Celebrating 200 years of Wagner via Liszt!

This week has been full of Wagner (1813-1883) celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth (on May 22nd). So I felt compelled to share in the celebratory spirit especially for a composer of such gargantuan importance. Love him or hate him, Wagner made his beliefs heard, whether they be musical or political. His music is decadent to say the least and full of grand romantic gestures, declarations, and huge orchestral forces.  It is impressive even if it’s not your cup of tea.

I’ve always admired Wagner. Apart from the fact that we share the same astrological birth sign (Gemini) and are both Roosters (in the Chinese Zodiac!), there are times when I just love his music; it’s marvellous and occasionally, it’s sublime, but then there are other times when it’s all just too much (well for me anyway).  He was incredibly bold, daring and forward thinking; the ultimate philosopher. There are those who visit Bayreuth (the opera house he built especially for the performances of his works) year after year to hear The Ring in its appropriate surroundings (you can hear the whole cycle at the BBC Proms this year incidentally). He most certainly has hoards of fans around the world.

One way to become acquainted with his music is to ‘hear’ it through the eyes and ears of another composer; namely Hungarian composer and piano virtuoso, Franz Liszt (1811-1886). The relationship between Liszt and Wagner was often a strained one to say the least (Liszt’s daughter Cosima became Wagner’s second wife) but the Hungarian did approve of Wagner’s music and was an important benefactor in the German composer’s career.

If you’re like me and love anything to do with the piano (and prefer music on a slightly smaller scale than the original), then you will enjoy listening to (or playing) Liszt’s transcriptions of Wagner’s operas. Transcriptions are essentially arrangements of works generally for a medium other than the original. Liszt was the master of this genre. He copious transcriptions based on many different genres; operatic, orchestral, songs and versions of piano works too. He frequently included them in his concert programmes as a touring concert pianist, and since many are fiendishly difficult, they were the perfect vehicle for displaying his formidable technique.

Liszt wrote 15 transcriptions of Wagner’s works dating from 1848 to 1882. They are varied in character and technical demands, and employ themes from the following operas; Rienzi, The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and Parsifal. Liszt’s often orchestral style of piano writing, frequently resplendent with sweeping chords, double octave passagework and glittering cadenzas, is superbly suited to the transcription. It is particularly akin to the massive sounds which permeate Wagner’s operas. Liszt picks his favourite operatic themes and usually creates either a ‘Paraphrase’ or Fantasy on these tunes whilst utilizing a highly sophisticated mix of pianistic pyrotechnics.

All the Wagner-Liszt transcriptions are interesting and a great introduction to the German composer’s style. They are, however, incomparable to the real opera experience but therein lies their beauty; you don’t need to go to the opera (which can sometimes last 5 hours in Wagner’s case) to enjoy his work. It’s Wagner in small quantities. If you are starting out on the Wagner transcription experience, my suggestions are to listen to the Festival and Bridal Song from Lohengrin, Overture to Tannhäuser and the divine Isolde’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. The latter provides a wonderful introduction to Wagner’s sumptuous harmonies and almost ecclesiastical qualities. Have a listen to one of my favourite readings of this work (I’m always moved to tears when I hear this!) played by the ultimate piano virtuoso, Vladimir Horowitz……….Happy Birthday Wagner!

You can purchase my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?, which is packed with practice tips and useful information, here.

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