Liszt, the understated post-romantic

On the rare occasion that a work of tonal music doesn’t end on a tonic chord, it usually comes as a great surprise. Such instances are few and far between: Schubert’s Ganymede ends in a different key from the one in which it began, and so does the slow movement of Brahms’s F minor piano sonata, Op. 5. Chopin’s A minor mazurka, Op. 17/4, ends on a first inversion chord (this open-ended aspect of the mazurka is brilliantly utilized in Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, as I briefly mentioned in an earlier entry). In all three of these cases, the work ends before we expect it to. As romanticism approached its later stages, this phenomenon became increasingly common, but it still retained its aspect of surprise even in works by composers who pushed tonality to its limits. In this entry I examine a work where the ending on an augmented harmony sounds entirely organic and almost unsurprising: Nuages Gris (Grey Clouds), written by Liszt towards the very end of his life, in 1881, five years before the composer’s death.

By the 1880s, Liszt had strayed from the style(s) of his best-known works, for example the B minor sonata or the many virtuosic works such as the Hungarian rhapsodies. The late works distinguish themselves from the earlier non-virtuosic works by not striving towards a Wagnerian harmonic world, but rather going in directions not quite explored by Wagner: either to an austere style, as heard in Via Crucis, or, as is the case of Nuages Gris, to a more saturated and oblique harmonic vernacular, at times reminiscent of Debussy or middle and late Scriabin. In my view, the authenticity of works such as Nuages Gris makes it a much finer work than some of Liszt’s “Wagner-lite” works. 

Nuages Gris, in G minor, uses two harmonic “building blocks” extensively, which define its tenebrous character: the whole-tone scale and chromatic motion. (Incidentally, these two elements, combined with quartal harmony, heard in the first bar of Nuages Gris, were used by Schönberg in the period that predated his twelve-tone works.) In the absence of a melody, we sometimes hear nothing but chromatically descending whole-tone harmonies. This gives the music an inherent sense of estrangement. It always meanders between one undefined place and another, never able to find itself. Thus, when it ends on a whole-tone harmony instead of its “prescribed” G minor, it isn’t at all surprising or jarring. Indeed, we almost expect it to not find itself, and end in an undefined manner. 

Works from the end of the romantic period give us a clue to what was to come after the “expiration” of the romantic idiom in music, whether in character or in content. Some late-romantic composers, such as Albéniz, seemed to suggest that early modernism would seek to regain aspects from 18th century music that romanticism lost, namely unadulterated joy and humor. Liszt, however, in Nuages Gris, suggests a more technical shift to come: a break with conventional tonality and the casting away of the tonic chord, an aspect related, but not identical to, the much-discussed “emancipation of the dissonance,” which we associate with Wagner and Debussy. Curiously, although the musical language of the short piece challenges the boundaries of romantic tonality, its subject matter is quintessentially romantic. It describes nature, and provides a snapshot of the outdoors. Thus, we see that perhaps the transition away from romanticism began earlier than we sometimes tend to think. 

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One thought on “Liszt, the understated post-romantic

  1. thnx, I proceeded to research a bit his life as a
    bit of a prodigy back then.

    I’m guessing he got delivered from “Free Masony” , since becoming a lay Franciscan and learning exorcism later on. How he helped the poor, wow. I was horrified two of his children died so young. I liked his post-Romantic music the best, especially the stuff for God. Isa.49:16a NIV

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