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Piano Concerto No. 2

This Second Concerto, like the First, was drafted in 1839, when Liszt was living in Italy and about to embark on a decade of frantic touring and concert-giving and laying the ground for the legendary reputation that followed him for the rest of his life.

Quick Facts

  • Composer’s life: Born in Raiding, Hungary, on October 22, 1811, and died in Bayreuth, Germany, on July 31, 1886
  • Year completed: 1849, with continuous revisions until 1861
  • First performance: Weimar Court Theatre, January 7, 1857, with Liszt conducting and his pupil Hans Bronsart von Schellendorf as soloist
  • First BSO performances: February 22 and 23, 1884, with Georg Henschel conducting and soloist Carl Baermann
  • Approximate duration: 20 minutes

Franz (Ferenc) Liszt was born in Raiding, Hungary, on October 22, 1811, and died in Bayreuth, Germany, on July 31, 1886. He began composing his Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1839 (having begun No. 1 also around that time); he then put both concertos aside and reworked them in 1849, though he continued to revise the Piano Concerto No. 2 until 1861 (having played the premiere of No. 1 in 1855). The Piano Concerto No. 1 was published in 1857, No. 2 in 1863. The first performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2 took place at the Weimar Court Theatre on January 7, 1857, with Liszt conducting and his pupil Hans Bronsart von Schellendorf as soloist.

In addition to the solo piano, the score of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 calls for an orchestra of 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The concerto is about 20 minutes long.

Liszt’s two piano concertos are standard works in the virtuoso’s repertoire, yet they are not at all what one might have expected of the world’s greatest pianist. (“Greatest” is arguable, of course, but with no recordings of his playing to prove or disprove the point, he occupies that throne unchallenged.) He lived a long, full life, gave innumerable concerts all over Europe, and composed an immense body of music. He was centrally involved in the great surge of music-making that marked his lifetime, and in the heated debates that surrounded himself, his pupils, and his friends, particularly his son-in-law Wagner. Yet he left only two concertos, both short and compact, and was reluctant to perform either of them himself. Both works gave him endless trouble and were constantly revised; both have generated adverse criticism; both have won passionate admirers and been promoted by world-class performers.

Liszt’s concert world was very different from that of today. There was no clear distinction between a recital and an orchestral concert, since most concerts involved solo pianists, solo vocalists, instrumental soloists, a chorus, and an orchestra in a variety of configurations and an equal variety of styles. Overtures, songs, solos, symphonies, and concertos were often inserted on programs without much apparent planning, and there was always room for a spontaneous change of plan. Liszt is credited with launching the novel idea of a solo recital, in which only he took part, but he also figured frequently in the mixed type of program in which an orchestra (or a chorus) was available to accompany him if needed.

He liked the glamour of a solo appearance, undoubtedly, and often replaced the solo vocalist with whom other pianists would share the stage by performing operatic fantasies for piano alone. His solo performances were much more often of transcriptions and elaborations of familiar music by other composers (Mozart, Weber, Rossini, Verdi, etc.) than of true piano solos by himself or by others.

Such pieces could equally call for orchestral support, so we find among his works a handful of arrangements for piano solo and orchestra: fantasies on Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens, on Berlioz’s Lélio, on Hungarian folk melodies, and arrangements of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy and Weber’s Polonaise brillante. One of his favorite works was Weber’s Konzertstück for piano and orchestra. In this context a traditional piano concerto in three movements had less appeal for him; in fact, it was almost unthinkable. Since he wrote both a Malédiction and a Totentanz (notice the demonic titles) for piano and orchestra, we should perhaps think of his two piano concertos, both in a similar continuous single movement, as tone poems without titles, as concert-pieces or fantasies, rather than concertos in the traditional sense.

Liszt’s overriding purpose is to integrate the concerto into a single movement, as he did also in his masterly B minor sonata for solo piano. The Piano Concerto No. 2, like the First, unfolds in a series of episodes using recurrent themes that are adapted to different speeds and different surroundings to provide variety and contrast. Sections of a dreamy, amorous character thus rub shoulders with energetic or martial music and passages of swashbuckling virtuosity, all sharing the same handful of melodic shapes and giving the impression of free improvisation, the art at which Liszt excelled.

The main theme is always recognizable from the beautiful sequence of chords under a gently falling melody. This appears in many different forms, sometimes speeded up, and even, toward the end, in military dress. The second main theme appears first as an agitated figure that provides an excellent illustration of the way in which Liszt can change the personality of the music while retaining its melodic outline. It soon appears in the strings in this more expressive form.

The whole work can be divided into seven or eight sections, but these are not movements in the traditional sense, and the real number of sections is arguable since one often leads without much of a break into another. By no means should all of the music be attributed to these melodic roots; there are new themes (such as the aggressive second section, with its furious handfuls in the piano’s left hand) and fanciful wanderings which allow the piano to explore the full range of the instrument and the limits of the player’s technique. There is no formal cadenza, but once the heavy brass and percussion join in, there is no respite for the soloist until the very end.

This Second Concerto, like the First, was drafted in 1839, when Liszt was living in Italy and about to embark on a decade of frantic touring and concert-giving and laying the ground for the legendary reputation that followed him for the rest of his life. But for a man so formidably confident in his stage appearances, Liszt was rarely satisfied with his own compositions. He was an obsessive reviser, subjecting most of his major works to years of rethinking and alteration. In view of the huge number of compositions and arrangements that he left, he must have found time amid the touring, teaching, and conducting to work patiently, refining works that had been in his mind for many years. The two concertos reappeared on his desk in the 1850s, when he was settled in Weimar and no longer constantly on the road. The First Concerto reached completion in 1855 and was first performed then, with Liszt himself as soloist and Berlioz as conductor. The Second was first played two years later, not by Liszt himself, but by his brilliant pupil Hans Bronsart von Schellendorff, to whom it was dedicated. He was still not satisfied with it, and so it was not published until a few more years and many more hours of work had been devoted to it. It appeared in Liszt’s concerts several times in the last years of his life, but he never played the solo part himself.

A Third Piano Concerto was reconstructed from scattered Liszt manuscripts by the scholar Jay Rosenblatt and first performed in Chicago in 1990. It too dates from 1839, but it seems that unlike its two siblings it never emerged from draft and was simply forgotten; indeed, its manuscripts may have already been dispersed when Liszt returned to the other two. In a single continuous movement, it belongs snugly with the others, but has yet to be accepted as a standard weapon in the virtuoso pianist’s abundant arsenal.

Hugh Macdonald

Hugh Macdonald taught music at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford and was Professor of Music at Glasgow and at Washington University in St Louis. He has written books on Scriabin and Berlioz and was general editor of the 26-volume New Berlioz Edition. His books on musical subjects include Beethoven’s Century, Music in 1853, and Bizet.