Questions & Answers
Preparing for Liszt
The Questions & Answers column of Clavier Companion typically deals with issues related to elementary and intermediate level piano instruction. This issue of our magazine is devoted to a celebration of the bicentennial of the birth of Franz Liszt. Most of Liszt's compositions are so demanding, both in their musical challenges and their virtuosic requirements, that it is only the very advanced high school student who can undertake this repertoire. However, I thought it would be interesting to explore some of the ways in which intermediate-level students might begin preparing for the advanced Romantic literature of Liszt and his colleagues.
One hallmark of Romantic piano literature is the singing melody. We encourage our students to project melody over the accompaniment. This begins early in a student's instruction, and we constantly instruct our students to "bring out the melody." Equally important to effective Romantic interpretation is the shaping of the melody. Students must find the "high point" of the phrase, with the preparatory crescendo leading to that focus and a sensitive tapering to end the phrase.
In the more advanced Romantic repertoire, the texture often changes from two musical layers to three:
1) the all important melody, 2) a supportive bass line, 3) and the harmonic filler in the middle register.
Each layer is assigned its own dynamic level. In general, the melody is the most prominent element of the texture. The bass is supportive of the melody, and the inner harmonic material is the quietest of all. This basic three-layer texture is common among all composers of the Romantic period. Learning to control these three textures is an important part of the teacher's curriculum for the advancing student.
Musical examples that prepare for the control of this threelevel texture abound—here are two examples (see Excerpts 1 and 2).
It is also at this level that the student must begin to master the use of Romantic rubato—stretching the rhythm at climactic moments, and taking special time at the ends of phrases and sections. The Lyric Preludes in Romantic Style by William Gillock were composed specifically to prepare students for more demanding Romantic repertoire, and Gillock often guides the students in a refined rubato (see Excerpt 3).
The great Romantic literature also requires extensive technical preparation. Excellent preparatory studies can be found in music that includes light finger work in fast passages and figurations. There is much helpful material in the etudes by Burgmüller, both Op. 100 and Op. 109. The Czerny studies are famous for their emphasis on the development of facility. Heller and Mozkowksi have also made important contributions to literature that promote technical fluency and the control of various keyboard figurations.
In contrast with the more closed positions of classical piano music, Romantic literature frequently requires open, extended positions, including playing full octave chords in both hands. This can strain the smaller hand and eventually lead to injury if the teacher does not proceed with insight and great care. Strain and discomfort result when a student presses into the key and continues pressing after the hammer has struck the string. This is especially harmful when the hand is extended to produce a full chord or octave.We must help our students learn to relax the arm immediately after the sound occurs. Discomfort is also relieved substantially when the thumb is allowed to leave its key and return to its position close to the second finger.
I believe all teachers should create preparatory exercises that can be taught by rote and will help the student deal with octaves (playing octave pentascales or major and minor octave scales) and full octave chords in various inversions. The focus of these rote exercises can be on loosed, relaxed arm and hand, and quick release of the thumb.
Finally, as students near the time they are ready to study their first pieces by Liszt, they should begin listening to recordings of his music. Perhaps the best repertoire to begin with are the Liebesträume and the Consolations. The three Sonetti del Petrarca are also good listening experiences because of their lovely melodies and wonderful bass support.