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Years of Musical Travel - Louis Lortie

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 man aging.

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.

It’s not the miles, but the years.

—David Lang

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