Magazine article Musical Times

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

Magazine article Musical Times

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

Article excerpt

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'). …

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