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15 September 2011

Tonal Innovations in Ferenc Liszt's Earlier Piano Compositions

Over the course of the 20th century, and in particular in the latter half, Ferenc Liszt, who during his lifetime and even decades after his death had been known primarily as an unrivaled virtuoso, began to enjoy new fame as an innovative composer. Musicians and music historians began to discover the wealth of influences in Liszt’s music and the often startling innovativeness of many of his late compositions. Indeed the similarities between Liszt’s later compositions and works by prominent 20th century composers earned him a new reputation as something of a pioneer. Often overlooked, however, is the fact that while Liszt’s later compositions may seem a departure from standard tonal patterns, several of their features which strike today’s listener as innovative for their time were present in some of his earlier works.

In works composed as early as the 1830s, Liszt experimented with pentatonic melodies and harmonies and intervals that imply an absence of tonal centre.

If Liszt’s late works can be said to anticipate many of the tonal innovations of the 20th century, several of his earlier compositions from the 1830s and 1840s arguably anticipate the radical inventiveness of his late period.

Liszt’s critical reputation has changed dramatically since his death. During his lifetime his fame as a peerless pianist to a large extent distracted audiences and critics from his originality as a composer, and even decades after his death much of his oeuvre did not enjoy widespread recognition. This began to change in the first decades of the 20th century, in part in the wake of the emergence of Bartók and Kodály and the inclusion of motifs from folk music in compositions intended for the formal setting of the concert hall. Musicians and music historians began to reassess Liszt’s music with greater sensitivity to the influences of a diverse variety of musical traditions. As Klára Hamburger observes in her tribute to Liszt in the March edition of Hungarian Review, for example, as a child Liszt was exposed to a variety of different forms of folk music, the influence of which is perhaps most immediately obvious in his Hungarian rhapsodies. Perhaps more startling, in his late works Liszt used chord structures and intervals that tended towards atonality. As Hamburger also notes, for instance, he mixed traditional modalities with chromatic patterns. Several of his later compositions, such as Ossa Arida (1879), Nuage Gris (1881), and Bagatelle sans tonalité (1885) have been claimed to anticipate the experiments in tonality of Arnold Schönberg. The similarities between many of Liszt’s late works and the music of several prominent 20th century composers persuaded critics that Liszt had indeed been an innovative composer. In an article published in 1980 music historian Norbert Nagler ascribed to Liszt the now famous epithet of “musician of the future”, and in her 1984 monograph on Liszt’s late works German music historian Dorothea Redepenning noted that the observation that innovations in Liszt’s later works anticipate developments of the 20th century has become something of a commonplace (Das Spätwerk Franz Liszts: Bearbeitungen eigener Kompositionen, 1984).

Overshadowed somewhat by the startling originality of his late work, however, many of Liszt’s earlier compositions have not been given as much critical attention as they might deserve, though they are in many respects as innovative as his late work. The use of chromatic scales mentioned by Hamburger, for instance, is perhaps less remarkable than the use of the augmented-fourth or the whole tone scale (both of which can imply atonality and both of which are far more striking for their rarity in the music of the mid-19th century European concert hall) in compositions such as Liszt’s sonata entitled Après une lecture de Dante, the final version of which, completed in 1855, is a reworking of compositions begun as early as 1839. Equally remarkable is Liszt’s use of pentatonic melodies and harmonies in compositions such as the concert étude Un Sospiro, composed in 1848, and two of the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (Invocation and Pensée des morts), composed between 1847 and 1852 (which can also be regarded as deriving from a considerably earlier composition, a single work entitled Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, begun composed in 1834 and published in 1835). Claude Debussy is often cited as among the first prominent European composers to use pentatonic scales in his compositions, most famously in Pagodes from Estampes, written after the Paris World’s Fair of 1889, though as Tibor Tallián notes in his biography of Bartók, one might also think of Promenade from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, in which a pentatonic melody gives a sense of aimless strolling. Yet decades before either the French or the Russian composer used the pentatonic scale, and over half a century before Bartók began using pentatonic melodies or Schönberg began composing Pierre Lunaire, Liszt used pentatonic melodies and harmonies and intervals that fail to yield a clear tonal centre.

The sonata Après une lecture de Dante is perhaps the most illustrative example of one of Liszt’s earlier compositions that anticipates his later experiments with atonality. Although the key signature indicates that the sonata is in D minor, the striking tri-tone interval with which it begins and the chromatic progression of diminished chords in the third and fourth measures suggest no specific key (image 1). (A tri-tone is an interval comprised of three whole steps, for instance a C and an F sharp. It is the only interval that is the same if it is inverted, i.e. the tonal distance between a C and an F sharp is the same as the tonal distance between an F sharp and a C, which means when played together neither note is more dominant tonally than the other and neither resounds more clearly as the “bass” note. As observed by Reginald Smith Brindle in Serial Composition (an introduction to composition techniques published by Oxford University Press in 1968), “Any tendency for a tonality to emerge may be avoided by introducing a note three whole tones distant from the key note of that tonality” (66). Like the tri-tone, chromatic scales, whole tone scales, and diminished chords are also comprised of notes that are the same tonal distance from one another and yield no tonal center.) In later passages (beginning for instance in measure 35) the low D begins to resolve some of the dissonances and the tonal centre of the piece becomes increasingly clear, but the chromatic melody in the treble clef continues to blur the overtones of the harmonies in the bass clef and imply tonal ambiguity. This ambiguity is suggested again in the cadenza-like scales in measures 84 through 89 (see image 2). The ascending arpeggios in the first beats of the measures are diminished chords, which imply no key. The octaves in the second halves of the measures descend in whole steps, again, a scale which implies no key. With a few notable exceptions (Mozart’s Ein musikalischer Spaß, in which it was used for comic effect, or Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila), the whole tone scale was virtually absent from the European music of mid-19th century.

In addition to the use of scales and intervals that suggest the absence of a tonal centre, the sonata is remarkable, as a composition written before 1850, for its use of pentatonic scales to mirror the harmonies of traditional chord progressions. The melody beginning in measure 103 is based on a standard progression beginning in F sharp major and resolving on the downbeat of measure 115, with a C sharp major chord. This modulation from the tonic, F sharp major, to the dominant, C sharp major, moves through the relative minor, D sharp, and the dominant key of the relative minor, B flat major. What is remarkable about these measures is not the melody or the chord progression underlying that melody (which are absolutely standard), but rather the pentatonic cadenzas between the chords in measures 103-107 (see image 3). The descending octaves in measure 103 sound the root, second, third, fifth and sixth of the F sharp major scale (i.e. the five tones of a major pentatonic scale beginning on F sharp). Likewise, in measure 104, the first three tones of the E major scale, combined with the fifth and sixth, comprise a pentatonic scale. Indeed each of the chords in these measures (the highest note of which is the melody) is followed by a pentatonic scale that reinforces the mild dissonances of the chords and thereby adds to the sense of tension and, with the close of the passage in measure 115, resolution. Thus Liszt uses pentatonic scales, harmonically unconventional at the time, to echo the shifts of a very conventional chord progression.

In Invocation, one of the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, Liszt also uses descending pentatonic scales to emphasize harmonic transitions. Although the key signature of the piece indicates that it is in E major, the root of the passages in measures 52-68 is B. The pentatonic scale in measure 54, built on the root, second, third, fifth and sixth of the B major scale, descends to a B major chord. The same scale, in measure 59, descends to a D sharp major chord, an unanticipated progression which heightens the harmonic tension. The pentatonic scale in measure 63, which has C sharp as its “root”, descends to an F sharp dominant seventh chord, which resolves back to B major. Thus, this descending scale in measure 63, by suggesting C sharp as a root, invites the resolution to F sharp major, which in turn leads back to B sharp. Although the pentatonic scale seems unusual, the essential progression is itself quite standard (2-5-1, to use a simple notation). In the closing bars of the piece, the pentatonic scale serves the same function. The descending octaves in measure 181 lead from C major to an F major seventh chord, and the descending octaves in measure 182 lead from F major to B flat major. In the last bars of the piece, the left hand plays a pentatonic scale, covering three octaves, composed of the root, second, third, fifth and sixth of the E major scale, before the piece concludes with E major chords. Similarly, in Pensée des morts Liszt uses the whole tone scale in a transitional passage which seems deceptively conventional because of the internal suspensions and resolutions. Measure 65 begins with a B flat major suspended fourth. The suspended fourth shifts to a suspended ninth, then to the third, a common resolution. This pattern is repeated in E flat major, D major, G major, and F sharp major. The F sharp major chord resolves into the B major chord, on which the measure concludes. These suspensions and resolutions may distract the listener from the highest notes of the chords, which ascend in a whole tone scale from an F to a D sharp. This is an intriguing combination of conventional suspensions harmonizing with an unconventional melody.

Considering the opening passages of the concert étude Un Sospiro, it may seem to cite the composition as an example of innovation in Liszt’s earlier works. The use of D flat major and G flat major arpeggios is hardly unusual. It is perhaps worth noting, however, that the melody in the opening measures is pentatonic. If one can suggest, as I have, that because of its lack of jarringly dissonant intervals the pentatonic melody in the opening measures of Mussorgsky’s Promenade evokes a relaxed aimlessness (a lack of the tension created by dissonant intervals), one might equally suggest that the pentatonic melody in Un Sospiro expresses the resignation and lack of resolve implied by the title (“a sigh”). The piece is tonally unusual in other ways as well, such as the use of flat-ninth and augmented-fifth intervals, as well as chord progressions from one key (D major) to a key a tri-tone (G sharp major). One might be tempted to consider the étude as something of an analogy for Liszt’s larger oeuvre. It is very much a piece for show, often requiring the pianist to cross the left arm over the right in order to play notes in the higher registers of the piano. The spectacular nature of the composition as a piece for performance may distract listeners from some of its less conventional tonal patterns.

Thus while many of Liszt’s later compositions may stand out as striking examples of tonal innovation, several of their features which strike the 20th century listener as unusual for their time can be found in earlier compositions. His use of the tri-tone or whole tone scale, for instance, to create melodies and harmonies without insisting on the dominance of a particular tonality is not peculiar to the late compositions, but can also be detected in some earlier works. In his Years of Pilgrimage (Années de pèlerinage) Liszt was already experimenting with approaches to tonality and harmony which were not so much entirely new to European music as unconventional at the time. Indeed, Liszt by no means invented these approaches to harmony. The whole tone scale, for example, was not an uncommon feature of the modal harmonies of the 16th century. Liszt’s contribution was in part to revive awareness of and interest in these forms in an age when classical music seemed on the verge of exhaustion.

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