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Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Liszt: Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses

I have been playing the piano for twenty-six years. For all that time I have consistantly chosen music to study that is slightly above my technical ability at the time, and now I have chosen two pieces from this set of pieces by Liszt. They are absolutely pushing my technique to the limit.

One of the pieces is 'Ave Maria' from the set. The technical difficulties of this piece are not so far out of reach, but the musical problems abound. Chordal voicing is essential. With a melody that is in the soprano at one point, the tenor the next point, and even falls into the bass, the danger is that the piece can be reduced to harmony that doesn't say much. And the composer's directions in the score must be studied very closely. Liszt is a composer that tells you what he wants in detail. The problem lies in bringing out the details without obscuring the whole of the piece. Not seeing the trees for the forest, or not seeing the forest for the trees is not acceptable. You must be able to see both, have them in balance. Not so easy to do.

The other piece is called 'Funerailles, Octobre 1849'. From what I've read, it is a piece that pays tribute to an attempted Hungarian revolt in 1849 and the subsequent brutal quashing of that revolt. It is a piece that begins with a slow introduction, with the sounds of bells and dissonant wailing. It slowly gathers momentum with an increase in velocity and volume. It finally reachs a climax, and a mournful funeral march begins, with the melody in the bass.

After the funeral march, the music is transformed into a lamentation marked 'lagrimoso'. A gentle weeping for the dead that is developed into a passionate weeping of the soul. This segues into a depiction of a calvary charge with the beating of horses hooves and the sounding of the military trumpet, all played in the major mode. It is this section that has prompted some writers to think that this piece was also a tribute to Chopin due to its similarities with his Military Polonaise. Also, Chopin died in Paris in October of 1849, so this is plausible.

The calvary charge ends in a thunder of octaves for both hands, and a recapitulation of the funeral march. But this time, it has turned into a bitter, painful repitition, with the melody spread out in both hands played in double forte dynamics and the accompaniment chords played in the low registers of the keyboard. It is not a pretty rendition, and a singing tone in the piano is not appropriate to my way of thinking. It should be ugly, loud and harsh.

This recedes into a repeat of the lagrimoso section, albiet with a key change. After a shortened version of this section, the calvary charge returns, this time in a minor key. It thunders under a direction of crescendo molto until it reaches a double forte diminished chord. The piece ends with two measures played pianissimo, with the final measure consisting of a bare octave in the bass on the 'F', the home note of the key signature of the piece, f minor.

While this piece has many of the excesses of the Romantic Liszt, it is also to my mind a bitter denouncement of the crushing of freedom. Even though the piece was written nearly 150 years ago, it still speaks to us of the ugliness of oppression and the cruelty of the powers that be. It is not a piece that leaves me elated, for it hits too close to home considering the same types of horrors we are witnessing today. The bare, dead, dry final octave leaves me in a state of near despair. But I have a driving urge to learn it, involve myself with it. The passions in the piece are passions I can relate to, even if I'd rather not.

The sorrow, ugliness, harshness, hopelessness of the piece seems to be helping me deal with my feelings about the present state of the world. Perhaps it is a catharsis. Perhaps it is necessary for me to get these passions up to the surface so I can deal with them, instead of having them buried within me to possibly taint my soul in the future.

In any case, my course is clear. Whether my technique is ever up to really playing this piece as I envision or not, the journey is what's important. This piece has much to teach me.

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