Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886)
Franz Liszt was arguably the greatest 19th century keyboard virtuoso who significantly extended the boundaries of piano technique in a vast output of epic proportions. His legendary piano playing earned him fame far beyond his native Hungary and won for him the adoration of many aristocratic women, two of whom became important companions. Liszt’s celebrity lifestyle, divided between that of a travelling virtuoso and a composer seemed at odds with both his unfulfilled marital yearnings and his lifelong spiritual leanings. In 1861 he settled in Rome in semi-retirement and, as he withdrew from the outside world, his compositions began to reveal an increasingly religious preoccupation.
It is to this latter period that his Rhapsodie Espagnole belongs; written in 1863, the same year that he entered Rome’s monastery of the Madonna del Rosario and two years before he took up minor religious orders. Far from there being any religious impulse to this work, Rhapsodie Espagnole can rather be likened to a musical portrait of Spain and Portugal where, over twenty years earlier, he had begun a six-month tour performing in Lisbon, Madrid and Seville. Two traditional melodies that Liszt would have heard in the Iberian peninsula are central to this demanding piano work and both are named in the work’s subtitle: “Folies d’Espagne et Jota Aragonesa”. These melodies provide the basis for a virtuoso work built on the variation principle, their thematic transformation a world away from their Renaissance sources.
After a grand opening flourish a first group of variations begins, in the manner of a passacaglia, on “La Folia” – a courtly dance with an accent on the second beat – each variation being surpassed by the next in imagination and resourcefulness. The final variation, identified by rapidly ascending scale figures, merges into the sparkling “Jota Aragonesa”, sidestepping from C sharp minor to D major. This faster idea appears initially over a drone accompaniment (evoking castanets and swirling skirts) and can be heard mostly in the piano’s upper register. After a pause, what appears to be a third theme, with its halting rhythm, is actually the beginning of another group of variations on “La Folia”, now exploring far-reaching harmonic territory and concluding with a grand reprise of the “Jota”, its homicidal octaves played Molto vivace. A brief cadenza, in chromatic thirds, heralds a concluding section where Liszt alternates both themes culminating in a final and triumphant re-appearance of “La Folia”.