Donizetti Society
Donizetti Picture
Newsletter archives 2014 onwards 
Home button 

Liszt Piano Transcriptions


The following article by Alan Jackson appeared in Newsletter 127, February 2016, pp.26-27.


One of our members, Przemyslaw Krzywoszński, from the Department of Musicology at the Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, sent me a most interesting article he had written on Liszt’s transcriptions for piano of pieces from operas by Donizetti. Liszt’s operatic transcriptions and reminiscences range from straightforward transcriptions of particular pieces to complicated distillations of whole operas. Of the better known ones, an example of the former type is the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, and of the latter the Réminiscences de Norma.

Many years ago, having discovered Donizetti’s Dom Sébastien, I bought a volume of Leslie Howard’s mammoth recording project of all Liszt’s solo piano music on the Hyperion label, the one that contained the Marche funèbre de Dom Sébastien. Alas, I was bitterly disappointed that the march theme itself (the one that turns up again in Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen) was played so fast that any sense of a funeral was completely lost. And so the CDs went back to the shelf, largely unplayed. Then last year, Przemek’s article arrived and alerted me to some of the other pieces. I bought other volumes in the series and quickly discovered that Mr Howard’s performances were otherwise wonderful, both in pianistic terms and fidelity to the operatic sources. The only drawback is that the Donizetti transcriptions are spread over six 2-CD sets. Hard on the wallet, but there is a big range of source operas, including works by Bellini, Auber, Rossini, Meyerbeer and Verdi to name just those from the bel-canto period.  

I hope that a shortened version of Przemek’s paper will eventually make its appearance in these pages (it appear in Newsletter 128, pp.21-27). Meanwhile I would like to raise a question not touched on by him, namely whether these works give any clues as to the ornamentation employed by singers of that time.

 Firstly, the Valse de concert sur deux motifs de Lucia et Parisina. This uses the theme of the cabaletta to the love duet at the end of the Prologue of Lucia, “Verrano a te sull’aure” (Ex. 1a), and the final section of the Act II duet between Parisina and Azzo “Non pentirti, mi ferisci”. Liszt provides variations on each theme and then combines them contrapuntally; amazingly they fit together perfectly!

Example 1

When the Lucia theme is introduced, example 1(b), it is rhythmically distorted, the waltz rhythm being smoothed over into equal dotted crotchets, though as the accompaniment maintains the waltz rhythm the overall effect is anything but smooth. Later in the piece Liszt gives us the familiar triple-time rhythm, example 1(c). I don’t believe that the smoothed notes reflect anything sung – they are surely there for pianistic reasons. But what do we make of the little run down marked x in the examples above? It appears every time that Liszt gives us the theme and I think it could easily have been introduced by singers in early performances of Lucia. I am in two minds about the upward appoggiatura A#. Simply as a melodic note it could easily be a singer’s ornament, but Liszt has introduced an A# into the harmony just a beat earlier in that same bar, so its function may be harmonic and pianistic rather than vocal. The liner notes to the recording give 1842, revised c.1850 as the composition date (Lucia itself premiered in 1835). Though Liszt toured greatly in those years, he was based in Paris until 1848 where he could easily have heard performances.

For my second example I would like to consider the first of the Réminiscences de Lucrezia Borgia – Grande Fantasie I, based on two motifs from the trio finale of Act I. The first is Alfonso’s “Guai! Se ti sfugge un moto” at the start of the Larghetto when in an aside he orders Lucrezia to be silent and not betray his plan to kill Gennaro, Example 2a. (Liszt’s second motif occurs a few moments earlier in the opera as the orchestra starts the finale.)


Example 2

Though Donizetti’s penultimate semiquaver is in fact lengthened to a quaver on each subsequent appearance, Liszt from the start shortens his last two quavers, making them triplets, i.e. they lasts a third of a crotchet each rather than a half. To my mind this increases the menace as though Alfonso was spitting out the words and I wonder if this was in fact what Liszt heard from an early Alfonso. The part was created by Luciano Mariani at La Scala in 1833 and both Tamburini and Lablache sang Alfonso in Paris from 1840 onwards. Of course I don’t claim that the use of the minor key in this example reflects vocal practice from the opera; this is Liszt the composer who takes us through a myriad of keys, major and minor, as he develops this seven note fragment. But in these opening pages, the rhythmic alteration remains. Only later on do Liszt’s sixth and seventh notes become even quavers.  

My third example comes from the long (20 minutes) and very beautiful Réminiscences des Puritains dating from 1836, the year after the premiere of Bellini’s opera. After an introduction based on the opera’s opening Liszt gives us 8 minutes of Arturo’s aria “A te o cara” in which he modulates widely and exhibits all kinds of pianistic tracery. From the start of this section Liszt adds ornaments to Bellini’s original line, see Example 3.


Example 3

The subsequent bars have different additions including a bold and beautiful appoggiatura. I hesitate to suggest that Liszt is transcribing a single performance he heard, rather that his changes (apart from the Gb in the 4th bar) could well have been taken from those included in various performances by a singer such as Rubini who Liszt would surely have heard.

Even if these ideas are fanciful conjecture, I would still recommend Liszt’s opera transcriptions to anyone who loves the original operas.

Valid XHTML 1.0 Strict