Final Songs: Late Schubert and Liszt


  • Four Impromptus D899


  • Nuages Gris
  • La Lugubre Gondola
  • Isolde’s Liebestod from  Tristan und Isolde


  • Sonata in B flat major D960

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)          

  • Four Impromptus D899
  • No.1 in C minor Allegro molto moderato
  • No.2 in E flat major Allegro
  • No.3 in G flat major Andante
  • No.4 in A flat Allegretto 

This recital begins and ends with octave Gs: very dramatically at the opening of Schubert’s Four Impromptus D899, then playfully, insistently and with folk wit in the last movement of his B flat Sonata D960. The question is why-why did Schubert like to use this particular octave? Is it a clarion call, a call to arms? It certainly has urgency. These octaves must have particular significance, and they’re malleable too: gateways to various keys and psychological transformations.

The programme explores some connections between Schubert and Liszt’s late piano style, not often made because of reductive stereotyping – Liszt’s reputation as a fiery, public virtuoso, and Schubert’s ‘domesticity’. As with Wagner, we tend to concentrate on the way Beethoven’s shadow influenced and moulded Liszt. But Schubert has plenty of qualities that found their way into Liszt’s language: low rumbling trills and ominous, oscillating bass lines; enormous architecture, buttressed by daring key changes; fantastic outbursts of virtuosity, and crackling energy. And there’s no doubt that Liszt idolised Schubert’s music; he composed and performed several transcriptions of his songs, and published his own edition of Schubert’s late sonatas.

Schubert composed his first set of impromptus in 1827, a year before he died. They waited to be published for more than thirty years, but are now his most famous (and loved) piano works. They’re character pieces, surprisingly muscular in scale and content. The first, longest impromptu last nearly ten minutes, prompting some earlier critics to suggest this was a sonata-form movement; the second impromptu was a scherzo; the third a slow movement; the fourth a finale. In fact, they’re marvellous, classical-romantic works of variety and depth, and technically challenging too. The first (after its ringing, octave Gs) starts in the form of question and answer, with tentative queries being answered rather forcefully and rigidly (youth questioning age?). The questioner then goes on a journey, transforming the opening material into a fantasy of light, tenderness and darkness, before coming full circle – where the question and answer roles are reversed.

The second impromptu has a rollicking Hungarian middle section, surrounded either side by a pearly, glinting passagework in the right hand (the second and the fourth impromptus are quite étude-like for the player).  Curiously this piece turns up in Somerset Maugham’s short story The Alien Corn, where a young aristocratic is told he’ll never be good enough to be a concert pianist, however much he practises. His heartless critic, Madame Markart from Russia, then dashes off a cold, glittering performance of this impromptu. (Dirk Bogarde was the sensitive, aspiring pianist in the 1948 film Quartet).

The third impromptu is a song-without-words. A swan-like melodic line is supported by undulating harmonies; gradually a more active bass line turns this piece into a genuine pas de deux between the treble and bass. Note the low, rumbling trills, which go on to have great significance in the first movement of the B flat sonata – and are very Lisztian too. The harmony is quite simply amazing. Curiously, when this piece was first published, G flat major was considered a much too difficult key, and it was performed and recorded (even by the great Wilhelm Kempf and Edwin Fischer!)  in G major – much less interesting than the original key. The fourth impromptu is another ABA form – a fluttering, brilliant piece of piano writing, with a heart of darkness.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)      

  • Nuages Gris
  • La Lugubre Gondola I
  • Isolde’s Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde

By 1880, Liszt – that most charismatic and generous of musicians,  fêted and adored throughout Europe – was an old man with a wild life behind him. His late piano pieces are a repertory of mystery, spirituality and despair; Liszt’s contemporaries shrank from these elliptical, troubling works. They heard short fragments of anguished dissonance, bolstered by Schubertian thunders of bass tremolo – and didn’t like it. A conspiracy of silence surrounded Liszt’s late works until relatively recently; today, it’s easier to hear how Liszt brilliantly foreshadowed Schoenberg, Debussy and Bartók.

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 triggered all kinds of health problems, 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.  (It’s also featured in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.)

In autumn the following year, Liszt went to stay with the similarly ailing Wagner, his wife, Liszt’s daughter Cosima, and their son Siegfried at the Palazzo Vendramin in Venice.  Playing whist every evening (apparently he had to let Wagner win), he had recurring dreams 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 the next month 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, while 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. 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 magnificent paraphrase to Liszt in his old age, in public masterclasses and private lessons, probably not realising the emotional significance of this piece. He dearly loved his daughter Cosima, but always had a difficult relationship with her; she refused to see him ever again after Wagner died. Strange how this piano transcription of love and death contains a real family history, as well as the myth of Tristan and Isolde.



  • Sonata in B flat major D960
  • I Molto Moderato
  • II Andante sostenuto
  • III Scherzo: Allegro vivace con delicatezza
  • IV Allegro ma non troppo – Presto

Schubert’s last three sonatas were written a few months before he died. They were published ten years later, but remained unplayed for all of the19th century, and right up to the 1950s. His sonatas were initially compared to Beethoven’s, and found wanting. They lacked Beethoven’s architecture and direction; they were harmonically adventurous, and seemed long and improvisatory., baggy even. The recordings of Wilhelm Kempf, Alfred Brendel (who will be speaking about Schubert’s Winterreise in Dartington Hall next week) and Sviatoslav Richter changed everything, although they had such different approaches to his music: Kempf warm and melodious, Brendel tempestuous and curious, Richer severely meditative.

Schubert completed the final sonata in B flat on September 26th 1828, and performed all three final sonatas two days later, to a small gathering in Vienna. (Despite being very ill with syphilis, he had also just finished the E flat major Mass,  the C major String Quintet, and the songs published posthumously as Schwanengesang.) The three sonatas were initially dedicated to the pianist and composer Hummel, whom Schubert admired enormously (as did Chopin); Anton Diabelli, famously known now for his little waltz at the start of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, eventually published them in 1839. By then Hummel was dead, so he switched the dedication to Schumann, who praised Schubert’s piano music in his terrifically insightful music criticism. (I really love this web of connections.)

All three sonatas are linked in motifs and quotes; and behind them stands the harmonic structure of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy (1822). The best way to approach the length of the first movement is to imagine Schubert as the Wanderer: it’s perhaps too simplistic to think of Schubert as facing his own death here. Instead, the calm, heart-beating opening of the B flat sonata seems to open a narrative. Someone is about to tell you his life story, perhaps like Dante: Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita/mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,/ché la diritta via era smarrita ( ‘At the mid-point of the path through life, I sound myself in a wood so dark, the way ahead was blotted out’). As the music moves from key to key, pausing at crossroads then taking a new path, there’s a tremendous sense of moving, recounting episodes, then finding home again. Apart from the deeply psychological, almost Freudian movement of harmony – something music writers are grappling with only now – look out for Schubert’s low, rumbling trills, often followed by a short, disruptive pause.

The second movement is in C sharp minor, called ‘the key of The Wanderer’ by the musicologist Charles Fisk. Here is anther kind of narrative – a deathbed confession, with memory in the middle A major section. It offers tremendous consolation at the end, but is probably one of the most searing piano movements Schubert ever wrote; and certainly the reason why all of us pianists want to learn this piece. There are heartbeats in this movement too: jagged ones on the first section, more rhythmic and resigned in the final one.

The last two movements reveal a fresher, more heavenly world. The short scherzo could be Tiepolo cherubs jumping from cloud to cloud, and in the final rondo Schubert punctuates his music with the famous octave Gs again. Here’s another life story, perhaps past the tunnel of death; the story is jocular, folk-witty, insouciant and  – three times – very fierce indeed; in the middle it becomes positively oceanic. Schubert signs off with a short, virtuosic octave passage, as if to say ‘that’s enough from me now: I’ve told you everything I know!’

Notes by Joanna MacGregor