Not quite forgotten: Liszt’s Valses oubliées

The composer centennials & bicentennials may be artificial stimuli to research, but the effect is real. Knowing that everyone is suddenly focusing upon a particular period seems to inspire all sorts of interesting studies, conferences where people share their research and even get some ideas. It can perhaps be the difference between something languishing in obscurity or finally getting enough attention to be published.

I stumbled on something in the library.

One day while driving home, I’d happened to hear a performance of the first “Valse oubliée” of Franz Liszt on the radio in the car: my usual place to hear music.
So I went to the library to get the music, which is one of the few Liszt pieces I play that I don’t own.

(although it turns out that I did…
Funny that I had forgotten…
hmmm literally a forgotten waltz).

When I think back, I realize that it’s one of several pieces I first encountered in Vladimir Horowitz’s “Homage to Liszt” album of live performances, an album dating from the early 1960s that someone brought into the house, forever ruining me.

homage_cover

There may be better performances out there but each of these has burrowed a deep hole in my psyche, as I realize now that I have attempted to play each piece on the album:

  • Funérailles (and later the rest of the Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses)
  • Au bord d’une source (and later, the rest of the 1st year of the Années de Pelerinage)
  • that Valse oubliée (#1)
  • the Rakóczy March (identified that way because Horowitz was paraphrasing rather than sticking to the Hungarian Rhapsody)
  • Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6
  • Sonetto del Petrarca No. 104 (and later, the rest of the 2nd year of the Années de Pelerinage: and the 3rd year as well, which was a disappointment compared to the first two years)
  • Hungarian Rhapsody No2 (again with some free-form additions from Horowitz that I could never duplicate and had the good sense not to even attempt)

Most of the time I think of myself as a Canadian but there are times when I feel connected to the country where my family came from. Reading the poems of George Faludy, listening to Bartók or Kodaly, my heart swells with Hungarian national pride. And especially when I play Liszt, when I am hearing Horowitz playing Liszt: then I identify with the composer & virtuoso.

In each case I ruefully admit decades later that I was as totally under Horowitz’s influence as if he had been whispering instructions into my ear.

Flash forward to my recent trip to the library in 2019, finding a new edition of the four Valses oubliées, plural. While I had always known there were others besides that first one, I had never listened to the others, never encountered them, never seen the music. The new edition had a Preface dated 2010, the inscription for the new acquisition by the library was dated from the summer of 2011. Was this a project inspired at least partly by the Liszt bicentennial, I wondered?

Liszt was born Oct 22nd 1811
(a cool number when you think about it: 22-10-11),
on the cusp of Scorpio I suppose.

I had known even in childhood listening to Horowitz playing the #1 that this must be the first in a series if it was numbered.

4 valses oubliees cover

But this edition edited by Peter Jost takes me far deeper into the process of Liszt’s compositions, partly because I’m looking at the entire group of four forgotten waltzes, partly in response to an inspiring preface by Mária Eckhardt.

Eckhardt is co-president of the Liszt Society & a great authority on Liszt.

Pardon me if I stop for a moment to muse about those titles. Valses oubliées, or forgotten waltzes..? If we were hearing old tunes that had been forgotten, that might be odd enough. But when you listen to these pieces, Liszt is doing something else, resembling a stream of consciousness. The tunes are fragmentary, almost as though we’re seeing the process of remembering and forgetting writ large in the scores. We seem to capture the bits of a melody but can’t fully remember.

Look at that first one. I’m fond of Horowitz so why not play one of his wonderful performances, pushing the virtuosic envelope of the piece. It can be played slower (for instance, the way I play it…). We’re in a realm that’s asking questions, making some rhetorical gestures that don’t always lead to the usual slam-bang finish: as this is the late Liszt. He is a different man with a different understanding of his instrument, of virtuosity, of life itself.

Perhaps I should mention his life-changing accident, a fall leaving him wounded, unable to walk as easily, confronted with mortality once again after living to see two children die before him. The piano perhaps had now become something new, no longer a vehicle for effortless expression, but a mirror to mortality, disability. Did he experience pain while playing, I wonder?  But that doesn’t mean he wrote music that was easier to play.

And that’s just the first one.

Eckhardt’s Preface is illuminating. We read about his Romance oubliée published in 1881 in different versions, a work employing a melody Liszt had written decades before.

Liszt’s work on the Romance oubliée apparently provoked a strong emotional reaction within the nearly 70-year-old composer, for shortly thereafter, in the summer of 1881, he composed a valse oubliée. The piece was written after he had suffered a fall on the staircase of his Weimar residence on 2 July and was obliged to keep in his bed to eight weeks. During this time he had ample opportunity to reflect upon his life and works.…
“Oublié” (forgotten) became a kind of emblematic concept for the composer: it stood for remembrance and at the same time, for certain musical forms and genres that time had passed over…
While not disclaiming virtuosity or elegance, Liszt permeates the piece with nostalgia and irony, and alludes to the historical position of such pieces by embedding typical melodic and rhythmic formulae of the salon waltzes into an innovative, non-tonal framework that is characteristic of his late style. However, the romantic title page of the first edition, which is adorned with colouful flower, a sleeping genius,, musical instruments and a ribbon inscribed “Souvenir,” does little to convey this aspect of the music.

Eckhardt is being scholarly in confining her commentary to that which is certain. I like to speculate even if I don’t really  know.

Only the first has been performed so regularly as to become a familiar work. I don’t believe it’s because the other three are inferior. Perhaps they’re so quirky as to make themselves automatically obscure, the province of nerds & scholars.

I wonder though if we’ve really penetrated yet, as to how one properly plays these pieces. There’s room for whimsy & playfulness possibly something else that I haven’t imagined.

Here’s #2

I sense that the most important part of each of these compositions is in the final minute or two, the reflective passages that are still and soft, retrospective. Liszt contemplates life and virtuosity from a place where his body isn’t working quite so well, both as an older man and perhaps as one at least temporarily disabled by injury. Those bits of melody suggest a process of one grasping for fragments, reminding me of my poignant family encounters with dementia. Whether it’s the mind or the fingers or the body imposing limiting factors, the fragility of these creations grabs me, even if so far they haven’t become popular.

And here’s #3

The waltzes are quirky, at times reminding me of something you’d hear from a circus calliope, at other times as delicate as a memory in the mind’s eye. It’s not a big jump from here to the waltzes in Der Rosenkavalier, ranging from one key to another without worrying terribly about beginning middle & end. Maybe I’m asking too much, but I wish that an interpreter could make more of these madhouse variations (another phrase stuck in my head, as I recall a show from years ago).

And here’s #4, the shortest of the set.

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Psychology and perception and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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