on a journey through dark episodes of pathos that in themselves contain passages of modal transfiguration. The urgency of the final piece’s flights of syncopation once more offers strong, seemingly necessary contrast with the hymn-like central section, a semitone higher, yet a flatter key (D flat major to surrounding C major). Decidedly un-Beethovenian ambiguities persist.


‘In real time’


The quizzical opening of Prokofiev’s Seventh Piano Sonata might suggest a similar path. Its first movement’s marking, ‘Allegro inquieto’, indicates tempo in the fullest sense: concerned as closely with character and mood as speed. Needless to say, though, Prokofiev’s way proves very much his own, albeit with points of connection to all three composers heard previously.

Much depends, of course, on performance. As with Schubert’s Klavierstücke, Sviatoslav Richter – different from himself in alternative performances – will present something different from Maurizio Pollini; Igor Levit something different from both. Richter never performed Liszt’s Beethoven, publicly disavowing most transcriptions, Liszt’s response to ‘Erlkönig’ a rare exception. Given the depth of Richter’s ‘at home’ repertoire, he may well have explored more; at any rate, he certainly performed much Beethoven, Liszt, Schubert and Prokofiev, and loved to play symphonic and operatic music on the piano for himself. Prokofiev, who entrusted Richter with this work’s premiere, was more open-minded concerning transcription, whether of his own music or that of others, ranging from Buxtehude to Schubert. He was also a superlative pianist who knew, like Liszt, godfather to Russian schools of composers and pianists alike, how to compose ferociously demanding music that was always written ‘for’, not ‘against’, the instrument.

Moreover, whatever his enfant terrible reputation, principally a matter of contrast with reactionary conservatory professors, Prokofiev’s musical grounding was rooted in Classical tradition. Beethoven, whose music he had often as a child heard his mother play, always loomed large, whether in performance or composition; sonata forms and genres were ever present in Prokofiev’s music, modernist or more nostalgic. The distinction was always problematic, as we discover in the Seventh and its fellow ‘War’ sonatas – not a Russian term – of 1939–42. To many Western ears, the Seventh, as recorded by Pollini, seems most modernistic, at least in the wandering tonality of the first movement and the brutal insistence of the Finale; however, that begs more questions than it answers. It is more meaningful to follow Boris Berman’s argument that the Sixth anticipates war and the Eighth recalls it, while the Seventh ‘projects the anguish and the struggle […] experienced in real time’. For Richter, it plunged an audience ‘into the anxiously threatening atmosphere of a world that has lost its balance’.

Chaos and uncertainty reign. We see murderous forces unleashed. But this does not mean that what we lived by therefore ceases to exist. We continue to feel and to love. Now the full range of human emotions bursts forth. Together with our fellow men and women, we raise a voice of protest and share the common grief. We sweep everything before us, borne along by the will for victory. In the tremendous struggle that this involves, we find the strength to affirm the irrepressible life force.

Marina Frolova-Walker has similarly discerned a ‘Beethovenian narrative of victory won through struggle’: socialist realism, perhaps, though not of a dogmatic variety, and coming more naturally to Prokofiev than some would like.

Beethovenian realism might be better: in its inner voices, the second half of the opening theme bears apparent reference to what we have come to know as Beethoven’s motif of fate. This is no transcription, yet ambition to attain orchestral stature or suggestion remains, as in the marking ‘quasi Timp.’. Grotesquerie of yore is intermittently present, yet in a context of militaristic discipline is no longer a laughing matter. If the first movement offers a Beethovenian contrast between thematic groups, almost conventionally ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, its progress, both mocking and honouring hallowed sonata form, stands as close to theatre or cinema. The principal theme of the Andante caloroso may be heard as a reminiscence as false as it is fond, both in register and chordal accompaniment, of kindred movements in Beethoven. Ternary form stands familiar from many of its kind – and from two of Schubert’s Klavierstücke. The closing Precipitato offers synthesis in combat between jaunty 7/8 machine-irregularity and the Classical frame of a rondo finale. Hammered, even frenetic insistence, seemingly inherited from Prokofiev’s piano concertos, on the tonic of B flat speaks solely of the here and now. The Sonata hurtles to a close, exhilarating and only in retrospect exhausted: ‘in real time’, because it can do no other.


(This essay was originally published to accompany a recital by Igor Levit at the 2021 Salzburg Festival.)