Piano Street Magazine

The Grand Sonata – Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor

February 5th, 2010 in Articles by | 6 comments

Franz Liszt’s Sonata in B minor (1854) is arguably his finest composition and one of the greatest piano sonatas ever written. Many places it alongside Schumann’s Fantasy Op. 17 as “the two 19th-century masterpieces” of the piano literature.
Although Liszt performed it for his enthusiastic disciples in Weimar the work failed to impress Brahms or Clara Schumann.
Robert Schumann, to whom it was dedicated, was already incarcerated in the asylum in Endenich by the time of the Sonata´s arrival in his home in Düsseldorf.
The Sonata drew an enthusiastic compliment from Richard Wagner following a private performance of the piece by Karl Klindworth in 1855. Published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1854 it was first performed on January 27, 1857 in Berlin by Liszt’s pupil and son-in-law, Hans von Bülow. It has now been more than 150 years after the Sonata’s public premiere and no musicologist, music theorist or classical music fan can deny its influence, craft and original power. The work also represents one of the most successful solutions of the problems of the sonata form to come out of the 19th century.

Already in 1822 Schubert in his Wanderer Fantasy had successfully achieved the same feat. The Wanderer Fantasy was one of Liszt´s favourite concert pieces which he also arranged for piano and orchestra in 1851. An interesting argument on behalf of Liszt´s borrowings from Beethoven and of a program built upon those borrowings emphasizes a conflict between good and evil (Giovanni Minotti, 1934).
Another detailed study by Tibor Szász (1985) suggests, in terms of studying melodies found elsewhere in Liszt´s music, a possible presence of a program in the Sonata based on biblical texts.

The Sonata is notable for being constructed from five motivic elements that are woven into an enormous musical architecture. The motivic units undergo thematic transformation throughout the work to suit the musical context of the moment. A theme that in one context sounds menacing and even violent, is then transformed into a beautiful melody. This technique helps to bind the sonata’s sprawling structure into a single cohesive unit.
Broadly speaking, the Sonata has four movements although there is no gap between them. Superimposed upon the four movements is a large sonata form structure, although the precise beginnings and endings of the traditional development and recapitulation sections has long been a topic of debate.
Charles Rosen states in his book The Classical Style that the entire piece fits the mold of a sonata form because of the reprise of material from the first movement that had been in D major, the relative major, now reprised in B minor. Alan Walker, the forefront contemporary Liszt scholar, believes that the development begins roughly with the slow section at measure 331, the leadback towards the recapitulation begins at the scherzo fugue, measure 459, and the recapitulation and coda are at measures 533 and 682 respectively. Each of these sections (exposition, development, leadback, and recapitulation) are examples of Classical forms in and of themselves, which means that this piece is one of the earliest examples of Double-function form, a piece of music which has two classical forms occurring simultaneously, one containing others. For instance the exposition is a sonata form which starts and ends with material in B minor, containing the second part of the exposition and development wandering away from the tonic key, largely through the relative major D.

Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt

In using this structure, Liszt was influenced by Franz Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasie, as mentioned earlier, a work he greatly admired, performed often and arranged for piano and orchestra. Schubert used the same limited number of musical elements to create a broad four movement work, and used a fugato 4th movement.
Already in 1851 Liszt experimented with a non-programmatic “four-movements-in-one” form in an extended work for piano solo called Grosses Concert-Solo. This piece, which in 1865 was published as a two-piano version under the title Concerto pathétique, shows a thematic relationship to both the Sonata and the later Faust Symphony. The quiet ending of the sonata may have been an afterthought; the original manuscript, kept in the The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City, contains a crossed-out ending section which would have ended the work loudly instead.

Two notable reference performances of the Sonata:

Támás Vásary:
Outstanding Hungarian pianist and conductor Támás Vásáry (b. 1933), Liszt competition winner 1948 and noted för his Chopin recordings on Deutsche Grammophone, gives us a brilliant recent interpretation of the sonata. The balancing of detail in relation to the whole, a beautiful piano sound and contrasts between lyricism and eruptive drama, makes this recording one of my favourites.

Claudio Arrau (four parts):
Legendary pianist Claudio Arrau (1903-91), who studied with the Liszt pupil Martin Krause in Berlin, offers an unforgettable and monumental rendition through a full orchestral reading of the piece, revealing an epic and almost religious interpretation which makes us think of the sonata form as a grand theatrical drama.

Arrau – Liszt Sonata, part 1
Arrau – Liszt Sonata, part 2
Arrau – Liszt Sonata, part 3
Arrau – Liszt Sonata, part 4

While listening, follow along in Liszt’s autograph manuscript
or the printed score:

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  • Diego Suárez says:

    It was very interesting this article about Liszt and I would like to know more about the possible biblical text as a program of Liszt’s Sonata. I’m a young pianist of Costa Rica and I performed this Sonata one year ago when I was 16. If someone could give me a reference on this subject I will appreciate it. My email is: diegosuarez@costarricense.cr

  • The Polish pianist Gregory Kinda has recently recorded the Liszt Sonata sonata on an Australian Stuart and Sons piano. You can hear several minutes of sound clips here: http://www.leatham.com.au/lm001/lm001.htm

  • Glenn Vanstrum says:

    Thanks for the article. One could also mention a Bach-Beethoven-Liszt connection vis a vis the great fugue that comes after the slow movement. Beethoven used Baroque-inspired fugues a number of times in his late sonatas. (As did Schubert, as mentioned in the article).

    The big question is, why would Franz Liszt, the arch romantic, the great promoter of programme-music, why would he of all people write a “Sonata,” and label it so, unadorned, a title unrelated to poetry, painting, sculpture, etc…it’s so Brahmsian of him! The fact remains, this humbly named piece is one of his best.

    Unlike his piano concertos, the sonata seems more about its themes and motives, development, dramatic thrust…and less about virtuosic pianism. Maybe that’s why it is considered one of his greatest works. It inspires and provokes an emotional response–it is a thing of beauty. It works on both analytical and emotional levels, just as many of Liszt’s other compostions, some of them experimental, don’t.

    Happy 200th, Franz!

  • Patrick says:

    Sonata (from Latin and Italian sonare, “to sound”, Italian: pl., Sonate), in music, literally means a piece played as opposed to a cantata (Latin and Italian cantare, “to sing”), a piece sung.

  • And this sonata transcribed for organ by myself:


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