The South African Richard Wagner Society celebrates its 25th Anniversary this year, and I will be including Franz Liszt’s transcription of “Isolde’s Liebestod” in the gala concert. Preparing a piano transcription of an operatic excerpt has led me to ask fascinating questions regarding the very nature of the piano, the art of the transcription, and the purpose of the performance. This blog puts some of my thoughts into perspective.

isolde Aubrey Beardsley

Isolde (1895) - Aubrey Beardsley

“Shall I breathe my last in sweet aromas?”

Just as Isolde reflects on her love for Tristan which has grown so intense and all-encompassing as to have no resolution other than death, Richard Wagner (1813-1882) distilled the crisis of nineteenth century Romanticism to one chord. At the same time the apotheosis of Romantic chromaticism and the gateway to atonality, Tristan und Isolde marks a turning point in the history of Western Classical music. No composer could remain untouched by his influence. Franz Liszt (1881-1886) and Wagner were exact contemporaries, becoming friends as early as 1842 when Wagner was becoming famous as a composer and Music Director of the Dresden Opera. Liszt eventually became Wagner’s father-in-law when Wagner married Liszt’s daughter Cosima. Their friendship was based on mutual admiration, but given two such large personalities, not without conflict.

Liszt transcribed many pages from Wagner’s operas, often very shortly after the premiere. Transcriptions and arrangements for piano of various types of music was common in the nineteenth century. In the absence of recordings, these works were of vital importance for the dissemination of music. Sometimes these works very virtually direct transcriptions.

Liszt versus Thalberg

Concert pianists were also quick to write fantasies or paraphrases of popular items to show off their abilities both as pianists and as inventors of pianistic technique. This also enabled audiences to compare one virtuoso with another. Sigismond Thalberg (1812-1871) and Liszt were even pitted against each other in “contests”. Fashioned most often as sets of variations, these works vary from the dreary note-spinners to the creation of large-scale works able to stand on their own.

Steinway, N C Wyeth Wagner and Liszt

N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945): "Wagner and Liszt"

Transcription versus Paraphrase

Liszt excelled in both of these arias. Some of his operatic transcriptions are titled “Reminiscences”, “Fantasy on the motives of…” or “Souvenir of”, acknowledging at the outset that he is using the themes of the original merely as raw material for a newly fashioned work. A very good example of this is Rigoletto: Paraphrase de Concert d’après Verdi. Written by Liszt in 1859, the work is based on musical ideas taken from the opera Rigoletto, composed in 1851 by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). The work is very successful as a reminiscence of the opera, but the music from the opera is not presented in chronological order, and Liszt appears to have had little interest in maintaining the original narrative or even stylistic congruency. Apart from the thematic material, the work is not “Verdian” in any sense but rather resembles Liszt’s other virtuosic works: daring leaps and filigree runs abound in a way that have very little to do with Giuseppe Verdi, who was refused entry to the Milan Conservatory of Music on the grounds of his bad piano playing.

On the other side of the spectrum are the great Operatic Transcriptions. Liszt attempts to recreate the original on the piano as truly and faithfully as possible. It is in this category that most of his Wagner transcriptions fall. Given that both composers were concerned with the idea of motivic transformation, it might have been tempting for Liszt to take some of Wagner’s themes and prove that they could be developed in different ways, in a sense of competing with Wagner as he had with Thalberg earlier in his career. Yet, somehow the music of Wagner immediately arrested this instinct in Liszt even more than the revered Master Beethoven. While Liszt’s transcriptions of Beethoven’s nine symphonies are faithful piano-reductions, he felt free to paraphrase Beethoven’s works for the theatre.

In this category falls the big transcriptions such as the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and the Overture to Tannhäuser.

The Orchestra Versus the Piano

Liszt had already used the arrangement of songs as a vehicle for experimenting with piano colour and translating vocal lines to the piano. But with the operatic transcriptions he forged an entirely new path. His aim was to make the piano sound truly orchestral. The biggest difficulty in translating the music from one medium to another, is the limitations of the piano. Firstly, the sound starts dying the moment the note is played, unlike most orchestral instruments or the human voice, which can sustain and increase volume on a note. Also, in an orchestra, many different musicians can each be assigned an individual line, whereas a pianist is limited to what the ten fingers can reach.

Pianists and composers have devised many techniques to disguise this instrument’s “fatal flaw”. Liszt employed a stock arsenal of repeated chords, tremolos, arpeggios in his entire output for the instrument. At that time, Liszt and Chopin were pushing the boundaries of virtuosity to hitherto unseen levels.


Velazquez: The Dwarf Sebastian

Goya versus Velasquez

Today, the idea of listening to transcriptions when the original versions are available on recordings may seem at first a little superfluous. Yet, in the world of fine arts, “copying” a great painting is often used as a learning tool. Recreating the original as closely as possible, or copying or creating etchings of the original is viewed as a legitimate learning process. Spanish painter Francico Goya (1746-1828), copied and made etchings of the works of Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599–1660). He set about the task of copying 16 of Velasquez’ paintings in the royal collections. As copies they were not successful – Goya could not help but try his own variations on the master’s work – but the careful study he made of the originals had a profound effect on him. Until that point in his career he had inexplicably paid little attention to this greatest of Spanish masters. He undoubtedly knew the work of Velasquez, but never before had he confronted him so directly. Now he perceived in Velasquez’ work a native tradition far better suited to his own temperament than anything in the contemporary styles. Moreover, he saw that Velasquez was a painter who had, a century earlier, practiced what the Enlightenment was now preaching – the close scrutiny of nature, in particular human nature – and that he had a psychological awareness that none of Goya’s contemporaries approached. Goya laboured long and hard on this project. In the process, almost incidentally, he developed the technical skills that were to make him one of the greatest graphic artists the world has ever known. Goya claimed that his teachers were “nature, Rembrandt and Velasquez” [Page 54, The World of Goya, by Richard Schickel, Time-Life Books 1968


Goya's etching of Velazquez' painting of the dwarf Sebastian

This 1779 copy by Goya of the painting Un enano (A Dwarf) of a painting by Velazquez – one of Goya’s acknowledged masters – depicts Sebastian de Morra. At court in Renaissance and Baroque Europe, it was customary for monarchs to “collect” jesters and dwarves for their amusement. Although deprived of the dignity of a chair, Morra looks anything but submissive, and regards the viewer critically.Viewing Goya’s etchings, one undoubtedly misses the colours and contours of the originals. The perspective is profoundly different. And yet, it would be a mistake to view them as “bad copies” or inferior to the original. The basic structure, the great lines, the contrasts between light and shadow are brought to the fore and seen more simply, more directly. Read more about Goya’s copies of Velazques, as well as other re-interpretations in the visual arts HERE.

In the same way, when an orchestral score is “reduced” to a piano version, the bones are laid bare, so to speak. The thematic material is made clearer, as well as its transformations and relationships. The skeleton on which the work is built is revealed.
Orchestral Opera versus Vocal Opera

As I studied the “Liszt Liebestod” I went through various phases of frustration with elements of the material. I knew the vocal line especially well from years of listening to recordings of great sopranos. Occasionally I was surprised and disappointed at some of the singer’s notes that Liszt chose to leave out. It seemed that Liszt was mainly concerned with the new ground Wagner was breaking in the area of harmonic and thematic development, and the transcription reveals a hierarchy of emphasis which simply does not place the voice at the helm. For me, this disregard for certain vocal moments, was a fundamental problem, as it was the great soaring vocal climaxes with which I had fallen in love, and which were the prime motivation for my desire to perform this work. It seemed to me the direct opposite of for example a Puccini opera aria, where very often the only material that exists, is that of the soloist, with the orchestra either doubling the melody or “carrying it over” the breaks in the voice. I am not yet clear as to whether this says more about Wagner the composer or Liszt the transcriber. I have therefore taken the liberty to add a few of Isolde’s sung notes in certain parts. From the syllable missing at the end of the first “lächelt” to the final “Höchste Lust!”, I either discreetly added a few notes, or simply choose to accentuate certain notes within the texture to bring out the overlaying vocal line – even if these were not overtly indicated by Liszt through means of accents or other highlighting instructions.

Liszt’s Liebestod versus Moszkowksi’s Liebestod versus…

The other aspect of the Liszt transcription which is problematic is the use of tremolo effects. It seems to me that one of the prime questions is “How to make the piano sustain sound in the way a group of instruments can”. Liszt came up with a set of answers. Chords are repeated directly, or the melody is held while chords underneath repeat and undulate, giving the impression that the note is sustained. And Liszt’s answers to this question is undoubtedly impressive. His works represented some of the most daringly advanced pianistic effects up to that point in the instrument’s history. And yet, if one is acquainted with the works of later composers such as Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Debussy or Ravel, to name a few, a certain frustration with some of Liszt’s solutions does creep in. Scriabin used the thinnest bass textures and extended use of the pedal, to create a transparent canvass in which harmonies are sustained over long periods of time. Debussy used mix pedal effects and exploited modal overtones to disguise the piano’s “dying throat”. There are moments in Liszt’s version, where the broken-chords, delayed bass lines and treble-trembles just feel a little pedantic, no matter how revelatory these might have been in 1867.

I explored other versions, such as Willinck and most importantly by Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925). A very beautiful transcription, less intent on recreating the overwhelming power of the orchestral version, there are many beautiful “solutions” in this version. Unlike Liszt, Moszkowski was mainly successful as a piano composer. An opera, and a concerto each for violin and piano are virtually his sole contribution to orchestral repertoire. And it shows in the transcription, which is very faithful to the concept of the original, but given to flowery piano figuration. Perhaps an amalgamation of the best of Moszkowski and the best of Liszt would be a good place to start in presenting a successful transcription. For more thoughts on the art of transcription, I refer you to a very useful article by concert pianist Eric Himy.


Richard Wganer

Concert Pianist versus Accompanist

In preparing an interpretation of the Liebestod I have drawn on the various experiences of my career thus far. From my classical background I learnt a fidelity to the printed score. From my Tango and other light music work I learnt to improvise from a “score” that is no more than a mere description of possibilities. Yet, this is not a recreation as much as it is attempting to firstly understand Liszt’s understanding of Wagner, and then to transcend that by using Liszt’s vision as the springboard for my own, while somehow still remaining as faithful to the printed score as possible.

I have also had the misfortune of being repeatedly yelled at by a certain opera conductor  for apparently “leaving out notes” from the score. Eventually it became clear that the orchestral reduction I was using had been arranged in a way to make it playable, rather than being a religiously accurate transcription. As it turns out I was playing what was in the arrangement and not what was in the full score. This however did not appease the said conductor for a moment. In the most humiliating and demeaning language I was instructed to disregard the edition I was using, and simply rework the entire opera from the full score and add all the missing bits! Naturally the payment I was offered as a repetiteur was not going to encourage such enterprise, but it did teach me a healthy suspicion of the printed page – not to mention conductors. From then on I never believed everything I read in the score.

As a repetiteur and accompanist I have worked with singers who have taught me that the true art of playing the piano resides in the “breath” of the instrument: a) how one phrases firstly to assist a singer in their interpretation and need to breathe, and b) how one imitates a singer when performing on any other instrument. Before critical breathing moments a pianist does far more than simply “wait” for the singer to take their breath. There is a subtle “disguising” of the exact breathing moment that has to be set up before hand, and snuck away from afterwards. There are subtle dynamic alterations which prepare an ascent to a higher note or create time and space for a chest note to sound adequately. Far from being a “cheat”, I have learnt to accept this as the true ebb and flow of all music. Therefore, as I play the piano transcription, I attempt to apply the same subtle “disrespect” for the bar-line in order to create as “vocal” a gestallt of the work as possible. This, I think, is not contrary to Liszt’s vision of the Liebestod but is more explicit than indicated in the score by the Abbé Ferencz.

Final words:

As I prepare for my first performance of this work, I still have not answered all the questions and solved all the problems. I experiment each time I practice. My own “arrangements” of the material are occasionally successful and often dreadful, and I come back to the Liszt version with new respect for his solutions. There is ultimately no substitute for hearing a great soprano singing the Liebestod with a full orchestra at the end of five hours of opera. Since I can not sing it myself, playing it on the piano is as close as I can get.

Some useful links:

A complete description and discussion of the Tristan Myth can be found HERE.

FREE SCORES – Download Free Sheet Music of Wagner’s Liebestod

Download Free Sheet Music of Moszkowski’s “Liebestod” transcription HERE.

Download Free Sheet Music of Franz List’s “Liebestod” (S.447)  transcription HERE.

Download Free Sheet Music of the transcription of the “Prelude and Liebestod” for Two Pianos by Max Reger HERE.

Recordings of the Wagner-Liszt “Liebestod” (Piano transcription):

Pianist Alfred Brendel performing Liszt’s “Liebestod” transcription can be found HERE.

Pianist Jorge Luis Pratz performing Liszt’s “Liebestod” transcription at the 2007 Miami Piano Festival, can be found HERE.

Pianist Ervin Nyíregyházi performing the Wagner-Liszt “Liebestod” can be found HERE.

Recordings of the original “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”

Birgit Nilsson conducted by Karl Böhm at the Thèâtre Antique d’Orange, July 7, 1973.

Frida Leider with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli in 1931.

Lotte Lehman performing the Liebestod in 1930.

Kirsten Flagstad singing Isolde’s Liebestod at the Met conducted by Erich Leinsdorf in 1941.

Mezzo Soprano Christa Ludwig never recorded the complete role, but her Liebestod recorded in 1963 with Hans Knappertsbusch is superb.

Another superb and regal Isolde that was never seen complete on stage or heard in the studio is the great Jessye Norman conducted here by Herbert von Karajan.

More lightweight Isoldes who nonetheless offer valid interpretative insights include Joan Sutherland, Leontyne Price and Montserrat Caballe.

Of course, the Liebestod is often as much about the conductor and the orchestra as the soprano. Carlos Kleiber recorded a magnificent Tristan und Isolde conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden, with Margaret Price singing an exquisitely detailed Isolde.

Leonard Bernstein’s “Tristan und Isolde” drew mixed reviews, but he himself felt that the youthful quality of  Hildgard Behrens combined with a powerful voice which had made her such a popular Salome, also made her the ideal Isolde.

The glorious Strauss soprano Leonie Rysanek appears to have recorded the Liebestod only once.

South African singers who have sung the Liebestod

These include Joyce Barker, whose return to South Africa unfortunately coincided with a downturn in the number of productions of the dramatic soprano repertoire at which she was best. Andrea Catzel recorded a version accompanied by a 1938 recording of the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. A famous Isolde from this country was Marita Napier of whom I could not find a sound-clip in this role, but extracts from her Turandot and Götterdämmerung can be found HERE. Her life and career is also the topic of an M MUS dissertation by Eridine Roux.

Tristano e Isotta: Translation into other languages

Maria Callas performed very little Wagner, and only ever sang his roles in Italian. She claims to have felt little affinity for Wagner, although her Kundry sizzles with intensity. Her Walküre Brünnhilde (learnt and performed in a week after her debut in Bellini’s Il Pirata) caused a sensation. Her 1949 RAI radio Recording included the Liebestod, which she was performing in Venice at the time. Wonderful legato singing and a gleaming tone add a unique view of Isolde. Her 1957 Athens Recital conducted by Antonino Votto reveals a voice intensely responsive to the nuances of the text and is possibly an even greater interpretation than her earlier radio broadcast.

I do not know of any performances of this opera in other languages.

Other Wagner transcriptions:

German composer Franz Waxman (1906-1967), best known for his film scores, took an extract from his 1946 film Humoresque based on love motifs from Tristan und Isolde, turning it into the Tristan and Isolde Fantasia for Violin and Orchestra. A prominent obbligato piano adds to the lushness of this ultimately Hoolywoodified Wagner.

Download the FREE SHEET MUSIC of the Overture to Tannhäuser HERE.

Listen to a 1926 recording of the Overture to Tannhäuser played by Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) (Incidentally, Cortot conducted the first Paris performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung)

Overture to Tannhäuser, is played here by Jorge Bolet in a live Carnegie Hall recital in 1974.

Here, the Overture to Tannhäuser is performed by Russian-born Benno Moiseiwitsch. He was a pupil of Wagner’s and Liszt’s contemporary, Theodor Leschetizky.

Too much of a good thing?

And if one pianist is not enough for you, here you can hear the Overture to Tannhäuser played by SIXTEEN PIANOS in an arrangement by Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

From the Verbier Festival comes this transcription of the “Ride of the Valkyries” for EIGHT PIANOS

Information on the Bayeuth Scholarship Programme is available HERE.