"It is impossible to convey the nature of this musical monster in words. Never have I heard a more impudent or brazen concatenation of utterly disparate elements, such savage ravings, so bloody an assault on all that is musical...Anybody who has heard this thing and liked it is beyond hope." - Eduard Hanslick
The "musical monster" Eduard Hanslick is referring to is the Sonata in B minor by Franz Liszt. (Hanslick was a well known German music critic 1825-1904). The Sonata in B minor was published in 1854 and was the only sonata that Liszt ever wrote. Much has been written about this epic work. I came to it very late in my musical exploration...just within the past year or so. To me it is a symphony within a sonata. It is huge in scope and ambition, soaring and boundless, but also at times delicate, measured and contemplative. After listening to it, it leaves you exhausted...but in a good way! I can't imagine what one must go through performing it.
My "Great Chords" installment is about specific moments in a piece of music that stand out musically...that really grab my ear. In the Sonata in B minor, this moment occurs at bar 307. Look above at the music at the top of this page. The last 2 notes...or chords...occur about eleven minutes into the piece following a very quiet and beautiful Recitativo phrase marked as ritenuto ed appassionato. They are scary...play them if you have a piano nearby. I know what the notes are...but I was not sure what the chord was called, so I reached out to my friend Dr. Reynold Simpson, Associate Professor of Music at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Dr. Simpson offers this analysis of the chord in question:
"Liszt really pushed to the edge. Functionally this example is pretty straightforward. In the key of B minor the progression is a minor I chord (F minor), a major VI on the lower sixth degree of the key (D flat major), then a D-flat augmented triad (with the A natural) sounds as the dominant substitution as it has two leading tones (F to G-flat and A to B-flat) and this leads to G-flat, which is the Neapolitan of the key (lowered second). The odd thing is that this Neapolitan chord in not just a major chord, but a major seventh chord with the seventh in the bass. The major seventh, with the inversion, the dynamics, and the lower thick voicing is what is producing the harsh sound."
Another fascinating thing about this sonata is the very first measure. This giant work kicks off with two notes..a simple G in the bass register. I can't think of any other work that begins this way. If you are not ready for it, you can actually miss it altogether because it is so quiet and staccato. It seems to me as though he could have started with the second measure...that would have made more sense to the listener...but that is the genius of Liszt.
Another interesting point about this piece; it was the first piano work to be published showing a low B, which is the very last note of the piece, and the only time in the entire work that it appears. Prior to this time, the lowest note written for a piano was C (Chopin and Schumann never wrote a note lower than C).
Its fascinates me that what today are considered great compositions were not always received well when they were first published. Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major is a great example of this. How could it not be immediately recognized as perhaps the greatest of all violin concertos? Well, for some reason it was not, and it took decades for it to begin to be recognized as a great work. Such is the case with the Liszt sonata. The quote above is scathing to say the least. Critics can be merciless. And wrong.
I would encourage you to listen to this sonata. Here is a link to YouTube that has the score to follow. You will see the incredible genius of Liszt as you watch and listen. I think Andre Laplante's performance is excellent as well.