Franz Liszt’s style and music were almost always considered dazzling, lush sounding, and brilliant. One could say he was a pioneer who broke substantial ground in classical music and laid a path for future musicians. Among the 1300 pieces he composed during his lifetime, a number of them were transcriptions of operas and violin caprices. Liszt was greatly motivated to make transcriptions in the first place because he wanted to expose the works of old masters to audiences that otherwise could never have heard their works, since there were no televisions or radios during that time.
One example of Liszt’s transcriptions is Concert Paraphrase of Rigoletto, which was written in 1859. It came from the quartet “Bella Figlia del Amore” in the third act of Rigoletto Opera by Giuseppe Verdi. The Concert Paraphrase of Ernani, a kind of fantasy based on themes from the opera, is a dramatic, fiery, and passionate piece of virtuosity. The song “Coro di festa e Marcia funebre” from another one of Verdi’s operas, Don Carlos, inspired Liszt to write a transcription of that as well.
As pianist Joyce Hatto said about Don Carlos, “Liszt…managed to convey the main ingredients of the vast score in about twelve minutes flat. All the great tunes are there, or suggested in some instances. ” Liszt also transcribed many violin caprices. He was immediately awestruck the moment he saw violinist Nicolo Paganini play. It was really Paganini’s playing that inspired Liszt to the greatest heights of virtuosity and showmanship.
Liszt stated clearly that he wanted to do for the piano what Paganini had done for the violin, and went on to transcribe many violin caprices into the Paganini Etudes. Dedicated to Clara Schumann, the wife of Robert Schumann, these etudes were admired by even Chopin and Mendelssohn, who otherwise hated the showmanship of Liszt’s playing. Transcriptions and paraphrases often played a special role in Liszt’s life, even though his contemporaries considered them an inferior exercise.
If Liszt had not the courage and inspiration to transcribe, such exceptional music would probably be never revealed to us. In opera transcriptions, Liszt managed to describe characters and ideas in all their complexity based on just a small fragment of an opera. While he transcribed his etudes, he was, at the same time, challenging himself both as a composer and a performer. He explored, expanded, and revealed the full potential of the piano much more than most composers. As author David Dubal says, “[Liszt] possessed the most pianistic mind in history. ”