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by Phillip Huscher
Franz Liszt
Born October 22, 1811, Raiding, Hungary.
Died July 31, 1886, Bayreuth, Germany.
Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major
Liszt composed this concerto in 1839 and revised it often, beginning in 1849. It was first performed on
January 7, 1857, in Weimar, by Hans von Bronsart, with the composer conducting. The first American
performance was given in Boston on October 5, 1870, by Anna Mehlig, with Theodore Thomas, who later
founded the Chicago Symphony, conducting his own orchestra. The orchestra consists of three flutes and
piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba,
timpani, cymbals, and strings. Performance time is approximately twenty-two minutes.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first subscription concert performances of Liszt’s Second Piano
Concerto were given at the Auditorium Theatre on March 1 and 2, 1901, with Leopold Godowsky as
soloist and Theodore Thomas conducting. Our most recent subscription concert performances were given
at Orchestra Hall on March 19, 20, and 21, 2009, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet as soloist and Jaap van
Zweden conducting. The Orchestra first performed this concerto at the Ravinia Festival on August 4,
1945, with Leon Fleisher as soloist and Leonard Bernstein conducting, and most recently on July 3, 1996,
with Misha Dichter as soloist and Hermann Michael conducting.
Liszt is music’s misunderstood genius. The greatest pianist of his time, he often has been caricatured as
a mad, intemperate virtuoso and as a shameless and tawdry showman. (Early in his career, he tried, with
uncanny success, to emulate both the theatrical extravagance and technical brilliance of the superstar
violinist Paganini.) But when Robert Schumann heard Liszt play, he was struck most of all by the young
musician’s “tenderness and boldness of emotion.” Clara Schumann, an important pianist herself, told her
husband, “When I heard Liszt for the first time in Vienna, I just couldn’t control myself, I sobbed freely with
emotion.” Although his popularity as a pianist was nearly unrivaled in the nineteenth century, his ultimate
importance to music history is as a serious, boldly original, and even revolutionary composer.
By the time he gave up his public career in 1847, a month before his thirty-sixth birthday, to devote time to
composition and conducting, Liszt had not only written dozens of solo display pieces to take on the road,
but he also had begun experimenting with large-scale works for piano and orchestra. His father Adam
remembered two piano concertos from the 1820s; they haven’t survived. There’s a Grande fantaisie
symphonique on themes by Berlioz and a fantasia on Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens, both dating from the
1830s. During that decade, Liszt also sketched the two familiar piano concertos and drafted a third he
ultimately set aside. (The autograph was discovered in 1988; Janina Fialkowska gave the world premiere,
with Kenneth Jean conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, on May 3, 1990.)
Liszt never met Franz Schubert, the composer whose influence on his concept of instrumental form was
the most profound, even though they lived near each other in Vienna for more than a year. Liszt admired
Schubert’s music throughout his life, and he made piano transcriptions of many of the great songs so that
he could play them in recital. Of all Schubert’s compositions, it was the Wanderer Fantasy, a large and
demanding work for piano solo, that he loved most, and it was practically the only one of Schubert’s piano
pieces that he played publicly. (In the early 1850s, after he had retired from the concert stage, Liszt
arranged Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy for piano and orchestra and also for two pianos.) Liszt was
attracted not only by the fantasy’s wild virtuosity (so unexpected from Schubert, normally the most selfeffacing of composers), but also by its extraordinary form—four movements linked in a continuous
structure and further unified by a single theme.
Liszt was decades ahead of his time in his appreciation of Schubert, and the music he ultimately wrote in
the spirit of the Wanderer Fantasy—bold experiments with questions of organization and formal
structure—are the works of a pioneer, not a mimic. Liszt’s masterpiece in this quest is his own single
greatest work for piano solo, the sonata in B minor. Both piano concertos are indebted to Schubert’s idea
of individual movements bound together as one, though it’s the first that more closely follows the path of
the Wanderer Fantasy. Both benefit from Liszt’s evolving concept of an entire full-length piece that works
like a single movement in sonata form, with material introduced, developed, and later recapitulated. And
both demonstrate Liszt’s extraordinary skill at thematic camouflage and transformation—the ability to
manufacture themes of remarkably diverse character from the same melody.
Liszt originally called his Second Piano Concerto a Concerto symphonique, after the works of the same
name by Henry Litolff, a pianist and composer who normally followed Liszt’s lead in artistic matters, just
as his name now follows Liszt’s in music dictionaries. Liszt was interested in Litolff’s concertos because
they explored unconventional designs for large pieces combining piano and orchestra. But Liszt ultimately
dispensed with the borrowed title, recognizing that, whatever its hybrid qualities, his score was more
concerto than symphony. (He and Litolff were long-time friends, and Liszt dedicated his First Piano
Concerto to him; today we frequently encounter Litolff’s name only through the publishing house he
acquired with his second marriage.)
The second concerto continues to explore the ideas of joining sections and thematic variation found in the
first, although it’s more subtle in its melodic sleight of hand and freer and more mysterious in its
progression of linked movements. It’s also less overtly virtuosic, as if Liszt had taken to heart Litolff’s idea
of solo and orchestra as two closely integrated entities. Where Liszt introduced the soloist in a dazzling
display of octaves and filigree in the first concerto, here the piano slips in with gentle arpeggios beneath
the quiet wind music that opens the work. (It’s remarkable how often in this concerto the piano appears to
accompany the orchestra.) Soon the piano asserts itself, and eventually there is even a cadenza, though
it’s short and to the point, which is to introduce a new section. Throughout this concerto, the pianist often
helps Liszt move from section to section—from the gentle nocturne to a dazzling scherzo and the martial
finale—without breaking the continuity.
The success of Liszt’s continuous form depends on his command of thematic metamorphosis. It’s a
technique learned not only from Schubert, but also from the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, where
the “Ode to Joy” becomes a Turkish march, with cymbals and drums, and from Berlioz’s Symphonie
fantastique, with its superb and classic idée fixe eventually converted into one of the most grotesque
melodies in music. Better than either of these composers, Liszt understood the full potential of the
concept—disguise so complete as to be unrecognizable—and the A major concerto is one of his most
masterful demonstrations. The lyrical opening melody, to take the most obvious example, arrives at the
finale dressed for a great march—a makeover that’s hardly undetectable, but complete nonetheless, with
its pace, character, time signature, key, and dynamics all dramatically altered. Although this brilliant and
noisy march often has been criticized as a vulgar betrayal of Liszt’s original theme, it succeeds admirably,
both as a rousing finale and as a demonstration of the art of camouflage.
Phillip Huscher is the program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
© Chicago Symphony Orchestra. All rights reserved. Program notes may be reproduced only in their
entirety and with express written permission from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
These notes appear in galley files and may contain typographical or other errors. Programs subject to
change without notice.