In the last three entries I dealt with Brahms’s Op. 76 cycle, a quintessentially anti-programmatic work, propelled solely by its own development and needing no extramusical content to accompany it. The subject of this post, Suisse, Liszt’s first volume of Années de pèlerinage, is the polar opposite of that.
When I first came to study in London with the great Hamish Milne, I had already performed the last three Beethoven sonatas, Schubert’s B-flat major sonata, Gaspard de la nuit, and only a week before my first lesson with him I had played a recital with Debussy’s first book of preludes and Brahms’s Handel Variations. Nearly eighteen years old, I had quite a clear vision of what repertoire I considered to be most deserving, what I wanted to focus on, and what I didn’t consider to be worth my time and effort. Going to study with Hamish Milne was a big change in approach to what I was used to, which was one of the reasons I chose to study with him. Even so, before I asked him at my first lesson which repertoire he would recommend for me to study, I was hoping to hear the Hammerklavier or the second book of Debussy preludes. So I was mildly (or not so mildly) dismayed when he suggested that I look at Liszt’s first volume of Années de pèlerinage and choose a few movements therefrom. Having already performed the B minor Sonata by then, I had decided that I needed no more of Liszt in my life. Nevertheless, I decided to “swallow the bullet” and started listening to this cycle in Lazar Berman’s rendition. Having dismissed Orage as mere noise, having rolled my eyes at the poetic quotes littering the score (“Beethoven didn’t need any captions to accompany his works”), and having balked at Au lac de Wallenstadt and Pastorale (“How can anyone take these banal and sappy ramblings seriously?!”), I decided to learn the outer movements, Chapelle de Guillaume Tell and Les Cloches de Genève, and Au bord d’une source, just to experience what it’s like to play this unfamiliar music and be done with it. But after beginning to learn these three movements, I had a growing feeling that I would eventually learn the whole cycle, which I eagerly did shortly after. I didn’t understand why I suddenly felt so attached to this music, and initially I even tried to suppress this thought (“It’s just the sense that one must play whole cycles and not individual movements. Surely learning another Schubert sonata is a much better use of time…”). But after a pretty strict diet of Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms, with occasional Ravel and Medtner thrown in for good measure, playing Années de pèlerinage felt like a release, even though I played it with a “Germanic” approach, much to Hamish’s consternation (“You have a very academic mind, and I want you to get rid of it!”).
In 1835, Liszt began an affair with Marie de Flavigny, comtesse d’Agoult, who left her family and joined Liszt on his journey to Switzerland. The cycle, which was composed many years later, floridly describes Swiss scenes. I am reluctant to call Années de pèlerinage “programmatic music,” as I believe that the term “descriptive” is more appropriate, because some of the movements don’t have a “program” properly speaking. Unlike the famous Vallée d’Obermann, which was inspired by Étienne de Senancour’s novel of the same name, or Orage, which is accompanied by a quote from Byron’s Childe Harold, movements such as Au lac de Wallenstadt, Pastorale, Eglogue, or Les cloches de Genève simply evoke scenes as experienced by the narrator. In these movements, Liszt doesn’t describe the inner content of a subject, but simply stares at it and outlines its impression. And how marvelously moving these impressions are, and how effective in the context of the whole cycle! The greatness of Suisse lies in the contrast and balance between the programmatic movements and the descriptive ones. In many great programmatic works, the Symphonie fantastique for example, the program itself is not why the music is great. In that particular case, the greatness is due to the erratic nature of Berlioz’s melodic lines and the use of brazenly “wrong” polyphony, among many other things. One can look at Liszt’s descriptive movements in the same way, but I think that it makes more sense to just listen to them “through the eyes,” as evocations whose greatness lies in their simplicity and lucidity.
The great Israeli writer Amos Oz said that “not all provincial literature is great, but most great literature is provincial.” I am not qualified to pass a judgment on this statement, but indeed, his writings evoke his native Jerusalem in the most vivid manner, as Charles Dickens evokes London and Orhan Pamuk evokes Istanbul. Of course, Années de pèlerinage cannot be compared to a novel. But had Suisse been literature, its evocations of Switzerland would have been as lively and exciting as those in a great novel or poem. Would they have been authentic? Maybe yes. Probably not. But it really doesn’t matter, because the effect and thrill are most definitely there.