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Piano Concerto No. 1

About the Work

Franz Liszt
Quick Look Composer: Franz Liszt
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Sir Mark Elder, conductor / Stephen Hough, piano, plays Liszt Jan. 16 - 18, 2014
© Peter Laki

Until his 35th birthday, Franz Liszt pursued an active concert career as a virtuoso pianist, visiting every corner of Europe.  Universally acclaimed as the greatest pianist of his time, he now aspired to be recognized as a composer, too.  He had been writing music all his life (mainly piano music), but now he longed to concentrate on composition, tackle the great orchestral forms and realize the novel ideas that had occupied him for some time.  His appointment as music director at the court of Weimar marked the end of extensive travelling and allowed him to spend more time composing.  During the ten years of his tenure in Weimar, Liszt wrote his 12 great symphonic poems, his two symphonies (Faust and Dante), his B-minor Sonata for piano, and completed his two piano concertos and his Totentanz for piano and orchestra, which he had begun years earlier. 

One of the main ideas Liszt brought to fruition during his Weimar period can be described as the "transformation technique."  This technique, essentially a kind of extended variation, involves a basic theme recurring throughout a work and undergoing fundamental changes in character, tempo, rhythm, etc. 

In his symphonic poems, Liszt put the transformation technique in the service of literary programs.  In his two piano concertos and in the sonata, he used it to achieve greater structural coherence and a unity of musical form in which everything grew organically out of a few basic cells.

Liszt worked on his E-flat major concerto throughout the 1840s and early ?50s, and first performed it in 1855.  The work is in a single movement, but the outlines of a four-movement form (allegro-slow movement-scherzo-finale) are clearly discernible.  The opening Allegro maestoso starts with a theme emphasizing half-steps, played by the orchestra before the piano bursts in with a virtuoso cadenza.  The opening theme then returns to dominate much of the Allegro.

The slow section (Quasi Adagio) has a lyrical melody in an operatic style.  The scherzo, with its constant triangle strokes, is followed by a recapitulation of material from the opening movement.  In the finale, some of the Adagio's themes are brought to new life as the lyrical song is turned into a triumphant march and another cantabile (singing) theme heard earlier becomes a playful and virtuosic etude.  The music of the scherzo, too, reappears in the final Presto in which we hear again the chromatic theme with which the concerto began.  The work concludes with a cascade of octaves going up and down the entire keyboard in half-steps, in keeping with the concerto's initial musical idea.