Liszt’s Representation of Instrumental Sounds

“The engraving . . . is not a copy of the painting. It is a translation of it, which is different. . . . Composition and line are the only things that the engraver can translate literally; but the effect, the colour and the harmony of a print are almost always dependent on his genius. . . . the engraver, who has only black and white, is obliged to create the effect and harmony of his print.” (Page 21)

In early nineteenth-century Paris, works by eminent engravers such as Luigi Calamatta and Paul Mercuri received intense scrutiny from art critics and commentators such as Charles Blanc, Henri Delaborde, and George Sand. The influential engraver Nicolas Ponce, quoted above, addressed a number of pressing issues in regard to making an engraving of a painting, including engraving’s inherent lack of color, the notion of “translating” from one visual “language” to another, the concept of fidelity (or lack of it), and the dichotomy between color and contour. All of these considerations can be fruitfully applied also to the process of arranging a richly colored orchestral work for the keyboard (which, fortuitously, had, of course only black and white keys).

“Instrumental embellishment” of an existing tune (“Tree and root are torn, I and dear / my love are separated!”) from Gustav Pressel, “Die Musik der Ungarn,” Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 36, no. 19 (1852): 216 (Page 120)

Liszt, a sensitive musical “translator,” frequently visited the studio of Calamatta in the 1830s and had a close relationship with the celebrated painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. And he encountered many of the same urgent issues that the engravers of the time did, as I demonstrate in my forthcoming book for the University of Rochester Press’s Eastman Studies in Music series, entitled Liszt’s Representation of Instrumental Sounds on the Piano: Colors in Black and White. Liszt experimented with a wide array of adjustments, alterations, and radical transformations that reveal his fidelity to the original and his creativity as an arranger. He reconceived the piano as an instrument capable of suggesting the coloristic effects of particular orchestral instruments (from flute to timpani), the organ, and Hungarian folk instruments such as fiddle and cimbalom. In so doing, he demonstrated his skill as a performer and composer and his new conception of the piano as a one-man orchestra.

Géza Allaga, Cimbalom iskola (1886), 73 (Page 121)

For example, throughout his Hungarian Rhapsodies—works based largely on the tunes and rhythms of Hungarian Gypsy-style music—Liszt convincingly renders the multifaceted aspects of cimbalom playing in pianistic terms. The correspondences between Liszt’s style in these Rhapsodies and the playing described in two contemporary sources—an article by Gustav Pressel and a method book by Géza Allaga, illustrated in the examples below (drawn from my book)—show his careful attention to the distinctive techniques of an imaginary cimbalom player’s improvisation in a slow rhapsodic style. The player improvises a tune in a virtuosic manner around the basic skeleton of the melody, using distinctive types of figuration idiomatic to the cimbalom, such as resonant arpeggiated chords, a turning melodic contour, fast runs up and down the scale, delicate trills, single-note hammering, and several oft-recurring, mostly ascending ornaments.

Liszt, Hungarian Rhapsody, No. 8, opening (Page 141)

In Liszt’s many reworkings of pre-existing music, no single principle is continuously in ascendance. Instead, a detailed look shows that the writing—seemingly so natural to the piano—is instead indebted to particular harmonic progressions, performance gestures, and types of articulation “native to” the original instrument(s) that he was evoking. His meticulous approach to the timbres of the original leads him to explore unique hand-positions, finger techniques, pedalings, and layout across the keyboard. The visual effect that his renderings often creates provides a spectacle of its own, challenging the authorial presence of the original, as if convincing us that Liszt’s version surpasses that of the original.

All in all, Liszt fashioned his role as a musical engraver, translator, interpreter, and colorist to make the reproduction in “black and white” as vibrant and alive as the original. 


This guest article was written by Hyun Joo Kim, who holds a PhD from Indiana University and is an independent scholar in Seoul, South Korea.

Liszt’s Representation of Instrumental Sounds on the Piano
Colors in Black and White
by Hyun Joo Kim
Hardback / 9781580469463 / £56.25 or $67.50

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