CONTEMPLATION, a series dedicated to Liszt

Volume 1 / Volume 2 / Volume 3 / Volume 4

CONTEMPLATION, a series dedicated to Liszt, brings you heretofore little known repertoire of great historical significance, in both craft and meaning. Liszt was the great experimenter of the 19th century. His output reflects such a wide variety of writing devices and sentiments that, once unearthed, we cannot be without it. Many of the pieces that fit the harp express an assortment of reflective moods, hence the title. Despite Liszt’s reputation as a showman, the tone is all about “Innigkeit,” the romantic notion of “the fire smoldering within”, a heartfelt, deep and intimate expression.

Even though some of the works presented here will bear resemblance to the Liebesträume, the greater part stem from the composer’s later days, when his style became more sparse and allusive, leaving us to find meaning in between the notes and their echoes. The transcriptions stay faithfully close to Liszt’s piano text, modified only when execution on the harp would be impossible or when it is clear from the recorded history of his teaching or his own variants that a change would have met with his approval.


Since all the pieces in this first volume are openly of religious character, they have been compiled under the heading of Sacred Meditations. Stemming mainly from the second half of Liszt’s life, except for the early Psaume, they show Liszt’s lifelong preoccupation with the spiritual realm, the Franciscan side of his personality.

These short works can be light and airy, suspended in the treble, or they can reach down to earth for grounding. With their spare textures, which no longer showcase the instrument played on, they move more or less in static, contemplative ways, consumed as they are with subtle changes of emotions. Thus, they should not be considered lacking from the point of view of compositional technique: the formal starkness expresses a deliberate choice to unencumber the soul from earthly burdens.

The first piece, Liszt’s rather faithful 1862 transcription of Mozart’s Ave verum corpus, was published literally woven together with Allegri’s famous Miserere, under the title Evocation à la Chapelle Sixtine. A recollection of how Mozart wrote down by memory the “forbidden” tune, it is a stepping stone for Liszt’s further vision. In his own words “Man’s wretchedness and anguish moan plaintively in the Miserere; God’s infinite mercy and the fulfillment of prayer answer it and sing in Ave verum corpus.” Because the Miserere, with its low voicing, wouldn’t make due on the harp, and since Liszt provided a separate ending for Ave verum corpus, it is here presented by itself.

The Ave Maria, one of many to be found in Liszt’s output (three more in this anthology), did not appear in print during his lifetime. It dates from his last years (1881), when his musical ideas were sketched out with utmost simplicity, reduced to their bare essentials. In this version for piano (or harmonium), the music between the notes speaks as loudly as the notes themselves.

The French title Recueillement conveys the feeling of most inward contemplation for this piece of an improvisatory nature written in 1887. The crystalline harmonies again suggest spiritual elevation, while the ending leads toward the attainment of inner peace through tender resignation.

In festo transfigurationis Domini nostri Jesu Christi, in honor of the actual feast celebrated on August 6 in the church calendar, was composed in 1880 on that very day. Revised by Liszt in 1883, it was not published until 1927, in the Breitkopf complete edition. Shaped as a majestic andante, In festo rests upon a short bass melody imitating an organ pedal. The theme of transfiguration is expressed clearly in the upward movement of the arpeggio pattern…. Once it becomes ensconced in the higher regions, as chords continue to glide up chromatically, a resemblance with the Sanctus from Fauré’s Requiem comes to mind. The final rolled chords float as the pure expression of spiritual bliss.

Like In festo, Sancta Dorothea was first published in 1927, although it had been written in Rome in 1877. Deceptively simple, it starts with diaphanous textures that gradually descend into the earthly crucible, and then concludes back in the higher spheres.

Psaume (Psalm) was the concluding piece of Book One (Impressions et poésies) from Album d’un voyageur, published in 1842, the forerunner of Années de pèlerinage. It dates from the period of Liszt’s travels as a virtuoso pianist, more precisely his Swiss sojourn. It is an elaboration of the 16th century setting of Psalm 42 by Louis Bourgeois, quoted as follows below the title heading:

“As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O Lord. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God!”

Liszt had always harbored the desire to “reform” the music of the Catholic Church, which had sunk to deplorable levels in his time. In the late 1870’s, he planned to create a collection of piano arrangements of sacred songs for his friend Cardinal Gustav Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst. Two out of eleven sacred songs gathered under the title Chorales conclude this harp collection.

The Chorale O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden (O Sacred Head Now Wounded) is based on a composition by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612). Well known in J. S. Bach’s version, it was originally a secular tune. The music of Was Gott tut das ist wohlgetan (What God does is Well-done) is attributed to Severus Gastorius (c. 1650-c. 1693) and the words were written by Samuel Rodigast (1649-1708).


Liszt started writing the Weihnachtsbaum cycle while staying at the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, near Rome, in 1874. Even though he had hoped to publish it by the following Christmas, the earliest version was not completed until January 19, 1876, according to the autograph manuscript. He immediately followed up with a version for piano four hands and later arranged O heilige Nacht! for tenor solo, choir and organ.

Included here are the four pieces (out of twelve) in this series that transfer without too much difficulty to the harp. The first three (which are also no. 1, 2 and 3 in the complete set) are arrangements of Christmas hymns. The archaic Psallite is a piano arrangement of a German Christmas chorale by Michael Praetorius called Psallite Unigenito (Sing praises to the Only-begotten, in German “Singt und klingt”) and published in Musae Sioniae (The Muses of Sion) in 1609. Liszt prints only the following verse in German over the music:

Ein kleines Kindelein liegt in dem Krippelein,
Alle liebe Engelein dienen dem Kindelein.

To be roughly translated as:

A little babe lies in the tiny crib,
All the dear little angels serve the Child.

The second selection O Holy Night could not be traced back in detail like the first. Liszt provides the German words:

O heilige Nacht, voll himmlischer Pracht!
In Lüften sich schwingen die Engel und singen.


Geboren ist Gott! Der Hölle zum Spott!
In Lüften sich schwingen die Engel und singen.


O holy night, filled with heavenly splendor!
Swinging in the air the angels are singing.


The Lord is born! Deriding Hell!
Swinging in the air the angels are singing.


Interesting in Liszt’s treatment of this hymn is the emphasis on “word-painting”, the angels being portrayed with fluttery wings over a happy tune (in major) alternating between quarter notes and eighth notes, whereas hell is characterized by a menacing minor interval (from f to d flat). With all its held notes, this piece would lend itself beautifully to bell choir accompaniment.

Die Hirten an der Krippe (In dulci jubilo), with sweet jubilation, continues the angel theme of the first two pieces, this time breaking out into a joyous, dance-like tune. According to tradition, it was taught to the German mystic Heinrich Seuse (Suso) during one of his repeated visionary experiences. This carol is possibly the oldest of the German macaronic (Latin/German) hymns, found in a manuscript at the University of Leipzig dating back to 1400. Liszt’s harmonization seems to be based on Praetorius rather than J. S. Bach. Choral settings and organ versions of this hymn abound in the baroque literature. In 1871 John Stainer adapted it to the English words ”Good Christian men, rejoice” by J. M. Neale.

On the other hand, the last piece Abendglocken (Evening Bells) no. 9 in Liszt’s original piano version is an entirely new creation, an impressionistic landscape of ringing bells, a study in hushed sonorities. The bells have in common with the harp a long decay, leaving in their wake a vibrant, haunting resonance….

Liszt was very sensitive to the sound of bells and composed several other bell-songs that, because of their congruent writing, are included elsewhere in this anthology (La cloche sonne, Les cloches de Genève, Angelus….). Both dreamy and striking, this work is a most felicitous addition to the harp repertoire, in any season.


This collection presents a selection of lyrical pieces from Liszt’s mature years, some original works, others transcriptions or new elaborations of older works. Although technically less demanding, they require utmost musicianship and finesse.

La cloche sonne is an arrangement of an old French song, dating from 1850. The simplest of Liszt’s “bell songs,” it imitates the sound of bells both in the accompaniment (the open fifth sonority in the right hand) and in the triadic melody, enhanced here by harmonics.

Frühling, Wiosna in Polish, was composed by Chopin in 1838 and became the second of the posthumous Polish Songs op. 74 published in 1874. Meanwhile, Liszt had transcribed six of these for solo piano in 1860, this one being no. 2, and dedicated them to Princess Marie zu Hohenlohe, the daughter of the Polish princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein. Liszt stays very close to Chopin’s original. A haunting melody in barcarole style is reiterated with ever changing textures. Instead of joy, the natural beauty of a lovely valley in springtime evokes the death of the beloved.

Schubert composed the lied Meeresstille (D 216) in 1815 and published it in 1821 as the second of four Goethe settings, op. 3. Liszt’s transcription for piano was published in 1838 as part of a first set of twelve Schubert Lieder by Diabelli in Vienna. These transcriptions proved highly successful for Liszt and his publishers; after a period of neglect they are enjoying a renewed popularity among present day pianists. They are now considered masterworks of the genre because Liszt not only transcribed them with great faithfulness to the composer, but also turned them into ravishing virtuosic creations using to full advantage all the new tonal resources of the piano. In the margins of the first edition, Liszt claimed that “the word transcription was used by me first — similarly Reminiscences, Paraphrase, Illustrations, Partition de Piano.”

In 1880, when the publisher A. Simon from Hanover asked for permission to publish Romance in E minor, Liszt instead sent him an entirely new viola and piano version, followed by a piano solo, violin and piano and cello and piano version, all entitled Romance oubliée. Curiously the 1848 Romance (published elsewhere in this collection) is itself an arrangement of a Liszt song composed in 1843 in Moscow to the poem O pourquoi donc by the Russian poetess Karolina Pavlova and published by C. Grotrian in 1842 under the title Les pleurs des femmes (The Women’s Cries). The present transcription for harp is based on the 1880 edition, with some small changes made under the influence of a shorter version published by Joseph Banowetz in 1980 (from an autograph found in the Library of Congress).

The Vier (kleine) Klavierstücke were published for the first time in the 1928 Breitkopf & Härtel complete edition, and the fifth piece of the set, Sospiri, which is not included here, was finally published in 1969! These “piano pieces” were written for Olga von Meyendorff (1838-1926), the wife of the Russian ambassador to the Weimar Court: no. 1 and no. 2 in 1865, no. 3 in 1873 and no. 4 in 1879. The baroness explicitly forbade their copying and publicizing.
The first, a simplified reworking of the second Liebestraum, and the second piece are wonderful studies in shifting poetic moods. The third and fourth pieces, both transposed from F # major to F major, are reduced to bare musical essentials, allowing the player to focus on the subtlety of expression.

Berceuse was composed for the Elisabeth-Fest-Album published by Haslinger in Vienna, in honor of the 1854 marriage of the Austrian empress Elisabeth, who would become the queen of Hungary in 1867. It shares the key of D b with Chopin’s famous Berceuse, op. 57 and is pervaded by a quietly passionate and tender sentiment. In 1863 Liszt revisited the piece, superimposing elaborate embellishments upon this first version. That later version will be offered as a violin (or flute) and harp arrangement in this anthology.


The music Liszt wrote in the twilight of his life was very different from the glittery virtuoso compositions of his youth and from the works of his maturity, when he had become the de facto leader of the New German School. This is the music of the Liszt who confided in Princess Carolyne that his only remaining ambition as a musician was to “hurl my lance into the boundless realms of the future.”

Deeply aware of his delicate position as a misunderstood prophet and pioneer, he discouraged his students from performing his works in public as he feared for their careers and did not seek to publish his very last works, the ones that expressed his most personal inner landscapes. “I can wait,” he used to say. Thus, unbeknownst to the world, except for a close circle of students and friends, Liszt’s visionary lance landed straight into the 20th century, anticipating the innovations of Scriabin, Bartok, Debussy and Schoenberg. . .

Wiegenlied dates from May 1880 and was dedicated to Arthur Friedheim (1859 – 1932), a Russian pupil of Liszt who also served as his private secretary and confidante. He described his experience and the composer’s “theory of the harmony of the future” in the very moving memoir Life and Liszt.

Liszt reused the same musical material in the work Die Wiege (The Cradle) for four violins and in the first movement of his thirteenth and last symphonic poem, Von der Wiege bis zum Grab (From the Cradle to the Grave), which completes his thought. This work consists of three sections:

I. Die Wiege

II. Der Kampf um’s Dasein (The Struggle for Existence)

III. Zum Grabe: Die Wiege des zukünftigen Lebens (The Grave: The Cradle for the Future Life)

Wiegenlied floats on air, with the innocence of unspoken for beginnings. Pianist Amaral Vieira calls it “a piece of dreamlike calm, unfolding through unexpected and ingenious modulations.”

En rêve, a dreamy nocturne, is one of Liszt’s last works. It was composed in Rome about the end of 1885 and dedicated to August Stradal (1860 – 1930), a Bohemian pianist and composer who was a Liszt pupil from 1884. According to Göllerich, Stradal played it at a December 17 Master Class and had it published by E. Wetzler in Vienna in 1888.

At the beginning of 1885, Liszt’s eyesight had failed so much that he needed to rely more and more on his students to read and to respond to his voluminous correspondence. They would read to Liszt from his favorite newspapers as well as from religious and philosophical works, such as Schopenhauer’s Parerga und Paralipomena. En rêve stems from this period when everything in Liszt’s mind, whether in writing or interpretation, in substance or form, was reduced to its simplest, unadorned denominator.

Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort (Sleepless! Question and Answer) was composed in March 1883 yet not published until 1927. It is based on an original poem by Toni (Antonia) Raab, a former pupil of Liszt first active in Vienna and later in Retz (in Lower Austria).

Liszt biographer Alan Walker wrote that “the music of Liszt’s old age is marked by an unusual economy of means (…) The composition called Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort expires with a melodic line that ends on the dominant degree of C-sharp minor. For the faint-hearted, Liszt provided an ossia ending that is harmonized—proof that he knew that some of his contemporaries might find his first conclusion unacceptable.” However, the editor used the ossia of the first section, but not the aforementioned one, because it falls better into the harpist’s hands and it shortens a difficult repeated pattern to some extent.

Ultimately, the mirror-relationship between the Question in E minor and the Answer in E major takes us imperceptibly from striving to redemption. With Liszt, transcendence always wins the day.

© 2012 Dominique Piana