'Teufelsonate': Mephistopheles in Liszt's Piano Sonata in B Minor

By Merrick, Paul | Musical Times, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

'Teufelsonate': Mephistopheles in Liszt's Piano Sonata in B Minor


Merrick, Paul, Musical Times


Does liszt's piano sonata have a programme? Debate still surrounds a question which has never been settled. My own opinion, given in my book Revolution and religion in the music of Lisp (Cambridge University Press, 1987; paperback reissue, 2008), is that it does. In chapter 14 of the book, together with the preceding chapter on Liszt's programmatic use of fugue, I try to show the logic of the programme being religious in character. This has been dismissed in some quarters, for example by Alan Walker, who says in his biography of Liszt with regard to the Sonata: 'Not the least fascinating thing about the piece is the number of divergent theories it has produced from those of its admirers who feel constrained to search for hidden meanings.' He then lists five 'programmatic* interpretations of the work, of which mine - inaccurately summarised - is the fourth. He continues:

Needless to say, Liszt himself did not sanction any of these. Apart from some scattered references in his correspondence and conversations with friends, he was generally silent about the work and offered no words of any kind on the question of its programme - or lack of it. He was content simply to describe his masterpiece by the generic term 'sonata' - an inscrutable title that seems to close the door on further discussion. '

Kenneth Hamilton says: 'Merrick constructs an amusing fantasy from which we learn, among other things, that "the 'slow movement' can represent only one thing: the redemption of Man after the Fall".'2

This may be Hamilton's opinion of my suggested programme, but the redemption of Man after the Fall is neither amusing nor a fantasy. The date Liszt wrote on the manuscript of his Sonata is 2 February 1853. In English this is called Candlemas. Other names are the Presentation of the Lord and the Purification of the Virgin - 40 days after Christmas. The child Jesus is taken to the Temple, and recognised by two old people, Anna and Simeon, as the redeemer of Israel. The Sonata was composed at the time when Liszt was reported by a visitor to the Altenburg in 18 51 to have returned strongly to the Catholicism of his youth after the upheavals of the 1848 revolutions in Europe: 'Liszt joins in. He undertakes the apology for strict canonical Catholicism, which forbids any individual opinion or conviction [...] he has decided to se rejeter fortement dans le système catholique' J>

1853 was the year Liszt began the idea of composing an oratorio on the life of Christ, a project that took until 1868, when he finished Christus in Rome. The Piano Sonata is a summation of his entire musical life to date, on the instrument that gave him his historic career as a travelling pianist throughout Europe in the decade 1838-48. It was characteristic of Liszt to conceive of great works - of large-scale works - as programmatic. It was entirely uncharacteristic to produce something that lasts half-an-hour without having a programmatic idea. Liszt would say why write it if it is just notes, if it has no 'story'? Much has been made of the unusual form of the work, but Liszt himself wrote to a fellow musician: 'Certainly you very rightly observe that the forms First Subject, Middle Subject, After Subject, etc., may very much grow into a habit, because they must be so thoroughly natural, primitive, and very intelligible. Without making the slightest objection to this opinion, I only beg for permission to be allowed to decide upon the forms by the contents.'4

WHAT I am now going to say must be considered as an appendage to what I have written in my book. It is prompted by a letter I received in September 1991. My comments should be read with a copy of the score at hand - I refer to bar numbers instead of larding the text with music examples. The work is readily available and should be in the possession of anyone who considers himself an educated musician - this extends well beyond the world of pianists.

The letter was written to me by the editor of the American Journal of Film Music, William Rosar, with whose permission I quote the relevant section:

PS Further to the Sonata, it might be of interest to you to know that somewhere along the way it acquired the nickname Teufelsonate ('Devil Sonata').

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

'Teufelsonate': Mephistopheles in Liszt's Piano Sonata in B Minor
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.