Liszt’s Winterreise

After experiencing the 24 man deconstructed Winterreise from Tongue in Cheek Productions, I’ve had all that Schubert rattling around in my head the past couple of days. Given that I had to return a couple of books anyway, to the Edward Johnson Building’s library at University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music (an amazing collection) –because they were due and I had used up all my renewals—I thought to find Franz Liszt’s version, a mere dozen songs transcribed for piano rather than the full 2 dozen.

This one is a Dover edition from the 1990s, with big easy-to-read notes, in a clear impression.


They included original title pages for each song to add to the sense of authenticity.


I played through the cycle, gently, as it was the evening. I kept it absolutely as quiet as possible even on the pages with fff dynamics. I can come back to them later, play them full volume next time. I was trying to honour what I had in my head from the cycle a couple of nights ago.

As I played I tried to imagine what it must have been like when it appeared. In 1828 Franz Schubert died at the age of 31. His cycle Winterreise was published the same year.
And so as I mull it over, please excuse me if this seems somewhat literal-minded, plodding through the score and the history. While they lived a long time ago, for Liszt who was born in 1811, Schubert was a near contemporary. Think of someone who is 14 years older than you. Is that a huge gap? But given Liszt’s longevity (so different to Schubert) we think of him as an early modernist composer (in his maturity) and a romantic virtuoso spoken of in the same breath with Chopin, Mendelssohn & Schumann, as if they were of totally different periods. In 1828 when Schubert died, Liszt was 17 years old. From 1839-40 Liszt transcribed the cycle for the piano, in other words, when he was close to the same age as Schubert at the time the originals were composed. Schubert composed in 1827-28, when he was 30-31. Liszt would turn 30 in 1841.

Now to picture the experience, we need to forget everything we’ve discovered from recordings. In the 1840s there was no such thing, no CDs no youtube no victrolas no wax cylinders. Liszt would help popularize music with his transcriptions. And of course it worked for him too, not just because it gave him something to play but because he could wrap himself up in the prestige of the composers he transcribed.

Beethoven: nine symphonies that are ubiquitous now, but at that time? Mostly unknown, although aha that’s where Liszt came in.

Berlioz: his Symphonie Fantastique that will be presented next week by the Toronto Symphony? Likely would have lain unknown at least for awhile without Liszt’s help.

Schubert: many songs were turned into piano compositions, popularizing the melodies.

I couldn’t help wondering about Liszt’s taste, his choices in the transcriptions of the Winterreise songs. In places the reproduction is accurate & under-stated. But in other places there are lots of extra notes, as though Liszt were in a czukrazda (a Magyar sweet shoppe), insisting it be served mit Schlag, in effect burying the song as though it were a cake under a small mountain of extra whipped cream. Did he feel that the bare melody couldn’t work without the extra embellishments? But he likely had never seen the cycle enacted, had no experience such as we have of a Prey or a Schreier or a Fischer-Dieskau.

If you don’t trust the simple goodness you overdo it with the extra decoration.

This might explain why some people roll their eyes at me when I speak adoringly of Liszt. But the man was bringing something unknown to the world, a popularizer who thought he knew best.

Hindsight is 20-20 of course.

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays, Popular music & culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Liszt’s Winterreise

  1. I can only imagine your playing was just beautiful.. My son-in-law plays classical piano, as a hobby only… He spends hours memorising and practising pieces… He also plays a mean violin and guitar.. 🙂
    Wishing you well in all you do my friend..
    Good to see you in the reader today..
    I have been absent from the reader too long..
    Take care
    Sue 🙂

    • barczablog says:

      You are always so positive Sue, thank you for the kind supportive words. Music is a blessing, especially when it’s live. I’ll think of you when I next sit down to the (piano) keyboard (as opposed to this one at my laptop). Have a wonderful Saturday.

      • Now that is a wonderful thought and one which brought a huge smile to my lips my friend and I feel honoured of such a thought when you play your piano’s musical keys… Thank YOU!

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