The Années de pèlerinage is a massive undertaking for any pianist, clocking in at more than 180 minutes and requiring extreme ranges of virtuosic fireworks and emotional commitment. Read composer David Lang's program note for collected stories: travel, which features dynamic pianist Louis Lortie performing Liszt's enthralling musical travelogue.
Explore the rest of David Lang's collected stories series here.
I am always interested in how the things we take
for granted in our world got started. For example,
we take it for granted that a musician’s life is
international, that a violinist might play a concert
this week in New York, then play next week in
London, and then go on to Hong Kong. We think
not only that this is possible, but that it’s the
normal way to design a life in music.
Where did we get this idea?
The modern life of a touring, international
musician was basically invented by violinist
Niccolò Paganini in the 1820s and perfected by
pianist Franz Liszt in the 1830s. Together, they
created the life of a musician on the road, the life
most musicians recognize today.
They came of age in a time when the system that
required musicians to attach themselves to various
courts or nobles or churches had broken down, and
in a time when a rising middle class created a new
category of listener that was educated, urban, and
sophisticated. You know—the Zankel Hall
audience. The musician’s life and the musician’s
audience developed together, hand in hand. The
new urban audience required a new kind of music
and a new kind of musician. Liszt, one of the
greatest virtuosos of the 19th century, wrote music
of previously unimagined difficulty and
flamboyance, then toured Europe showing off his
unique pianistic skills.
Années de pèlerinage is a collection of virtuosic solo
piano pieces Liszt composed across a span of nearly
50 years. He published them in three books, which
he called “years.” Some of these pieces had been
published in an earlier collection called Album d’un
voyageur, which he later folded into the Années de
pèlerinage. The emphasis changes with the title, as
“A Traveler’s Album” becomes “Years of
Pilgrimage.” The first explores the places he visited, the second explores the time that passed
while visiting them.
It’s not the miles, but the years.
Tonight’s concert is a marathon, and like all
marathons the goal is getting to the end. Années de
pèlerinage is almost never played complete, or in its
published order, so you should know how rare an
event this is. It is rare partly because of the titanic
stamina and skill required to play it all, and partly
because the most famous showpieces—like “Vallée
d’Obermann,” “Après une lecture du Dante,” and
the three pieces inspired by Petrarch sonnets—are
all over by the end of the second book. But it also
must be noted that the music gets strange in the
third book. The later pieces are less interested in
being overtly virtuosic, so pianists play them less
frequently. You feel in the last book that Liszt’s
attention has wandered from pieces calculated to
electrify a crowd to pieces that are introspective,
more interior, more self-questioning. You hear the
The third book contains some of the strangest,
most experimental music Liszt ever wrote. From
the radical harmonies of the “Villa d’Este” pieces,
to the proto-minimalist “Marche funèbre,” to the
heartbreaking directness of “Sunt lacrymae
rerum,” this book shows a very different
compositional focus than the first two.
What changed for Liszt to make this music so
introspective and so bizarre? Part of it may have
been that later in life, when he gave up touring as a
virtuoso, he gave up needing to write the kind of
music a touring virtuoso needs to play—music that
impresses and shocks and wows a crowd with
fireworks and acrobatics.
It may also have been that what happened to Liszt
was Wagner, to whom Liszt was deeply connected.
By the time Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde
pulled the rug out from under the traditional
harmonic landscape of Western classical music,
Wagner was already having an affair with Liszt’s daughter Cosima, whom he eventually
married. Liszt became heavily involved in the
promotion of Tristan, making a piano transcription
of the “Liebestod” that helped spread its fame
throughout Europe. Could Wagner’s radical
approach to harmony and form have convinced
Liszt that he was now old and out of fashion?
I keep thinking about how, in the years of
serialism’s zenith, older composers as diverse as
Stravinsky, Copland, and Shostakovich felt
compelled to try their hands at it, since the young
composers of the world were so convinced. An old
composer might look for signs that he or she
belongs to another era, and then feel compelled to
change. Perhaps it is significant that all the music
in the last book of Années was written after the
premiere of Tristan und Isolde.
Or maybe he was just slowing down. I can’t help but
be moved when I hear the tremolo in the left hand
of “Sursum corda,” the last movement of the last
book. When Liszt was a young virtuoso, he had no
trouble generating energy with his left hand—
“Orage,” from the first book, has one of the most
fiery and intricately virtuosic left hand parts in all
the repertoire of the 19th century, and the younger
Liszt traveled the world playing it. By the end of the third book, all he needs, or maybe all has the energy for, both as a composer and as a pianist, is a simple tremolo.