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Severance Hall
October 24 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m. 

October 26 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.

Piano Concerto No. 1

Franz Liszt  (1811-1886)
sketched 1830s; composed 1845-49, revised 1853-54 and 1856

At a Glance

Liszt worked on his Piano Concerto No. 1, off and on, for more than 20 years.  Early sketches go back as far as 1830, with a first real sketch done in 1839; the bulk of the music was completed in the later 1840s, and revised in 1853-54 and 1856.  The premiere took place in Weimar on February 17, 1855, with the composer at the piano and Hector Berlioz conducting.  The score, published in 1857, is dedicated to composer and pianist Henry Litolff.  

This concerto runs about 20 minutes in performance.  Liszt scored it for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, cymbals, triangle, strings, and solo piano.

The first American performance of this concerto was given by Theodore Thomas’s Orchestra in New York on December 2, 1865, with Sebastian Bach Mills as the soloist.  Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 entered The Cleveland Orchestra’s repertoire in January 1921, when it was played by Mischa Levitzki under music director Nikolai Sokoloff’s direction.

About the Music

Liszt’s two piano concertos are standard works in the repertoire of today’s piano virtuosos.  Yet they are not at all what one might have expected the world’s greatest pianist to write.  (“Greatest” is arguable, of course.  Given the music he wrote, however, and with no recordings of his playing to prove or disprove the point, many have placed him on the “greatest” throne unchallenged.) 

Liszt lived a long, full life.  He gave innumerable concerts all over Europe and composed an immense body of music.  He was centrally involved in the great surge of music-making that marked his lifetime and in the heated debates that surrounded himself, his pupils, and his friends — particularly over the passionate debates over the music of his son-in-law Wagner. 

All that said, Liszt left us only two concertos, both short and compact.  And he was reluctant to perform either of them himself.  Both works gave him endless trouble and were constantly revised.

Liszt’s two concertos have also generated adverse criticism from those who wish his music was more like . . . “this” and less like . . . “that.”  Both have also won passionate admirers and been promoted by world-class performers — why didn’t he compose five full-scale three-movement piano concertos like Beethoven or Saint-Saëns?! 

Liszt liked the glamor of a solo appearance, undoubtedly, and often eliminated the need for a vocal soloist (with whom so many other pianists shared the stage) by performing operatic fantasies for piano alone.  His solo performances were most often his own transcriptions and elaborations (improvisations) on familiar music by other composers (Mozart, Weber, Rossini, Verdi, etc.), rather than regular piano works written by himself or by others. 

Such pieces could equally call for orchestral support, so we find amongst his works a handful of arrangements for piano solo and orchestra — fantasies on Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens, on Berlioz’s Lélio, on Hungarian folk melodies, and arrangements of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy and Weber’s Polonaise brillante.  One of his favorite works was Weber’s Konzertstück for piano and orchestra.  In this context — his performing as a solo star — a traditional piano concerto in three movements had less appeal for him; in fact, it was almost unthinkable.  Yet, because he wrote both a Malédiction and a Totentanz (or “Death Dance”) — notice the demonic titles! — for piano and orchestra, we should perhaps think of his two piano concertos, both in a similar continuous single movement, as tone-poems without titles, as concert-pieces or fantasies, rather than concertos in the traditional sense.

The Musical Form

Liszt’s overriding intent and purpose with both concertos was to integrate the form itself into a single movement (as he also did in his masterly B minor sonata for solo piano).  

The first Piano Concerto, like the second, unfolds in a series of episodes using recurrent themes that are adapted to different speeds and different surroundings to provide variety and contrast.  Sections of a dreamy, amorous character thus rub shoulders with energetic or martial music and passages of swashbuckling virtuosity, all sharing the same handful of melodic shapes and giving the impression of free improvisation — an art at which Liszt excelled.

The very striking gesture with which the First Concerto opens (unison strings sounding together) is to be heard throughout in various forms, more often intervening in cadenza-like passages, or in lyrical sections as a reminder of the main rhythmic pulse.  A slower Adagio section feels like part of a slow movement; a lighter part (with prominent triangle) suggests a scherzo; and a martial character marks a finale.  But the opening gesture is never far out of hearing, and the continuity of the music in a single movement is never really threatened.  The end is overtaken by a sweep of virtuosity from the soloist.

Building the Concerto

Liszt sketched substantial portions of this First Concerto in 1839, when he was living in Italy and about to embark on a decade of frantic touring and concert-giving, which laid the ground for the legendary reputation — as a wild, tireless, hypnotizing performer — that followed him for the rest of his life. 

But for a man so formidably confident in his stage appearances, Liszt was rarely satisfied with his own compositions.  He was an obsessive reviser, subjecting most of his major works to years of rethinking and alteration.  In view of the huge number of compositions and arrangements that he left, he must have found time amid the touring, teaching, and conducting to work patiently refining pieces that had been in his mind for many years. 

The two concertos reappeared on his desk in the 1850s, when he was settled in Weimar and no longer constantly on the road.  The First Concerto reached completion in 1855 and was first performed then, with Liszt himself as soloist and Hector Berlioz as the conductor.  The Second was first played two years later, not by Liszt himself, but by his brilliant pupil Hans von Bronsart, to whom it was dedicated.  

Liszt was still not satisfied with them, however, and so neither concerto was published until he had devoted many more hours revising each.  In Liszt’s last years, the concertos appeared in his concerts several times, but never with himself playing the solo part; by then, he preferred conducting them. 

Note:  A Third Piano Concerto was reconstructed from scattered Liszt manuscripts by the scholar Jay Rosenblatt and first performed in Chicago in 1990. It too dates from 1839, but it seems that, unlike its two siblings, it never emerged from draft.  Indeed, its manuscripts may have already been dispersed when Liszt returned to the other two, and was simply forgotten.  In a single continuous movement, it belongs snugly with the other two, but has yet to be accepted as a standard weapon in the virtuoso pianist’s abundant arsenal.

Hugh Macdonald © 2019

Hugh Macdonald is a noted authority on French music and the Avis H. Blewett Professor Emeritus of Music at Washington University in St. Louis.