Liszt's late works for piano

Essay, 2010

6 Pages, Grade: none



The monastery of the Madonna del Rosario, outside Rome, in about 1870. In a sparsely but comfortably furnished apartment an elderly man dressed in a black cassock sits at an upright piano, his fingers idly suspended over the keys. His hair is long and white, his nose aquiline, and remnants of a once exquisite handsomeness are still apparent on his features. He wears a resigned expression-he has suffered much and has come here to spend his remaining years in isolation from the society which once idolized him. He begins to play. The other occupants of the monastery know the familiar sounds by now and are used to the apparently aimless melodies punctuated by harsh chords- the music of loneliness and desolation. Occasionally a more mellifluous melodic fragment over consonant harmonies is heard, like a ghost of former, happier days, but usually such moments are short-lived and the music returns to emptiness and despair.

The strange occupant of this chamber, Franz Liszt, remains an enigmatic figure. Probably no other major composer of the 19th century, with the possible exception of Berlioz, has aroused such contradictory opinions. That he was a major figure there can be no doubt- the B minor sonata and the Faust symphony testify to that. But that he was a genius, as Alfred Brendel, and, no doubt, others suggest, is more debatable. Geniuses produce works which (1), withstand the test of time, often of very long periods of time, and (2), are perceived as flawless masterpieces (or as near to it as is humanly possible). Now, although Liszt passes on the first point- his work is still very much with us both in live and recorded form- I do not think it can be said that any of Liszt’s works, even the very best, are flawless. Even the great B minor Sonata has at least two dud bars (708-9), and does not that great tune marked grandioso, and first heard in bar 105, come just a little too many times for the effect that Liszt was aiming at to be fully realised?

On the other hand he cannot be dismissed lightly. His enormous output contains many works, which may not be masterpieces but can still have an uncanny power over unprejudiced audiences. I remember Claudio Arrau’s magisterial readings of some of the Transcendental Studies which almost convinced one that these were indeed masterpieces, and Kempff’s poetic and almost impressionistic touch with some of the pieces from Anees de Pelerinage.

But whatever we may think about his final place in the pantheon of composers, there can hardly be any dispute over the position of the late works, those written after 1860 in which Liszt, virtually on his own, foreshadowed many of the new directions explored by composers in the 20th century. In mostly short pieces, and in the main for his own instrument, we find Liszt anticipating impressionism, atonality, unorthodox chords and progressions, and scales outside of the customary major and minor, all of which did not become common until well after 1910.

It is almost impossible to say exactly why Liszt turned to composing experimental works which he knew would be misunderstood in his own time. We know that he had become disillusioned with his earlier career as one of the greatest virtuoso pianists of all time. Also the 1860s were a time of great personal tragedy with the loss of both a son and daughter (1859 and 1862 respectively). Thus, many of the late pieces abandon all traces of virtuosity in the writing and present us with a stark and pessimistic sound world totally unlike anything else in the musical literature of that time, or indeed since. They are definitely an “old man’s” music, but as often happens in the late works of composers who reach old age, maturity brings not stale repetition but a searching for new means of expression. We may consider Verdi , Vaughan Williams and Stravinsky as other notable representatives of this tendency, who all in advanced years changed style and explored areas which were to some extent new territory for them- as embodied in Falstaff, the Sinfonia Antartica and Stravinsky’s adoption of serial techniques from the 1950s.


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Liszt's late works for piano
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Michael Regan (Author), 2010, Liszt's late works for piano, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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