Top 5 Sonatas from the Romantic Period: #1

#1: Liszt – Sonata in B minor, S. 178 (1854)

At some point in the mid-nineteenth century, European composers were facing a serious aesthetic divide. Some historians call it the War of the Romantics, as if classical music could be that exciting. In one camp were Wagner, Liszt, and other composers undertaking grand experiments in form, in stretching tonality, and in “program music,” imbuing compositions with more explicit narrative qualities. In the other camp: Brahms, Clara Schumann, the critic Eduard Hanslick, and others who represented the conservative school of traditional forms and “absolute music.” It’s a topic that I remember covering in a college music history class, and I love it because it forces me to remember that none of these composers worked in absolute isolation. They were all part of a scene, they played for each other, had discussions, and, in this case, major disagreements.

Liszt completed his Sonata in B minor in 1853, right around the time this conflict really came to a head. He dedicated it to Robert Schumann, in return for that composer’s dedication of his Fantasy, Op. 17. How did the conservatives receive this piece? Brahms reportedly fell asleep while Liszt played it for him. This is particularly poignant knowing that Brahms had just finished his Third Sonata – you could understand why he’d hear this piece as just silliness and noise. Clara Schumann had no interest in performing it. Hanslick said “anyone who has heard it and finds it beautiful is beyond help.” Wagner, on the other hand, loved it. Clearly, the battle lines had been drawn.

One hundred sixty-five years later, with that artistic schism deep in the past, we can study the sonata for what it is: a triumph. Liszt, so often dismissed as a charlatan, dives in with seriousness and creates something really impressive. He builds successfully on the “fantasy” trends of the nineteenth century, particularly the model of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, and lays a framework for later fantasy-like works to come (Rhapsody in Blue almost certainly bears this as an influence). He conjurs an epic musical journey from motives that sound downright ugly in their first incarnation, showing a clear line of development from Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge and other late works, and elevating mere motivic development to revelatory thematic transformation. And despite the constant changes of mood and supposedly undisciplined form, scholars have noted that the piece works convincingly as either a traditional four-movement sonata or as a single sonata movement. So even as the piece asks questions about form, it solves its own problems. Quite an achievement! Oh, and since all the thematic transformation has a tendency to ignite people’s imaginations, projecting different narratives onto the music, there are now a half-dozen scholarly theories about a hidden meaning in the music. There’s just a lot to take in here.

So there are basically three motives that define the piece, and I’ll give them shorthand names. The first (A) is a murky descending scale that ends up being used a lot in sequences and transitional sections. The second (B) is more assertive and virtuosic, with angular octave leaps that outline diminished chords (you might even call it diabolic). And the final piece of the puzzle (C) is a mischievous tapping in the bass that ends with a little turn. These three musical chunks seem woefully inadequate to generate material for a sonata, but Liszt banishes all doubt by the time he reaches the first big statement, which combines B and C in a frantic running texture. Sequences lead us to a new, grand statement of B that turns into some sweat-inducing sustained parallel octave runs. The murky A theme returns against continued hammering octaves and chords, pushing through a few sequences to arrive at the first new material since the introduction. This Grandioso, D major theme, still set against pounding chords, evokes the protagonist of the sonata (whether it be Faust or Liszt himself or whoever you choose to project) setting off on a grand journey. The best moment in the theme is a dissonant A-natural in the melody over E-flat chords. You’ll know it when you hear it. From here Liszt generates a dreamy, sighing romantic mood, still using just themes B and C for material, becoming more agitato by the end. The next section is a long, highly virtuosic transition. Though it does use material from all three primary motives, and is pretty interesting to follow, I could see critics dismissing it as typical showoff Liszt. The transition, which we expect to roll out the red carpet once again for that Grandioso theme, instead leads to a statement of the theme in foreboding minor chords, as if barring the entrance to some castle.

Increasingly unstable harmonies and a menacing reappearance of motive C dissolve into a lengthy Andante sostenuto that easily functions as the slow movement of this sonata. A tender new theme in 3/4 is introduced, but the dreamy variant of C also makes an appearance. The Grandioso theme resurges into a sustained rhapsodic outburst that forms sort of a B section of the Andante, culminating in a climactic statement of the 3/4 theme. The “movement” settles down with more of motive C in a romantic reverie, and then a statement of motive A, in its original, murky setting, tells us we’re back at square one. This is a Beethovenian moment, drawing our attention to a checkpoint in the form and building suspense for what’s next. And what he does next is even more Beethovenian. He gives us a fugue! The comparison with the Grosse Fuge and the Hammerklavier sonata is unmistakable. The subject is a combination of motives B and C, and the beginning of B, with its octave leaps on the note G, is essentially the same as the beginning of the Grosse Fuge. With no relief for the pianist, this highly difficult fugue leads directly into a recapitulation of the entire (first-movement) exposition with some new development mixed in. This time the Grandioso theme gets a satisfying buildup and a satisfying delivery, triumphant once again. The long wind down to the coda includes a statement of the Andante sostenuto theme, before melting into the three original motives again.

Apparently Liszt had written an original ending that was rather bombastic, but the quiet, meditative mood of the published ending feels right. We reflect on the journey we’ve taken. Action, terror, anxiety, yearning, romance, triumph. And the hearty stew of emotions we’ve been served points back to Liszt’s genius thematic transformations. The motivic transformation allows music to portray deeper psychological journeys and narrative elements, while still holding the form together despite many shifts in mood. It’s hard to overstate how important this development has been to the history of music. Wagner’s operas are full of it, and subsequently film scores. Composers today freely use it to develop all kinds of experimental forms. These examples prove the ability of thematic transformation to enhance a story, or to generate one from all the possibilities of music itself.

Where to find it:

HL51480559 Henle Urtext Edition

HL50511561 Editio Musica Budapest, version from the New Liszt Complete Critical Edition

HL50256730 Schirmer

HL51483227 Autograph manuscript (Henle)

Before I leave the Romantic category, here are some final thoughts:

Scriabin’s Sonata No. 4 could easily replace Sonata No. 3 in my ranking. Even though it’s technically part of his “Second Period,” it follows Romantic harmonic logic (though stretched out in all kinds of wild extensions), and, in eight minutes that fly by, traces a course from sensual intimacy to a joyful finale that skips along until a transformation of the opening theme into a rapturous climax. Can’t get much more Romantic than that.

I really wanted to be able to feature Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2 on this list. It’s amazing piano writing, but the thematic material doesn’t hold up next to the inspirations of the composers featured on here.

Another shoutout to Medtner’s Sonata Op. 25, No. 2 “Night Wind.” That’s one that I’ve loved for a while. The first movement alone makes it really special, but the troublesome second movement veers toward tedium enough to be disqualifying. It will probably end up as a Hidden Gem feature soon.

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