Martin Majkut Music Director

Program Notes

Masterworks 2

November 11, 12, 13

Program Notes by Ed Wight

Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt

Liszt: Mazeppa, S. 100 (1851).
Franz Liszt lived in Weimar from 1848-61, serving as full-time conductor (Kapellmeister) at the Weimar court. Biographer Alan Walker writes that “Until he arrived in Weimar, Liszt had written little for orchestra. [But] he resolved to master it” and wrote most of his orchestral compositions at this time, including his two symphonies and piano concertos. Master it he certainly did, as he also basically invented a new orchestral genre: the single-movement Symphonic Poem.

The direct predecessors were the independent concert overtures of Mendelssohn and Berlioz, single-movement works in Sonata form with programmatic titles. Yet the twelve symphonic poems Liszt wrote while in Weimar “established a major new genre” and “represented an innovation as it broke loose from conventional sonata form” (musicologist Peter Laki). This freed the composer to follow the programmatic narrative wherever it led, in part based on the transformation of a few key themes or motives to depict new events or moods. Many earlier composers used such ‘thematic transformation’, but Liszt’s symphonic poems were the first works to establish a consistent network of them – a decade before Wagner extended that technique in the leitmotifs of his mature operas (beginning with Tristan und Isolde). Liszt’s innovations led to an explosive popularity for the genre, and “their historical importance is undeniable” (Walker), heralding the symphonic poems of Smetana, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, and Sibelius among many others. He even christened the new genre, inventing the term ‘Symphonic Poem’ (Symphonische Dichtung) by 1853.

While Liszt usually preferred to deal with lofty ideals and concepts in his symphonic poems, Mazeppa is an exception – with more narrative detail in the score than any of the others. At one point in his colorful life, Ivan Steponavich Mazepa (1640?-1709) was beaten, stripped, and tied to his horse, which galloped away until its collapse and death from exhaustion. Found and brought back to health by the Cossacks, Mazepa ultimately leads them in a rebellion against Peter the Great. Liszt’s extended and harmonically complex introduction never establishes a key, but the quick repeated triplet patterns suggests the horse’s hoof beats.

Liszt follows this with the main section of the work in D Minor, Mazepa’s theme powerfully stated by trombones and tuba. He states this theme six times in the work. A lighter secondary section shifts the mood, as Liszt transforms the 3rd and 4th statements of the theme (in B-flat Minor and B Minor) into softer, lyrical versions, depicting the different pastoral and scenic terrain the horse passes through. The final dramatic statements of the theme return to D Minor before a quiet section depicts the collapse of the horse and Mazepa’s misery, the solo tympani depicting the horse’s final heart beats.

Liszt then shifts to a bright triumphant climax in the coda, with trumpet passage suggesting Mazepa’s new role, leading the Cossacks into battle. While including references to the Mazepa theme, Liszt wrote in the score that this new march-like coda primarily in D Major could be performed separately, and Josef Strauss (brother of Johann) was among the earliest to do so in an 1859 performance.

Liszt biographer Alan Walker laments that few attempts have been made to systematically study Liszt’s use of key associations. In just one example among many, he writes “Hell is portrayed in D minor (in Totentanz and the “Purgatorio” sections of the Dante Sonata and Dante Symphony).” Can it be a mere coincidence that he also chose that key for Mazepa’s torment on horseback? Furthermore, the idea of initial tragedy leading to triumph remained central to Liszt throughout his career. Closing Mazeppa with a resounding triumphant coda mostly in D Major meant that Liszt also dealt with a ‘lofty ideal’ in this symphonic poem as well.


The Dance of Death (Totentanz) from Liber Chronicarum (Nuremberg Chronicle), 1493, attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger.

Liszt: Totentanz, S. 126 (1849/1865).
Liszt’s historic accomplishments in the single-movement symphonic poem were not alone. He accomplished the same feat in the concerto. Occasional alternatives to its standard three-movement format began appearing early in the 19th century, most notably Weber’s Konzertstuck of 1821 – a single-movement, programmatic piano concerto. But once again, Liszt established that new format definitively, with at least six single-movement works for piano and orchestra: Concerto no. 1 in E-flat Major (final version), Concerto no. 2 in A Major, Concerto in E-flat Major Op. Posthumous, De Profundis, Grande fantasie symphonique, and Totentanz. The last three works are programmatic, and the fact that all six employ extensive thematic transformation of themes and motives demonstrates Liszt’s decisive role in the founding of the ‘New German’ school.

He wrote Totentanz (Dance of Death) as a set of free variations on the medieval plainchant Dies irae (Day of wrath) from the Mass for the Dead. Many composers employed this ominous theme in Requiems and other works over the centuries, from the 16th-century Renaissance (Brumel, Victoria) to later eras (Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, Stravinsky), and countless movie soundtracks.

Liszt originally acknowledged two art works as sources of inspiration: Todtentanz – a series of woodcuts in the 16th century by Hans Holbein, and a 13th-century fresco in Pisa Trionfo della Morte (Triumph of Death). While he later denied the Holbein influence, recent research by Liszt scholar Anna Celenza demonstrates that “Liszt quoted directly from Holbein’s woodcuts at every stage of the concerto’s evolution.” Liszt’s variations on the death-oriented Dies irae match Holbein’s own theme and variations. Holbein based his series of woodcuts on a similar theme – the equality of death [which comes to us all] – and offered numerous variants of it throughout the series. An early woodcut features skeletons playing sackbut and kettledrums. In the opening of the 1849 version, Liszt uses “their 19th-century equivalents, the trombone and timpani” (Celenza) before altering the scoring for the final 1865 version.

He quotes the Dies irae directly at the opening of each section – the long introduction (which includes a piano cadenza), the five variations, and the coda. Typical of the thematic transformation technique, each variation offers different moods. Listen for the somewhat playful bassoon countersubject soon taken up by the piano in Variation 1, the piano flourishes against the orchestra in Variation 2, or the slow lyrical version in Variation 4 (entirely for piano alone), with its opening canonic imitation. In the middle of Variation 5, he finally turns to the other artwork. He remarked in a letter that the Trionfo della Morte “reminded him of Mozart’s Requiem.” So Liszt incorporates the slightly different version of the Dies irae theme found in Mozart’s piece for another series of variations lasting over 200 bars.

In the 1849 and 1853 versions of Totentanz, Liszt closed with the plainchant theme from De Profundis. Set to Psalm 130, it provides “a more benevolent vision of God’s Last Judgment” (Celenza). But by the time he wrote the final version in 1865, many personal tragedies overtook Liszt, including the death of his son and one of his two daughters. So instead, the Dies irae returns in all its wrath to close the work, beginning in the third and final piano cadenza.


Sergei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody On A Theme Of Paganini, Op.43 (1934).
It’s perhaps no coincidence that this Rhapsody and Liszt’s Totentanz are performed on the same program. Neither work is a concerto in the strict sense, as both works for piano and orchestra consist of a series of free variations. Liszt based the Totentanz variations on the Dies irae, and Rachmoninoff’s set of variations (based on the last of Paganini’s 24 Caprices for Violin) also includes several references to the Dies irae. Furthermore, Rachmaninoff knew Totentanz well, as he conducted several performances of it in 1902 and 1903 (with Alexander Siloti as soloist), and in addition performed the work as a soloist himself in a 1939 concert.

Early drafts of the work carried such titles as “Symphonic Variations” and “Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra.” ‘Rhapsody,’ his final choice, became a popular title for piano works early in the 19th century – especially those of Czech composer Vaclav Tomasek, who often presented them in three sections. Liszt and his Hungarian Rhapsodies established the late 19th-century model as “a large-scale epic for orchestra…catapulting the genre from amateur to virtuoso status” (2001 New Grove Dictionary). Rachmoninoff’s Rhapsody draws on both traditions, the 24 variations grouped into three main sections – and forming a demanding virtuosic movement of enormous scale.

Rachmaninoff opens this variation movement in unusual fashion. The soloist plays only a couple dramatic chords in the orchestral introduction – and then the orchestra alone plays the first variation. Rachmaninoff delays the appearance of the theme until after that first variation, and once again gives it to the strings, not the piano. But then we’re off to the races, with virtuoso piano writing dominating the next few light-hearted, harmonically rich free variations and expansions of the 24-bar theme (listen especially for the humorous flute and oboe countersubject in Variation 3). In Variation 7, the piano plays a variant of the Dies irae theme in half notes, playfully alluding to Paganini’s supposed contract with the devil. After using this theme even more forcefully in Variation 10, the tremolo strings and slower tempo provide a transition to the next section.

Variations 12-18 constitute the ‘middle movement’ of the piece, what Rachmaninoff later called his “love episodes,” and it begins with a slow minuet. A variety of moods follows, from dramatic full orchestra (Variation 14) to a lighthearted, primarily piano solo (Variation 15) – capped by one of Rachmaninoff’s deservedly most celebrated melodies in Variation 18. Rachmaninoff joked that “This will please my manager.” He ingeniously bases it on a melodic and harmonic inversion the opening of Paganini’s theme. Gently opening and closing with solo piano, it confirms the 2001 New Grove statement that “at its most inspired, Rachmaninoff’s lyrical inspiration is matchless.” Rachmaninoff saves the most powerful drama for the ‘final movement,’ Variations 19-24, once again drawing in the Dies irae. But the early humor returns as well, with a very short and delicately ironic coda closing the work.

In 1914 Rachmaninoff first expressed the wish to write a ballet, and 25 years later this work finally provided it. Michael Fokine used it in his 1939 ballet Paganini. It shows that while most of Rachmaninoff’s later works initially found little audience support, Rhapsody was an exception. Audiences loved it from the beginning, and so did its composer. On the final concert of his career shortly before his death in 1943, Rachmaninoff could have played any of his four concertos – but chose this glorious Rhapsody instead.


 More details A black and white reproduction of Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin was the inspiration for the piece.

A black and white reproduction of Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin was the inspiration for the piece.

Rachmaninoff: Isle Of The Dead, Op.29 (1909).
The celebrated 19th-century Russian critic Vladimir Stasov wrote that “Virtually all Russian symphonic music is programmatic.” The New Grove Dictionary expands on that remark: “The Russian’s great love of story-telling found wide expression in the symphonic poem.” Glinka (Kamarinskaya), Balakirev (Tamara), Mussorgsky (Night on Bald Mountain), Borodin (In Central Asia), Rimsky-Korsakov (Sadko), Tchaikovsky (Voyevoda, and Romeo & Juliet), and Skryabin (Poem of Ecstasy) all told descriptive tales, many of them Russian. Rachmaninoff continues that impressive Russian heritage with his symphonic poems The Rock (1893) and Isle of the Dead (1909).

Every work on today’s concert features programmatic, extra-musical references. Rachmaninoff bases this symphonic poem on the influential series of paintings titled ‘Isle of the Dead’ by Arnold Bocklin in the 1880s. Employing the rich harmonic vocabulary of his mature works, Rachmaninoff creates one of his most atmospheric scores. He follows Greek mythology, opening with Charon’s boat bearing the dead to their final resting point. It thus begins in soft and mysterious fashion, as repeated motives in 5/8 meter suggest the Charon’s oar strokes (3 beats answered by 2) which Rachmaninoff soon reverses. A fragment of melody for the horn breaks through the mist. When the oboe varies that motive a bit later, Rachmaninoff now states the first four notes of the Dies irae – the motive of death which he used so often.

But Greek mythology also associates the oarsman Charon with life. Such heroes as Odysseus, Hercules, and Orpheus among many others journey to the underworld, yet return triumphant in Charon’s boat. Rachmaninoff casts a bright central section in a harmonically rich major mode supporting a melody of great breadth. He called this moment the ‘theme of life,’ at times tender, and at others “an ecstatic outpouring of about earthly joy and love” (Rachmaninoff biographer Barrie Martyn. Bocklin himself later painted an ‘Isle of Life’ (Lebensinsel) in 1888. But this soon darkens, and the rowing motive returns in conjunction with the most complete statement of the Dies irae. Charon is returning to collect more of the unfortunates.

This was the only work of Rachmaninoff that Toscanini ever conducted. The subtlety of the structure, the continuous restraint coupled with such sophisticated harmony and scoring, leads Martyn to write that “Isle of the Dead is arguably Rachmaninoff’s orchestral masterpiece.”