For my next couple of OTF posts, I wanted to discuss piano and opera in the form of “opera transcriptions” (this lines up well to my pianothon theme for January on my other platforms). For this installment, let’s focus on Franz Liszt’s paraphrases and transcriptions either meticulously or loosely using operatic themes.

After hearing Paganini work the audience to a frenzy at a concert in Paris in 1832, Liszt decided then and there that he wanted to become the “Paganini of the piano.” So, he practiced 4-5 hours per day for at least a month and began devoting himself to piano virtuosity and showmanship, which he began displaying in extensive concerts throughout Europe from 1839 through 1847. Since Liszt often appeared three or four times a week in concert, it could be safe to assume that he appeared in public well over a thousand times during this eight-year period.

After 1842 "Lisztomania" swept across Europe. The reception Liszt enjoyed as a result can only be described as hysterical. Women fought over his silk handkerchiefs and velvet gloves, which they ripped to shreds as souvenirs. Helping fuel this atmosphere was the artist's mesmeric personality and stage presence. Many witnesses later testified that Liszt's playing raised the mood of audiences to a level of mystical ecstasy. (This compares well to today's Rock concerts; I hate to equate Liszt to Mick Jagger or Justin Bieber, but you can see where I'm going here...)

The1966 Liszt catalog by Humphrey Searle is thematic (rather than chronoological), and the works beweenS 383 and S 577 are “Paraphrases, operatic transcriptions, etc.“ for solo piano. The works are in homage to Auber , Bellini, Donizetti, Gounod , Meyerbeer, Mozart, Rossini , Verdi and Wagner (among many others). When Liszt wrote transcriptions of works by other composers, he invested a lot of creativity in doing so. Instead of just taking over original melodies and harmonies, he improved them. Liszt's transcriptions yielded results that were often more inventive than what Liszt or the original composer could have achieved alone. Some notable examples are:

The Rigoletto-Paraphrase (after Verdi)

The Faust-Walzer (after Gounod)

Réminiscences de Don Juan (after Mozart)

Many of Liszt’s operatic transcriptions date from his touring pianist period of 1839-47, suggesting to me that they were intended for his own use – and why not! It seems to me perfectly logical for a showman such as Liszt to create such a great hybrid genre, combining well known melodies to his incisive approach to music making.

Here are more of Liszt's compositions in the YouTube playlist:

I'll be back later this month with another compilation of piano transcriptions inspired by Opera, this time by Liszt's piano rival, Sigismond Thalberg.