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Some notes - Sonata in B Minor by Franz Liszt

By Daniel Mateos MorenoRead his Résumé.

N. E.: Normalmente sólo publicamos artículos en español. Sin embargo, estamos abiertos a excepciones en caso de recibir un artículo inédito en otro idioma que merezca especial interés.

Franz Liszt

When speaking about something or somebody that has been vastly discussed before, one has the obligation to contribute something different. Who, even among the non‑musicians, has never read about Franz Liszt? Therefore, one can only try to propose new reasons, or at least his reasons, for supporting a position in the existing discussions. If we add the fact that music is an art and itself a social science, then we reach the conclusion that it might be much more interesting to pose new questions than to answer old questions about Liszt´s controversies.

At the moment of finishing the composing of his Sonata in B minor, in 1853[1], Liszt had abandoned his brilliant career as a concertgoer more than ten years ago and changed it for an easier life as kapellmeister in Weimar, followed by Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, who became Liszt´s mistress and fervent worshipper. This was probably done so to have more time to compose and to give free classes to his pupils, or probably because he was Asuch a restless head@ following the romantic idea of unsteadiness suggested by Heine[2], as is the romantic idea of the Agenius@. Anyhow, it is very difficult to come to a precise conclusion upon the complex and contradictory character of Liszt[3], which inevitably reflects in his pieces. When one reads any of the books written about his life, one realizes that his music was a reflection of his life: very passionate with innumerable affairs, and on the other hand full of mysticism even devoting the end of his life to a convent. According with this duality, it is widely recognized that god and the devil appear equally in his music, especially noticeable in the figure of Faust as used by Liszt. Here we reach one of the most trite discussion about Liszt, and particularly about his Sonata in B minor: Programmatic or not programmatic? Every author gives an opinion about that, from the vaguest Peter Raabe who considered it an autobiography, to the well-depicted stories of Tibor Szasz approaching the absurd[4]. We now assert that whatever it is, it doesn´t really matter, as we must be aware that either explanation, programmatic or non, converges to a unique point: the fight between two opposite poles. In our opinion, such is not a coincidence, owing to the fact that the base of the German philosophy at that time and later was greatly supporting this these, held by Martin Heidegger and F. Nietzsche. However, Nietzsche described Liszt as Athe advent of showmen in music@[5]. Here again we feel this two sides of the genius, sometimes poetical and subtle, other times superficial and full of show, able to captivate the audience even forgetting the music that had to play, according to Berlioz[6]. Schumann found this kind of virtuosity to be worthless although the sonata in B minor was dedicated to him.

What we can never deny is that Liszt and Chopin were the two that totally changed the piano technique, and we would not be wrong to say that not such an important advancement in piano technique has been made since what they did. Starting from the technique of using a coin on the wrist and then developing their études (either by Chopin or Liszt), it seems one of the big gaps ever jumped in the history of art.

The sonata in B minor is possibly the best exponent of Liszt´s mastery in piano and in composition. Indeed a pinnacle, a monument, in the history of piano and of music in general, not only for his improvements in the technique but also for the revolutionary conception of the piece itself.  The big scales, chords and succession of octaves must not be seen as a mere adornment since they not only give stress but give together a sensation of orchestral sound in the piano. Apart form the mere piano technique, the composer followed the path of changing the sonata form, a path formerly opened by Beethoven, to turn it into one big movement, as in his symphonic poems.

Some essential pianists and writers have considered the piece as a whole variation of one motif, as Claudio Arrau has. We share that opinion, calling it a Apsychological transformation@[7] of the motif during the piece. The introductory scale is part of that motif, although the relation might be not direct, but in a way of contrast; the contrast between the relief of the death and the satisfaction of life, both inevitably two parts of existence. The epitome of this relief is the final: a unexpected chord which amazingly is a tonic of B Major. Liszt had doubts about whether the Arelief@ should be forte or piano[8].

The sonata is divided in three sections but at the same time is a unique form. It has a splendorous exposition where the main theme is presented, followed by a development where the Scherzo appears, and finally a huge recapitulation and a coda, where an impressive fugue takes the relay. We neglect the subjective interpretations that has been formulated about the possible lyrics of the theme[9].

Notwithstanding, when trying to make a deeper analysis of the piece, even nowadays nobody agrees on a unique analysis. This gives us the best clue to conclude that this is an eclectic piece subject to many interpretations. This is the reason why we believe that the piece will endure alive, not only in the hoary shelves of musicologists but mainly in concert halls and recordings.


Selected Bibliography


Beckett, Walter. Liszt. London: J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1963.

Bongrain, Anne. program notes for Sonata en si meneur by Franz Liszt. Translated by John Underwood. Francois‑René Duchable. Erato ECD 88091, 1984. Compact disc.

Brown, David. ADeciphering Liszt@. The musical times 144, no.2 (Spring 2003): 6-9.

Busqué, Josep María. Hace 150 años: Franz Liszt en España. Spain. Database online. Not specific date related to this article. Available from

Hamilton, Kenneth. Liszt: Sonata in B minor. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Hugo, Howard E. The letters of Franz Liszt. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953.

Huneker, James. Variations. New York: Charles Scribner=s sons, 1921.

Liszt, F. ASonata in B minor@ in RCA-Victor Recordings of 1960-1964. Emil Gilels, piano. RCA-Victor 09026-61614-2, 1964, Compact disc.

        . Sonate in B minor. München: Urtext - G. Henle Verlag, 1975.

Nohl, Louis. Life of Liszt. Chicago: Jansen McClurg & Co., 1887.

Tanner, Mark. AThe Power of Performance as an Alternative Analytical Discourse: The Liszt Sonata in B Minor@. 19th Century Music 24, no. 2 (Fall 2000): 173-192.

[1] Hamilton, Kenneth, Liszt: Sonata in B Minor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 9.

[2] Nohl, Louis, Life of Liszt (Chicago: Jansen McClurg & Co., 1887), 192.

[3] Beckett, Walter, Liszt (London: J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1963), 5.

[4] Hamilton, 29.

[5] Hugo, Howard E., The letters of Franz Liszt (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953), 7.

[6] Nohl, 194.

[7] Anne Bongrain, program notes for Sonata en si meneur by Franz Liszt; trans. John Underwood, Francois-René Duchable, Erato ECD 88091, 1984, compact disc.

[8] Ernst Herttrich, preface to Sonata in B Minor, by Franz Liszt (München: G. Henle Verlag, 1975), ii.

[9] David Brown, ADeciphering Liszt,@ The musical times 144 (Spring 2003): 6.