A very old theme coming from the days of early music makes the theme for the piece we’re going to explore. Almost 1000 years ago, someone wrote a tune for the Dies Irae sequence of the Requiem Mass (no one knows for sure who wrote it). Dies Irae means “Day of Wrath” in Latin and describes the judgment of souls at the end of the world. The translation of the first verse is as follows:
As you can imagine, this piece is going to be “mwuhaha” sounding, since it is about judgment day.
If you google “Dies Irae”, you may come up with several versions. That is because composers like to one up the last composer with their new and improved version ;). We may get to those at another time, but today we are dealing with this particular version, which Liszt uses in the piece we’re gonna look at. You’ll get the gist of it in the first minute or two:
I briefly mentioned Liszt before in the post about Chopin, but here’s a little more background on him. Liszt lived at the same time as Chopin, only he lived up to his 70s so he lived for nearly the entirety of the Romantic Period. Since he lived so long, and he was a composer, you can naturally conclude that he composed a lot of stuff, and you would be correct. He was one of the great pianists of the 19th century, probably one of the greatest of all time, but unfortunately we don’t have any videos or recordings of him (if you check out his piano music you will find a lot of difficult stuff).
He was well liked among the women of that day, as some would faint at his concerts. It’s kind of like when teenage girls went to see boy bands in the 90s, or these days, One Direction and Justin Bieber, only this music was classical. You don’t hear about hordes of teenage girls going to the symphony to see a famous pianist and getting excited about the latest album of Bach’s Two Part Inventions. But that is kind of what it was like.
Some of Liszt’s compositions that may have caused these fainting spells are his Liebestraume (Dreams of Love), which are pieces for piano. The Romantic Period is not all about love, but these pieces obviously are because of the title, and you can hear it in the music (that it is romantic sounding). Liebestraume No. 3 is the most famous one: listen here. Another piece is Un Sospiro (I almost melted into the floor when I first heard this) which is a lot harder than the Liebestraume piece. It flows together nicely in all these pretty sounding fast arpeggios all over the piano.
Now back to the more difficult less romantic sounding works of Liszt. When I was a music nerd newbie, I discovered Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, a collection of virtuoso piano pieces that can make people want to give up piano. In the same way people listen to upbeat music like rap or pop to get motivated to do housework, I listened to these etudes (music nerd confession). I really like the minor (or mwuhaha) key sound, so I was drawn to the even numbered etudes. The first one is only a minute, so you have time for it: Etude No. 1. Number 10 is one of the most famous, but my personal favorite is 12, since even though it is a show off piece, I feel like it has a lot of expression and is more melodic than the other even numbered etudes.
Next week we will explore the Totentanz. If you think you’ve just seen some difficult piano pieces you ain’t seen nothin’ yet… 🙂