Liszt's Beethovenian transcriptions

Beethoven's fame exploded across Europe after the 1814-15 Vienna Congress.  During the Congress Beethoven had conducted a concert which included his Symphony n. 7.  The second movement of the Symphony, Allegretto, had aroused such enthusiasm that it had to be immediately replicated.  And since about two hundred diplomatic delegations from all over Europe were then present in Vienna, it is easy to understand how Beethove’s name spread to the most remote districts.  

Everywhere the public wanted to listen to Beethoven's Symphonies. But only in three places - in Leipzig, in Paris, in London - there were regular seasons of symphonic concerts.  

The widespread diffusion of the symphonies could therefore only occur through transcription.  And the main transcription was the one for piano four hands.  It was Liszt who invented and solved the problem of making the piano two hands play as if there were four.  Obviously, the technical difficulty increased dramatically and amateurs were seriously embarrassed.  

But Liszt, unlike those who prepared studio transcriptions for amateurs, aimed to make transcription a mainstay of the public concert, of the concert that from 1840 he called recital.  

Liszt's cultural - and sociological - design was grandiose: he aimed to acquire piano music to the very large audience who was crazy about symphonic music.  

His recital programs were therefore structured with: 1) fantasies on opera themes, 2) transcriptions of symphonic pages, 3) original pieces for piano.  The Trojan horse was fantasies and transcriptions: Liszt won his reckless gamble.  

In reality, the new timbre alchemy had been made possible by the new piano made by builders in the 1920s. The hammer of the classical piano was made of wood, covered with a very thin layer of buckskin. The hammer of the romantic piano was instead covered with a thick layer of felt. The felt was elastic and, depending on how the hammer was thrown against the strings, it deformed in various ways, causing small but sensitive variations in timbre.  And the transcription thus became richer.  

Liszt the transcriber immediately faced the most difficult task: in 1834 he transcribed Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony, which engaged a gigantic orchestra.  In 1837 he faced Beethoven's Symphonies: he transcribed three, n. 5, n. 6 and n. 7.  

Liszt never included an entire Symphony in his programs, because the presence of a large piece would have unbalanced his proposal to the public, which had to be as varied as possible.  His preference went to the Scherzo, Tempesta and Finale of the Symphony n. 6 which appears in many of his programs of 1839-1847.  He also performed these three movements in Leipzig; Robert Schumann, reviewing the concert, did not fail to note that the effect had not been equal to that of the original version, which the local public knew well. 

In 1851, at the request of the publisher Schott of Mainz, Liszt transcribed Symphony n. 9 for two pianos. 

In 1863 the publisher Breitkopf of Leipzig asked Liszt to complete the series of Beethoven Symphonies.  Liszt accepted, but then said that he would stop at the Octave because he believed he was unable to adequately solve the problem of Symphony n. 9, caused by the presence of the singing and choir soloists.  The publisher was frightened: the absence of the Ninth would have diminished the value of the publication, both in a cultural and commercial sense.  He wrote to Liszt cleverly making the motion of affections.  And Liszt, who was a great man's dough ... gave way. 

In 1864 the nine Symphonies were printed with a dedication to the ex-pupil Hans von Bülow, considered by Liszt (and by Wagner) as the greatest living interpreter of Beethoven. 

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