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The Transcendental Etudes

Updated on June 23, 2016

Franz Liszt

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Études d'Exécution Transcendante

Études d'Exécution Transcendante

The transcendental etudes began as a set of etudes published by the virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt in 1827 at the age of approximately sixteen years old. The original title of the etudes was: Etude pour le piano en quarante-huit exercises dans tous les tons majeurs et mineurs op. 6. It was intended to be the first of four volumes of etudes and published by Boisselot in Marseilles. Liszt indicated they were composed in his thirteenth year (1824); this is probably when he began working on them. (1) It is agreed on by most Liszt research, this would be the most accurate time the etudes were composed as Liszt and his father stayed in Marseilles for a short time after a concert tour of southern France.

The second set of etudes entitled Grandes Etudes were written about ten years later in 1837. The Grandes Etudes were reworked from the original set and carried the same tonal scheme of a cycle of fifths and the corresponding relative minor. The first etude in C major the second in a minor, the third in F major the fourth in d minor and so on. The second set of etudes have huge technical challenges for even the most advanced pianist and have rarely been performed or recorded other than Franz Liszt himself during his concert tours. They have only been recorded by three pianists.

The final set of etudes was dedicated to Carl Czerny. This is very significant as this was the young Liszt’s first teacher after his father who really helped him develop his technique. Czerny was a student of Beethoven. This lineage and knowledge from the great Bonn master were passed down to Liszt through Czerny. Liszt was very proud of the lineage he shared with these great masters of the keyboard. It is because of this history Liszt shared with these pianists and composers that he dedicated his final edition of the Transcendental Etudes to his first piano teacher Carl Czerny. The knowledge and understanding Liszt had of Beethoven’s music and his development of motives in his use of forms played a very important role in Liszt’s development as a composer. Beethoven, in his middle period and especially in his later period broke new ground in his development of thematic material as well as breaking out of the mold and forms of the classical period. In his later works he took the development of thematic material to the highest level it could go while keeping many of the traditional classical forms. Beethoven’s development of motives his development of themes with variations had been taken to the highest level as seen in his Diabelli Variations.

Liszt felt it was his duty as an artist to continue the work of Beethoven and take the development of thematic material to an even higher level and not have the restrictions of the classical forms. He was able to take on this challenge because he did have a complete understanding of Beethoven’s music. Liszt often performed Beethoven’s HammerKlavier sonata, Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major, Op. 106 during his many concert tours in an effort to popularize this piece to an audience who was not capable of understanding what a masterpiece this work was. It is also extremely demanding technically and not many pianists were capable of performing the Hammerklavier.

Liszt felt he had been blessed and consecrated by Beethoven to be an artist due to a famous incident, which occurred while he was still a twelve-year-old youth. His teacher Carl Czerny took him to meet Beethoven where he played for him. Although the great master was already deaf at the time he was still able to bear witness to the incredible talent of the young Liszt. The so-called Weihekuss or kiss of consecration from Beethoven, Liszt said later in life was the proudest moment of his life.

In 1848, after ten years of touring Europe giving concerts Liszt decided to retire from the concert stage as a pianist and took the position of Kapellmeister in Extraordinary in Weimar. Liszt worked in this position from 1848 to 1861. During this time Liszt wanted to focus more on his composing. It was during this time many of his great works were composed including the b minor Sonata and Totentanz piano concerto to name a few. The reworking of the Grandes Etudes for the piano was one of his projects during this period. He also composed orchestral works such as the Faust and Dante symphonies.

Musically there were many changes with the pianist/composer. While he was always known for his incredible virtuoso technique, he wanted to advance musically. He also wanted music to advance as well as artistry as a whole, with the greatest reverence to the music of the past which he learned from Carl Czerny who himself had been taught by Beethoven he forged ahead taking music and especially the art of piano performance to exalted heights. Czerny was one of the first to edit and published the Wholtempiertes Klavier by JS Bach. This edition is still widely used by piano students and teachers worldwide to this day. Liszt was now prepared to develop the music of the future. Virtuosity of itself was never of primary importance to Liszt, he felt it was a tool to enhance and be fully able to express the music. The music, the interpretation of the music, the expressiveness and having an understanding of the music was what was of the greatest importance to Liszt as it had always been to Beethoven as well. With these concepts now he wished to revise his Grandes Etudes. One of the major differences between the etudes of Liszt’s teacher Czerny and the last reworked transcendentals is that Liszt wanted these new etudes to be programmatic music not just exercises of dexterity. Working on the musical aspects of these etudes making them beautiful and artistic through all the technical challenges was one of the major distinctions in the new style of music in the romantic period. This method was revolutionized with Chopin in 1829-1833 when he composed and published his first etudes. Chopin dedicated his first set of etudes op. 10 to his friend and fellow pianist Franz Liszt.

In the transcendentals there were passages that needed to be thinned out to be made more playable. In some passages the melody needed to sing or stand out so octaves were added to these. Other passages needed to emphasize more expressiveness and the textures had to be reworked. In some etudes there were passages and even whole pages, which were left out and reworked. In other etudes some chords were thickened in passages, which needed to feel more climactic. Some textures were thickened if it added a stronger dimension of programming to the piece. Last but not least program titles were added to all of the etudes but two, etude number two and etude number ten. The twelve Transcendental Etudes are as follows:

Etude No. 1 (Preludio)

C major

Etude No. 7 (Eroica)

E-flat major

Etude No. 2 (untitled - Molto vivace)

A minor

Etude No. 8 (Wilde Jagd)

C minor

Etude No. 3 (Paysage)

F major

Etude No. 9 (Ricordanza)

A-flat major

Etude No. 4) (Mazeppa)

D minor

Etude No. 10 (untitled - Allegro agitato molto)

F minor

Etude No. 5 (Feux Follets)

B-flat major

Etude No. 11 (Harmonies du Soir)

D-flat major

Etude No. 6 (Vision)

G minor

Etude No. 12 (Chasse-Neige)

B-flat minor

(1) Letters of Franz Liszt, coll and ed. La Mara, trans. Constance Bache. 2 volumes (London. 1894), vol.1 p. 231; Allen Walker, Franz Liszt: the Virtuoso years 1811-1847 (London, 1983), p. 118

A Young Franz Liszt

A Mature Franz Liszt

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Transcendental Etude No. 4 Mazeppa

Transcendental Etude No. 4 Mazeppa

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