Franz Liszt was born in Hungary in 1811, but lived most of his life in Paris, moving there as a teen. He was a huge success as a concert pianist and is still considered one of the greatest pianists since the instrument’s invention. In his thirties, he retired from concertizing and focused on composition. He primarily wrote programmatic music, frequently requiring great virtuosity. He also taught and supported other composers, Wagner being one of the most prominent. Toward the end of his life, Liszt entered a monastery and became an Abbé. His very late music explored the limits of tonality, occasionally crossing to atonality. He died in 1886.
Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor of 1854 was composed as one long movement using five motives and themes. The piece is overall in sonata form with a slow introduction, exposition, and long development section, leading back through a fugue to the recapitulation. There is thematic transformation throughout as the different melodies are shown in different characters.
The sonata starts with a slow descending G Phrygian scale – a recurring motive – followed by the same scale with raised second, fourth, and seventh scale degrees. The exposition starts with a chromatic, disjunct, B minor first theme presented in several forms. After some transitory material derived from the opening Phrygian scale, the second theme is presented in the relative key of D major. It is in stark contrast to the first theme; beautiful, grand, and conjunct with a homophonic accompaniment. The first theme is then developed in major leading to the more delicate third theme, also in D major. The exposition is concluded with more D major sequences of the first theme, particularly the first motive in the theme.
The development explores the previously presented themes and motives in different keys, modes, and styles. The beautiful, flowing second and third themes are sometimes grandiose, delicate, sad, and diabolical. The first theme recurs throughout, frequently emphasizing the motive in the first bar. A new theme is introduced (measure 317), derived from the melodic and rhythmic material of the third theme. Towards the end of the development, the tempo slows; the melodic material returning to the Phrygian scale from the beginning. This time the repeat of the scale is in major with a raised second scale degree.
Suddenly the first theme returns monophonically. It starts as a fugue, but a bass motive takes over and leads to the full presentation of the first theme in the recapitulation. This time, the second and third themes are presented in the parallel key of B major rather than the relative key of D major as in the exposition. The pace gets more frantic as the third, and then first and second themes are repeated. The fourth theme, introduced in the development, also recurs; suddenly slowing the pace and changing to a more delicate character. Slowly, the first theme is repeated in major followed by the introductory Phrygian scale. Three chords quietly bring the piece to a close.
Grout, Donald Jay, J. Peter Burkholder, and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music, 8th Edition. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2010.
Wikimedia Contributors. “Piano Sonata (Liszt).” 3 October 2010. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 7 October 2010 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Sonata_%28Liszt%29>.
Wikipedia Contributors. “Franz Liszt.” 7 October 2010. Wikipedia, The Free Encylopedia. 7 October 2010 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_Liszt>.