Fate, I Defy You: The Robert Silverman Liszt CD Igor Kipnis on the music part 2

All four movements of the Sonata demonstrate one of Liszt's most famous compositional devices: motivic variation, with themes being varied and contrasted in tempo and harmony according to mood and character. Liszt's thematic transformation technique even applies to rhythmic variation of those themes. Although the individual movements of his sonata—Exposition, Development, Recapitulation, and Coda—clearly define classical sonata form, that architectural plan, which serves individual movements, also applies to the entire body of the approximately half-hour sonata, the work being bound together without any break.

Commentators have often sought to explain in programmatic terms a variety of potential internal meanings. Most popular is the view that the sonata represents the Faust legend, the opening revealing the myriad conflicts within the protagonist, the lyrical sections the portrait of Gretchen, with the alteration and transformation of themes into the later passagework that describes Mephistopheles. Closely allied to this is a linking with the Bible and Milton's Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve, and Lucifer and the serpent, with God also being represented.

There is also the view that Liszt's sonata is purely absolute music; that is, that no program of any kind exists, or at least that the work is autobiographical.

La lugubre gondola (2 versions: S.200): Die Trauer-Gondel was written in Venice in December 1882, a few months before Wagner died in that city. Liszt later was to write that he "composed this Elegy in Venice as a premonition six weeks before Wagner's death," and in fact the title page of the 1886 piano solo publication showed an engraving of Wagner's grave. There are two separate versions: No.1, in 6/8 time, was only printed in 1916; and No.2, in 4/4 time, originally scored for violin or cello and piano, and not published until 1974.

Liszt wrote two other elegies, "At the Grave of Richard Wagner" and R.W.—Venezia, within a few months following that composer's death. The friendship of Wagner and Liszt, which lasted over three decades, had involved mutual admiration and deep commitment for both parties, Liszt in particular having helped to support his younger colleague financially, not to mention the confidence he showed in Wagner by mounting his operas in Weimar. "He is a man of wonderful genius...," Liszt wrote as early as 1849. "I intend to help him with all my might."

Vallée d'Obermann (S.160/6); Orage (S.160/5): When Franz Liszt was 23 years old and involved in what was considered a scandalous relationship with the Countess Marie d'Agoult, he left Paris for Basel in June 1835 to begin a series of sojourns over the next four years with his paramour. Switzerland, with Geneva as a base, was the first country, followed by a return to France, then on to Italy for an extended stay. The Album d'un Voyageur (1835-36) is just one example of Liszt's prodigious output at that time. "For six months," he wrote to George Sand in the spring of 1836, "I have been doing nothing but writing, scribbling, and scrawling music, music of every shape and color. I'm convinced that if you counted the notes you would find several thousand million of them..."

Vallée d'Obermann (S.160/6) comes from that early collection, Album d'un Voyageur (1835-36), and portrays the sights and sounds of nature in Switzerland. Obermann, the title of an 1804 novel by Étienne Pivert de Senancour (1770-1846), had profoundly impressed the composer, and Liszt dedicated his piece to the Swiss-based author. The setting is an Alpine valley, its hero depressed and listless over an unrequited love affair. Its theme of romantic dissatisfaction can best be expressed by two of the three quotations printed at the head of Liszt's score (two are from the character of Obermann, the third being by Lord Byron). Obermann's Letter 4 reads: "Vast consciousness of a Nature everywhere overwhelming and impenetrable, universal passion, indifference, advanced wisdom, voluptuous abandon, all the desires and all the profound torments that a human heart can hold, I have felt them all, suffered them all in that memorable night. I have made a sinister step toward the age of enfeeblement; I have detoured ten years of my life."