We live in an age where it has become easier than ever to appreciate musical works in their original and unadulterated forms. Such was not the case for the well-educated middle-class of the 19th century. Among those who sought out the music of Wagner, Liszt, and Richard Strauss, it was often by means of piano reductions and small-scale instrumental arrangements that could be performed in the intimacy of the home. The advent of violin virtuosos like Eugène Ysaÿe, Jascha Heifetz, and Toscha Seidel brought this tradition into the concert hall. If the musical transcriptions represented, to varying degrees, a departure from the composer’s original intentions, one should remember that there already existed strong historical precedent: J.S. Bach had refashioned several of his own violin concertos for harpsichord; Mozart had rescored Handel’s Messiah for a larger sized orchestra; Beethoven had recast his 9th Piano Sonata as a string quartet; and Rossini had liberally reused overtures and arias from earlier works. Whether resulting from lofty artistic considerations or the need for additional income, composers and performers had for centuries willingly arranged and tailored their own works and those of others to the constraints of particular venues and specific performers, so much so that a natural inclination towards flexibility and adaptation seems woven into the very fibers of the music itself.
Wagner was no exception to this rule. Beginning in 1839, he spent three destitute-ridden years in Paris eking out a living as an arranger of French operatic music. Mignonne, one of his more noteworthy lieder from this period, exhibits a melodic grace perfectly suited to the language and style of Pierre de Ronsard’s poem. In 1861, hoping finally to triumph in a city that had seemingly ignored his talents two decades prior, Wagner returned to Paris with a newly revised version of his opera Tannhaüser. The production was a failure and closed after only three performances. In the wake of this bitter disappointment, Wagner composed two short but emotionally charged works for piano: Albumblatt, dedicated to the wife of the Austrian ambassador to France, and Ankunft bei den schwarzen Schwänen (The Arrival of the Two Black Swans), inspired from an early morning walk in the Tuileries. In the first work, presented here in an arrangement by 19th century violin virtuoso August Wilhelmj, a lyrical yearning theme gradually builds in intensity and until the impassioned arrival of Wagner’s hallmark half-diminished 7th chord. In the second work, this same unstable harmony is used in almost obsessive fashion, delaying confirmation of the work’s A-flat tonality until the final measure.
The discovery of Schopenhauer’s writings in 1854 – particularly the notion of music’s ability to describe the true essence of things – exerted a strong influence on Wagner. From that point forward, Wagner, in his vocal works, relied less on text as a way of communicating dramatic meaning. He composed Traüme in 1857 for piano and female voice as the last of 5 songs set to poems by Mathilde Wesendonck. Intended in part as a study for the composition of Tristan und Isolde, the song’s dream-like mood is captured by a two note descending melodic figure, which seems to hover nearly motionless over a chromatically infused 8th note pulse. Equally demonstrative of Wagner’s genius is Walter’s Preislied from the third act of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. At this pivotal moment, Walter sings for Hans Sachs a newly composed song, thereby demonstrating a marked improvement from the previous attempt made in the opera’s first act.
Franz Liszt – friend, colleague, admirer, and eventual father-in-law to Wagner – produced dozens of virtuosic keyboard arrangements and paraphrases of famous works, often intended as vehicles to display his own prodigious talents as a performer. The Romance Oubliée, Première Elegie, and Am Grabe Richard Wagners are late works reflecting Liszt’s gradual shift towards a less bombastic, more austere style. Romance Oubliée was originally conceived as the song, Oh pourquoi donc, composed in 1843, but passed through various guises before the finalized 1880 version for viola and piano, which Liszt in turn adapted for violin. The Première Elegie was composed in 1874 for several possible instrumental combinations as well. In this compact work, an angst-ridden descending half-step motif is masterfully widened to a whole-step amidst a transcendent coda. Am Grabe Richard Wagners, an homage of ephemeral and short-lived beauty, was originally composed for string quartet and harp in 1883. Its sparse melodic material is derived from both the grail leitmotif from Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, and the opening theme of Liszt’s own choral work, Die Glocken des Strassburger Münsters.
An einsamer Quelle (A Solitary Spring) is the second of five mood-paintings that Richard Strauss composed for piano in 1884. It is, in essence, a song without words whose simple melodic lyricism welcomes the addition of a violin in Hugo von Steiner’s transcription. Cäcilie was composed in 1894 as a wedding gift to Strauss’s wife Pauline. Based on a love poem by Heinrich Hart, the work is a spirited embodiment of joy and exhilaration.
Richard Strauss’s Violin Sonata in E-flat Major from 1888 occupies a unique place in the composer’s oeuvre and stands at a sort of stylistic crossroads. On one hand, it represents the culmination of Strauss’ conservative musical education by strictly adhering to three movement classical sonata form. On the other hand, it bears the marked influence of Wagner and Liszt in its harmonic innovations and tonal wanderings. Symphonic in scope and saturated with grand romantic gestures, this work is an obvious harbinger to the daring orchestral tone poems like Don Juan, and Tod und Verklärung that would come soon after.