Beethoven, Ligeti and Liszt

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor WoO 80

Beethoven seemed to have forgotten he’d written thirty-two variations in C minor. When he heard the daughter of the piano-maker Streicher practising it, the conversation (according to Thayer) went like this: ‘’Whose is that?’ ‘Yours,’ was the answer. ‘Mine? That piece of folly mine? Oh, Beethoven, what an ass you were in those days!’’

Beethoven may have been annoyed at the girl’s playing; he may have been annoyed at himself for writing something pedagogical; he may have been infuriated the variations were so popular – it was an immediate hit (after publication in Vienna in 1807) amongst professional pianists and amateurs, hungry for shorter, acrobatic pieces. His irritation might also hint at the complicated relationship with his friend and rival Johann Hummel, whose virtuosic playing and works were considered far more valuable during Beethoven’s lifetime. A young Liszt tried to take lessons from Hummel, but couldn’t afford his fees.

Despite Beethoven’s grumpiness, 32 Variations on an original theme in C minor remains supremely popular. The ‘original theme’ is a falling, chromatic eight-bar chaconne, and irresistibly catchy. The ensuing variations are a mere eight bars long, and deal with the basic stuff of playing: repeated notes, arpeggios, thirds, octaves, fast scales. Yet the piece is transcendental too, with cross rhythms and constant surprises – pure Beethoven, in daring, assertiveness, and contrariness. Only Beethoven could have written such an elongated, dramatic return of the theme at the end: a mighty river slowly and irrevocably bursting its banks.

György Ligeti (1923-2006)

Musica ricercata

I           Sostenuto – misurato – strigendo poco a poco sin al Prestissimo

II         Mesto, rigido e cerimoniale

III        Allegro con spirito

IV        Tempo di Valse (poco vivace – ‘à l’orgue de Barbarie’)

V         Rubato. Lamentoso

VI        Allegro molto capriccioso

VII      Cantabile, molto legato

VIII     Vivace. Energico

IX        Adagio. Mesto (Béla Bartók in memoriam)

X         Vivace. Capriccioso

XI        Andante misurato e tranquillo (Omaggio a Girolamo Frescobaldi)

‘We play with the music and the music plays with us,’ Ligeti wrote, a game-playing, quixotic character. His scintillating piano miniatures Musica ricercata were composed between 1951 and 1953, when he was still living in Soviet Hungary, catching pirated broadcasts of Boulez and Stravinsky at night. This work, too, has a pedagogical surface – the first piece jazzily hammers out one note (A), the second two notes, the third bounces around in major and minor thirds and so on, until the dream-like homage to the Renaissance keyboardist Frescobaldi unveils stretto polyphony (the ricercata of the title), using all twelve tones. But these pieces also burst with rage, fear and grief – with instructions like ‘insistent, spiteful,’  ‘as if panicking,’ ‘play as if mad’ – as well as burlesque humour. They’re small tight fists, punching out pranks, barrel organs (‘à l’orgue de Barbarie’) and keening laments. Each movement outlines the quirks and obsessions Ligeti was to explore thoroughly in his eighteen études and the Piano Concerto thirty later – endlessly falling, textural chromaticism; extremes at either ends of the keyboard; mystery, violence and humour occupying the same space.

Music riceracata seems both an act of remembrance and a leap forward. Ligeti studied composition with Sándor Veress at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest between 1945 and 1948; their relationship was cut short when Varess fled to Switzerland in 1949, after a close friend was executed for treason. Ligeti wrote a great deal about his teacher’s music, and especially admired his set of seventy short pieces for piano students, Billegetömuzsika, officially translated as Fingerlarks. (The literal translation is the much more Rabelaisian Waggling Music.)  These were small but perfectly formed examinations of piano technique: scales, phrasing, dotted rhythms, broken chords – each with a specific folk music source, carefully identified in an index at the end of the volume. Ligeti’s scrupulous use of counterpoint and canon, and the building blocks of music – thirds, fifths, octaves – shows a conscientious apprentice pleasing his master, in between the jokes and the fights. He even takes a bagpipe tune (Dudanóta) from Veress’s collection and turns it into something both more complex and airy in the seventh movement of Musica Ricercata. His own flight to the West late in 1956, trying to follow Varess to Berne – on foot, in the dead of night, across the patrolled border – was traumatic and difficult, and he was detained as a refugee in Vienna.  Right up his death in 2006, Ligeti’s life had a pattern of itinerancy, despite – ostensibly – settling in Austria.

There’s a curious relationship between Gyögy Ligeti and Stanley Kubrick.  Famously, Ligeti had no idea that Kubrick had helped himself to three of his major works (Lux aeterna, Requiem and Atmosphères) in 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. No idea, that is, until he happened to see the film in a Viennese cinema. (MGM eventually paid him a modest $3500 for copyright permission; $1000 of that had to be handed over to his lawyer.) In his very last film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Kubrick uses the second movement of Musica ricercata many times, most climactically when Tom Cruise’s character is unmasked at a bizarre, upper-class orgy.  The visual and verbal edits of the mock court scene were matched to the music precisely, brilliantly capturing its frightening, ceremonial coldness, including the sudden stabs on a high G in the right hand. ‘Stabbing Stalin through the heart,’ as Ligeti told his biographer Richard Steinitz, many years later.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

Nuages gris

La Lugubre Gondola I

Isolde’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde     

By 1880, Liszt – that most charismatic and generous of musicians, in youth and middle age fêted and adored throughout Europe – had reached old age, and his late piano pieces are a repertory of doubt and despair. His contemporaries shrank from these elliptical, troubled works. They heard short fragments of anguished dissonance, bolstered by Beethovinian thunders of bass tremolo, and didn’t like it. A conspiracy of silence surrounded Liszt’s late works until relatively recently; music writers conceded they foresaw Schoenberg’s atonality, and Debussy’s impressionism.

As the great Liszt musicologist Alan Walker points out, reducing these pieces to ‘fragments of sonic history’ does them an enormous disservice. They’re not attempting to solve the problem of tonality, but they are poems of immense emotion and ambiguity. Nuages gris (August 1881) may well be the ‘gateway to modern music,’ but the

grey clouds were autobiographical. Liszt had a severe fall the month before, and his serious injuries brought on all kinds of ailments, including dropsy, asthma, and chronic heart disease; he was also slowly going blind. This tiny piece creates an atmosphere of desolation with admirable economy – particularly from such a virtuosic composer – and drifts away, keyless.  (Strangely, it’s also featured in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.)

In autumn the following year, Liszt went to stay with the ailing Wagner, Liszt’s daughter Cosima, and their son Siegfried at the Palazzo Vendramin in Venice.  Playing whist every night (he had to let Wagner win occasionally!), he was hounded by a vision of Wagner’s cortège floating across the lagoon. Two elegies, La Lugubre Gondola I and II, composed in December 1882, work through Liszt’s morbid fascination with funeral gondolas, which he watched from his upper window onto the Grand Canal. Liszt’s premonition was correct:

he said goodbye to Wagner in January 1883, and in February Cosima accompanied her husband’s coffin through Venice by gondola, then by train to Bayreuth. (Wagner had possibly overheard his own elegy being composed.  Cosima wrote in her diary that Wagner ‘described [Liszt’s] new works as ‘budding insanity,’ and finds it impossible to develop a taste for their dissonances.’)

Liszt composed his magnificent and greatest paraphrase, Isolde’s Liebestod, in 1867, when Cosima was leaving her first husband – the conductor Hans von Bülow – for Wagner. It was a messy, painful time. Liszt had admiration for Wagner’s genius while deploring his behaviour, and broke off relations altogether with him for five years. (He dearly loved Cosima, but had a difficult relationship with her; she refused to see him after Wagner died.) Liszt was intimately acquainted with Tristan und Isolde, having conducted the second public performance from the manuscript in 1859. With judicious use of arpeggios, tremolandos, and repeated chords, he creates textures shimmering with orchestral incandescence, and his pedal markings show the attention of a subtle performer: the first half of Liebestod is played almost entirely with the soft pedal. Arpeggiated chords in both hands add imaginary harps and pizzicato basses. Students often brought this paraphrase to Liszt in his old age, in public masterclasses and private lessons; as Alan Walker remarks, ‘he must have asked himself what they could have possibly known of its inner significance….it may be Wagner’s music, but it is of Liszt that we think; at its centre it contains a bitterness of heart – for those with ears to hear.’

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)                                       

Sonata in C minor Op.111

I           Maestoso – Allegro con brio e appassionato

II         Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile

Beethoven’s last sonata broke all the rules; the hero of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus thought it represented ‘the farewell of the sonata form.’ It certainly changed the game entirely.  Sonatas continued to be written, but in new ways, as Liszt exemplified with his heroic Sonata in B minor. As with the 32 Variations on an original theme, Beethoven wrestles with the keys of C minor and C major. The taut emotional turmoil of the first movement gives way to a floating spirituality in the variations of the second:  ‘a final testimony of his sonatas, as well a prelude to silence,’ according to Alfred Brendel.

To say that that this sonata (composed between 1821 and 1822) is influential is an understatement; so I’ll just mention two different examples. Chopin references the first movement of Op.111 twice. The opening gesture (three ferocious, falling diminished sevenths) is replicated at the beginning of his B flat minor Funeral March Sonata; and he quotes the final nine bars of the first movement in his Revolutionary study. Secondly, Beethoven and ‘the invention of jazz.’  We all know that jazz arose from the Deep South, but the sforzandos on the second and fourth beats of Beethoven’s famous ‘jazz variation’ invent a kind of wild swing before swing was even thought of; the metrical relationship between each variation is still hair-raising to look at, even now. Despite calling the piano ‘an unsatisfactory instrument,’ Beethoven went back to basics in this movement (the stuff of thirds, octaves, arpeggios and trills) and ‘gently placed us on the edge of eternity.’ As Brendel says, ‘simplicity as a result of complexity – distilled experience.’

Joanna MacGregor