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Liszt – Malediction For Piano and Strings

By Alan Beggerow

Franz Liszt was a musical genius, as a performer on the piano, conductor of an orchestra, and as a composer. He also had a tremendous drive to succeed and be all that he could be. He knew he was blessed with talent, and he felt obligated to develop that talent as much as he could. He first became a virtuoso pianist who also was one of the best sight readers of the time. He would put a manuscript copy of an orchestral work he had never seen or heard before on the music bench and play through it, arranging it as he went so it sounded well on the piano. What seemed to come easy to him to others was a combination of natural talent and hard work. He spent countless hours at the piano developing one of the finest techniques of any pianist.

This is not to say he never composed. He began composing pieces as soon as he had learned the rudiments of music. He composed an opera when he was thirteen, Don Sanche that was premiered in Paris when Liszt was fourteen. And he composed his first version of the Transcendental Etudes for solo piano in 1826 when he was fifteen and composed many fantasies and paraphrases on opera tunes. After the death of his father he lived in an apartment in Paris with his mother and made money for them both to live on by giving piano lessons dawn until dusk and did no composing.

He was a touring virtuoso for about eight years and only composed during holidays after the concert season. He began experimenting writing for piano and orchestra and one of his earliest compositions for this combination was what is now called Malediction, written for piano and string orchestra or string sextet. Malediction means ‘curse’, this word was written over the first part of the work in the manuscript by Liszt. There is no other title on it. It was given this title by musicologists who found the piece in 1915.

That this is an experimental piece is evident, as some of the seams show. Liszt was learning how to orchestrate and write a concerto for piano and orchestra, not an easy thing to do especially with the pianos of the day. To keep the soloist and orchestra in balance was something Liszt had to learn. That isn’t to say this piece is only a curiosity. Far from it. It shows an expanded idea of harmony, especially in the first part, the part marked Malediction. Some of the chords in this section are quite striking in their dissonance, especially when we know the piece was written in 1833-1834. Liszt was in his early 20’s, fresh from meeting Berlioz and attending the premiere of Symphonie Fantastique in 1830. As a composer, Liszt was in the avant-garde of the era almost immediately.

Malediction is in one movement, and originally may have had a program to go with it. A tone poem for piano and orchestra essentially, that changes moods and shifts tempos throughout. It begins in a minor key and ends in a major key and has a lot going on in between. It is a glimpse into the creative mind of the young Franz Liszt.

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