Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

Gretchen's Figure in Liszt's Musical Interpretation

Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

Gretchen's Figure in Liszt's Musical Interpretation

Article excerpt

The following paper is built on the resemblance of two musical subjects in their setting and character, and the idea behind these correspondences in broader aspect. The two music examples, as far as I know, have not been mentioned in their interrelationship yet. The first one is Gretchen's first theme from Liszt's "Faust" Symphony, well known to everybody (Example 1). The second one is the beginning of the cavatina from the second part of Mendelssohn's oratorio Paulus (Example 2). The melodic line of both themes as well as the manner of the accompaniment by an obbligato string instrument - in Liszt's case the viola, in Mendelssohn's case the violoncello - are so similar that we can suppose Mendelssohn's cavatina may have had an influence on Liszt in creating the musical profile of Gretchen's character.

If we assume that Mendelssohn's music influenced Liszt, we must undoubtedly take in consideration the situation and the meaning of the given text as well, since they express the complex meaning together. The apostle Paul was pursued because of his prophecies, by the people who wanted to stone him to death; this is what the chorus of the angered people tells us. Then comes a brief recitative telling that St Paul is saved because God was with him and strengthened him so he was able to continue his mission in teaching. This recitative is followed by the given cavatina sung by a tenor voice, which, according to the text, must be of an angel announcing to St Paul: "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give to thee a crown of life. (Be not afraid, my help is nigh.)" The keywords of the text are to remain faithful to God till the end of life, which creates the basis of stability also for Gretchen's character, as it will be shown in Liszt's music later.

Written in 1836, Mendelssohn's Paulus was very popular in the composer's lifetime and we can trace in several of Liszt's letters that he appreciated both Mendelssohn's personality and his music. On 22 March 1840 he wrote to Marie d'Agoult from Leipzig that in the course of the two days he had to stay in bed, Mendelssohn visited him 8-10 times and was very kind to him. After this, Mendelssohn organized a huge concert in Liszt's honour in the great concert hah: it was the music feast when Liszt, Mendelssohn and Ferdinand Hiller played Bach's concerto for three harpsichords. Liszt asked Marie to send information about this concert and event to be published in Paris in the Journal des Débats and the Revue et Gazette musicale de Paris and stressed: "I sincerely wish that Mendelssohn be praised, who is undoubtedly Germany's best composer of our time."1

Liszt himself conducted Mendelssohn's Paulus in Vienna on 28 March 1858 and praised the work to the committee of the Accademia e Congregatio Santa Cecilia in 1867. The idea emerged then to perform it on the feast days commemorating the 1800th jubilee of St Peter's death in Rome, in spite of the fact that Liszt found the work inadequate for the Roman festivities.2 These facts make us presume that Liszt had already known Mendelssohn's Paulus thoroughly before the idea of composing his "Faust" Symphony came and that he appreciated the oratorio.

In one of his studies, Alan Walker mentions that Liszt wrote the Gretchen movement immediately in score and carried out only a few changes later.3 The latter are summed up in László Somfai's study on the sources of the symphony, who calls attention particularly to the last ten measures of the movement, added later, which do not change, however, the character of the piece.4 The theme itself, however, has been changed in Liszt's so-called "Sardanapal" sketchbook (D-WRgs 60/N 4, p. 185), which is also mentioned and whose transcription is also published in Somfai's study It is interesting, that the first version is quite different from the second one, which is almost the final form, and the two versions are on the same page in the sketchbook. It is also worth mentioning that the melodic line of the first version has nothing common with Mendelssohns theme, except for the art of accompaniment. …

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