Franz Liszt ‘Liebestraum No.3’: The Purest Kind of Love

Good afternoon readers, happy Friday! We’ve come to day L of the August Alphabet Challenge and I just want to express my thanks to all of you who have followed this fun exploration of classical music thus far! Your support is greatly appreciated. Today’s blog is on one of my favourite piano composers, Franz Liszt! I shall be delving into the ever-romantic piano work, Liebestraum No.3 (which I’m sure you’ll all know and love just as much as me!). Enjoy!

Franz Liszt was born in 1811 in Hungary, into an already well-established musical family. His father, Adam Liszt had been in service for Prince Nikolaus II Esterházy. This meant he was in direct contact with prolific composers such as Haydn, Beethoven and Hummel. At a young age, Liszt showed an interest in sacred music, after frequently listening to his father’s piano playing. From age 7 onwards, his father taught him piano and began showing him effective ways to compose music for different instruments. By age 9 his works were being shown in concerts in and around various Hungarian provinces. A group of wealthy sponsors offered to finance Liszt’s musical education in Vienna, which he and the family willingly accepted.

Whilst studying in Vienna, Liszt received piano and composition lessons off of Carl Czerny and Antonio Salieri, who had both been taught by Beethoven. After his works were premiered, he received great success and met Schubert whilst within the aristocratic circle. He was known as a child prodigy. His father died in 1827, and he and his mother moved to Paris for sometime. He gave up touring his music and became a piano and composition lessons to children in and around Paris. The following year Liszt fell dreadfully ill, and became depressed. Within this period he barely wrote anything, instead he became stronger in himself. He began to meet leading authors of the time, such as Victor Hugo, whose work had a positive effect on Liszt. This also helped Liszt with his lack of general education (because he started education so young, but only studied music). After the July Revolution in 1830, Liszt began drafting a symphony on the events surrounding him. With this, he met Hector Berlioz, just before the premiere of his Symphonie Fantastique. Liszt was inspired by Berlioz’s orchestral writing and took these techniques and applied them to his own compositions.

Liszt is perhaps best-known for his piano works, which date extensively throughout his lifetime. Liszt felt that he must become a virtuoso on the piano himself, so he could write the most fantastic music possible. He was inspired by virtuoso violinist Niccoló Pagannini. Paris was the best place for Liszt in the 1830’s as it was known as the nexus for piano studies. This gave Liszt some competition as it allowed him to master all aspects of piano performance, so that he would stand out over his peers. It was in this period of his life that he made a very close friend of our other favourite romantic piano composer, Frédéric Chopin. His influence on Liszt brought out his poetic and romantic side that we know and love today.

In 1833, Liszt became romantically involved with the Countess Marie d’Agoult (an author who also went by the pen name Daniel Stern). She and Liszt moved to Geneva together, where he taught at the Geneva Conservatory. Within the next six years, the couple had three children together (one daughter, Cosima, eventually married Richard Wagner). The family moved from Switzerland to Italy and then back to Paris. Liszt became a touring virtuoso pianist again, and while Marie and the children moved back to Paris, he went and toured in Hungary, ending up in Vienna. For the next eight years Liszt toured Europe (whilst still returning and going on holiday with his family). The couple separated in 1844, however this was in the height of Liszt’s fame as a concert pianist. Within this period Liszt received a wealth of awards, fame and even an honorary doctorate! Liszt was also well-known for his contributions to charity, with practically all of his concert fees going to various charities.

In 1847, Liszt played in Kiev where he met Polish Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, who became one of the most significant people in Liszt’s life. He began focusing on composition more, which meant he had to retire from the touring virtuoso career. He moved to Weimar to became Kapellmeister for the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia. At this point in his life, Liszt had enough time to compose his greatest works, for which he is largely remembered for now. Throughout this time Princess Carolyne lived with him. The couple tried to marry, but her previous marriage to a Russian military officer made this impossible.

During the 1860’s, Liszt suffered a period of terrible sadness due to the deaths of his son Daniel and also his daughter Blandine. To escape he retreated to solitary living in a small monastery in Rome. He became ordained there and was usually then known as Abbé Liszt. He participated in parts of the Rome music scene, but he did not compose that much work. In the early 1870’s he started travelling between Budapest, Weimar and Rome where he gave piano masterclasses.

In the final years of Liszt’s life, he was generally well in his health, however he started showing signs of congestive heart failure in 1881. He fell down a flight of stairs in Weimar, and never fully recovered from the accident as it left severe swelling around his body. Liszt was plagued with insomnia and a cataract in his left eye, which eventually contributed to his death. Liszt became plagued with the idea of death, and these feelings were expressed through his music. He commended to a peer that, “I carry a deep sadness of the heart which must now and then break out into sound.”

In 1886, Liszt met Claude Debussy and Paul Vidal. Liszt performed a few of his own arrangements and compositions including an arrangement of Schubert’s Ave Maria. Debussy was so impressed and overwhelmed by this that he supposedly claimed that Liszt’s pedal technique was “like a form of breathing.” Hilariously, Debussy and Vidal played their arrangement of Liszt’s Faust Symphony for piano duet, and Liszt apparently fell asleep! Liszt was so respected within the classical music circle that composer dedicated works to him, such as his long-term friend Camille Saint-Saëns dedicated his Organ Symphony to Liszt (only a few weeks before his death). Liszt died July 31st 1886 in Bayreuth, Germany. He allegedly died from pneumonia, however this has been disputed.

As you can see, Liszt was an incredibly innovative, well-respected and frankly a legend in his lifetime. During his time in Weimar, Liszt composed and published his piano nocturnes, Liebestraum (Dreams of Love). This set of three piano works portray Liszt’s romantic writing, as well as programme music. The set was published in 1850 and are a key example of programme music due to their reference to various poems about love and death. For the purpose of this blog I am looking into the third, most famous movement only. Number 3 is based on a poem written by German writer, Ferdinand Freliligrath. Entitled, O Lieb, so lang du lieben kannst (Love as long as love you can) the work depicts themes of love and the loss of love. I have provided the poem and translations below:

O lieb’, so lang du lieben kannst!

O lieb’, so lang du lieben magst!

Die Stunde kommt, die Stunde kommt,

Wo du an Gräbern stehst und klagst!

O love, as long as love you can, 

O love, as long as love you may, 

The time will come, the time will come, 

When you will stand at the grave and mourn!

Und sorge, daß dein Herze glüht

Und Liebe hegt und Liebe trägt,

Solang ihm noch ein ander Herz,

In Liebe warm entgegenschlägt!

Be sure that your heart burns, 

And holds and keeps love

As long as another heart beats warmly

With its love for you

Und wer dir seine Brust erschließt,

O tu ihm, was du kannst, zulieb’!

Und mach’ ihm jede Stunde froh,

Und mach ihm keine Stunde trüb!

And if someone bears his soul to you

Love him back as best you can 

Give his every hour joy, 

Let him pass none in sorrow!

Und hüte deine Zunge wohl,

Bald ist ein böses Wort gesagt!

O Gott, es war nicht bös gemeint, –

Der andre aber geht und klagt.

And guard your words with care, 

Lest harm flow from your lips!

Dear God, I meant no harm, 

But the loved one recoils and mourns. 

O lieb’, solang du lieben kannst!

O lieb’, solang du lieben magst!

Die Stunde kommt, die Stunde kommt,

Wo du an Gräbern stehst und klagst!

O love, love as long as you can!

O love, love as long as you may!

The time will come, the time will come,

When you will stand at the grave and mourn.

Dann kniest du nieder an der Gruft

Und birgst die Augen, trüb und naß,

– Sie sehn den andern nimmermehr –

Ins lange, feuchte Kirchhofsgras.

You will kneel alongside the grave

And your eyes will be sorrowful and moist,

– Never will you see the beloved again –

Only the churchyard’s tall, wet grass.

Und sprichst: O schau’ auf mich herab,

Der hier an deinem Grabe weint!

Vergib, daß ich gekränkt dich hab’!

O Gott, es war nicht bös gemeint!

You will say: Look at me from below,

I who mourn here alongside your grave!

Forgive my slights!

Dear God, I meant no harm!

Er aber sieht und hört dich nicht,

Kommt nicht, daß du ihn froh umfängst;

Der Mund, der oft dich küßte, spricht

Nie wieder: Ich vergab dir längst!

Yet the beloved does not see or hear you,

He lies beyond your comfort;

The lips you kissed so often speak

Not again: I forgave you long ago!

Er tat’s, vergab dir lange schon,

Doch manche heiße Träne fiel

Um dich und um dein herbes Wort –

Doch still – er ruht, er ist am Ziel!

Indeed, he did forgive you,

But tears he would freely shed,

Over you and on your unthinking word –

Quiet now! – he rests, he has passed.

O lieb’, solang du lieben kannst!

O lieb’, solang du lieben magst!

Die Stunde kommt, die Stunde kommt,

Wo du an Gräbern stehst und klagst!

O love, love as long as you can!

O love, love as long as you may!

The time will come, the time will come,

When you will stand at the grave and mourn.

 

The expressive nature of this movement is reminiscent of the opening refrain which returns throughout the poem. The promise of love is hopeful at the start, however, it soon dissipates after the death of a loved one. The emotion within the poetry is what essentially shaped the form of Liebestraum No.3. The work begins in Ab major, with large arpeggiated phrases in the right hand, and through this large movement it represents the poets anguish. The refrain from the poem is repeated twice in the first 12 bars, with its simple melody and arpeggiated accompaniment. The harmonic progressions within this section show the movement within the poem. Each section of this piece is split up by a cadenza section. The cadenzas are there to represent the Liebestraum. The first highlights the dream-like state that the poet is in, where he can be reunited with his love once more. This cadenza is in B major, which shows a tonal shift. B major does not function with Ab major, which represents the battling feelings between love and death. The first theme comes back, but this time in C major, which shortly resorts back to Ab major. The constant turbulent tonal shifts suggest the emotional rollercoaster that the poet is finding himself in. This section really highlights the emotional and mental turmoil that is happening inside the mind of the poet.

The cadenzas are very interesting as Liszt uses the full range of the piano to express feelings of hope. The fast passages and chromaticisms emphasise the idea of ‘the dream state’. The second cadenza is the ‘coming out’ of his dreams. The range of the piano doesn’t go up and above, but stays grounded, giving a sense of what real life feels like. The back and forth motion of this cadenza is very effective as it emphasises the change between dream and reality, as well as want and have. After this cadenza, the poet realises he can only be truly in love in his dreams. The idea is that the poet warns you that love is fragile but worth taking the risk for. Through dynamic changes you can feel the sense that the poet is feeling sorrowful and is faced with the reality of death. The piece ends very quietly, which is very nice if you just listen to it, however, with this back story in mind it brings this piece into a whole new dimension. It is a story of love and loss portrayed through music. An absolutely stunning piece which is both heart-wrenching and sublime in every possible way. Music was a way to express all kinds of feelings for Liszt and he managed to do it whilst still grasping audiences’ attention. The elicit emotion portrayed in this piece is so very compelling. With his use of complex harmonic structures, simple melodies and a range of dynamics, Liszt was able to build a work that still nourishes the minds of musicians and classical music fans today.

I’m aware that a lot of you may know this piece already, but I urge you, listen to it again with the poet’s story in mind, you’ll think and feel differently about it. I absolutely love Liszt and many of his works, although Liebestraum No.3 is perhaps my favourite! I hope you enjoy this blog and become fans of Liszt if you’re not already. I could write a massive Liszt of reasons why you should listen to more of Liszt’s work (I’m sorry I couldn’t not do that one!). Watch this space for what day M has in store for us tomorrow!

Happy Reading!

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