Fate, I Defy You: The Robert Silverman Liszt CD Igor Kipnis on the music

Igor Kipnis on the music

Sonata in B-Minor (Searle.178): Franz Liszt is credited with having written only one full-fledged sonata for piano, if one doesn't include the Fantasia quasi sonata, Après une lecture du Dante (from his Années de Pèlerinage, Book II: Italy), which is more dependent on its literary base. At least that's all that has come down to us from the composer's time. A C-Minor sonata had been mentioned by Liszt, and there evidently also was a sonata for four hands at one keyboard. Additionally, the composer as late as 1881 was able to recall the first 16 bars of a two-hand sonata in F-Minor from memory, this five years before his death. All these works date from around 1825, a further sonata in C-Minor from around 1836 also being credited to him. All these early works are lost.

The genesis of his massive B-Minor Sonata, one of the most remarkable pieces in the 19th-century repertoire, is very much tied up in his personal affairs, just as it had been with the stimulus of his previous Swiss and Italian journeys. His liaison with Marie d'Agoult by 1845 had progressively disintegrated, although he continued to maintain contact.

As part of an extended tour that included Romania, Hungary, and the Ukraine, Liszt had planned that his public farewell piano recital should take place in Elisabetgrad, Ukraine, in September 1847. He had decided that as court Kapellmeister in Extraordinary (a title he had accepted five years earlier from Grand Duke Carl Alexander of Weimar), he could now embark on a conducting career without the strain and rigors of touring.

Liszt had met the Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein in Kiev back in February 1847; by April she had decided to join him in Weimar, along with her 11-year-old daughter. Liszt's home from 1848 was to be the Altenburg in that city, where he lived with Carolyne for the next 10 years. The Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, sister of Carolyne's estranged Russian husband, Prince Nicholas Wittgenstein, put the spacious building, rent-free, at the disposal of the pair. Liszt at first had stayed at the Erbrinz Hotel in Weimar in order to keep up appearances while an annulment of Carolyne's marriage was being sought, but after her petition had been denied by Tsar Nicholas, Liszt moved into the Altenburg, which soon became a meeting place for musicians, writers, scholars, and for those who followed modern music trends.

This was the period when the composer was completing his two piano concertos and the symphonic poems. At the Altenburg in December 1852, Liszt worked intensively on the sonata, completing it at the start of February 1853, some six years after having given up playing public concerts. In the past half year he had conducted, among other things, Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini, Romeo and Juliet, Harold in Italy, and The Damnation of Faust, Wagner's Faust Overture (could the Faust story have stimulated him in any way for the composition of the sonata?), and a stage presentation of Schumann's Manfred, plus the premiere of his own Szekszárd Mass. After Harold and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Liszt was criticized for the style of his conducting and programming. By June, Liszt had played the sonata at home for Brahms during the younger composer's visit. Now, within the next two months, Liszt would conduct Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin.

Hans von Bülow gave the first public performance of the sonata the following January to inaugurate the first grand piano made by the firm of Bechstein. Unexpected acclaim resulted, with the exception of a critical review in the Spenersche Zeitung by Gustav Eduard Engel, which Bülow angrily rebutted at about the same time that Bülow married Cosima, Liszt's second oldest daughter by Marie d'Agoult. (Overall, the sonata had a tendency to confuse many listeners.) When the work was published in 1854, the composer dedicated it to Robert Schumann. Many years later, in 1877, the 66-year-old Liszt played the sonata to Wagner in his Bayreuth home, Wahnfried, and Wagner reciprocated by bestowing upon him a signed copy of his autobiography.

With Liszt's schedule, there could not have been much peace of mind, with the trials of traveling, pupils, dealing with other musicians, overseeing the copying of orchestral parts, and correspondence, not to mention the emotional strain of having the Weimar populace rail against his affair with the Princess through personal insults to her. By 1861, however, his involvement with the Princess had finally been transformed into a friendly relationship, for, in spite of both their desires, the Roman Catholic Church refused to allow their marriage. She settled in Rome, as Liszt eventually did for various periods. It was there that he applied for and received minor orders in 1865.