By Gabriel Prynn, cellist
Part 1/3: Liszt
For this concert celebrating the Christmas season, the Trio Fibonacci offers its Montreal public a galaxy of new and unique transcriptions!
A transcription means the act of adapting a musical composition for other instruments than those for which it was originally intended. This is an important practice in the history of music. In some cases, such as the four-hand piano versions of orchestral and chamber works, the goal was mainly to promote a specific piece, to make it accessible to the public at a time when radio and recordings did not yet exist and professional concerts only took place in major cities. This was the case with Brahms, for example, who always insisted that his chamber music works be published simultaneously in their original scoring and in a version for piano four hands. Music lovers could thus enjoy his compositions by playing these transcriptions in the comfort of their own living rooms.
Even in the 20th century, the legendary composer Pierre Boulez recalled how in 1945, just after the Liberation when he was studying at the Paris Conservatoire, four-hand piano arrangements were the only way to get to know the major works of Stravinsky.
Another motivation for producing transcriptions is of course to pay homage to a work we admire, giving it new life and new colors. Indeed, transcriptions can serve to bring out unexpected or hidden aspects of a piece. Liszt’s transcriptions for solo piano of the Beethoven symphonies and Busoni’s of the solo violin works of Bach remain fine examples of this.
So, when we came to reflect on what original music for Christmas we could present for this concert, our thoughts naturally turned to a number of brilliant and touching musical works, namely the Christmas Tree suites for piano by Franz Liszt, and the “post-Tchaikovsky” composer Vladimir Rebikov, as well as the Christmas Carol by Charles Ives.
We have lovingly transcribed these works for strings and piano in order to create what is sure to be a unique and joyful musical gift for our dear listeners!
Liszt: The Christmas Tree
The Christmas Tree suite occupied Liszt for quite some time — he was determined to make an especially good job of it to present to his granddaughter Daniela (daughter of Hans von Bülow and Cosima) to whom the set is dedicated — and he also made a charming arrangement of it for piano duet, which actually formed the basis for our new piano trio arrangement. The bulk of the composition of the work was carried out between 1874 and 1876, although Liszt kept touching the pieces up until the time of publication. The first four movements are marked “piano or harmonium”, and today are also included with Liszt’s organ music. The whole work is arranged in three groups of four pieces which, broadly, present traditional carol melodies, a child’s view of Christmas, and then finally mature person’s recollections.
Michael Praetorius (1571–1621) composed the choral work which provides the theme for the Old Christmas Carol (Psallite), which opens the suite, or, at least, the central section—Liszt provides a formal march-like introduction and coda, creating a processional air.
The melody of In dulci jubilo is known to practically everyone, but Liszt’s delicate pastoral dactyls (long-short-short rhythms) in the bass are one of his most delicious inspirations. His version of Adeste fidelis (March of the Three Kings) allows him to introduce dramatic extensions to the familiar melody.
The fifth piece is one of the few scherzos ever written by Liszt – humorous, and treacherously difficult for a child’s piece! In the Carillon movement, evoking church bells, the trill effects are somewhat curious, as is the unresolved conclusion. In the seventh piece, a simple melodic fragment, supported by a pearl-like accompaniment, flows dreamlike, taking us to strange harmonic territories before gradually falling asleep. Movement eight is actually based on two old French carols, one a relatively brief but sophisticated scherzo, which leads to the adult world of the last pieces in the suite.
The bell sounds of the ninth piece usher in tranquil contemplation; the tenth – both thoughtful and passionate – may be intended in invoke with nostalgia the memory of the first meeting between Liszt and his lover the polish Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein. The eleventh movement is a catchy march in Hungarian style, certainly autobiographical in nature, but also dedicated to a friend of Liszt, the composer Kornél Ábrányi. The twelfth, a mazurka, is perhaps a portrait of the Polish princess herself. The extrovert gaiety of this last piece in the suite does seem to contradict everything we have been led to believe about the character of the princess however, who enjoyed smoking cigars, wrote endless volumes on obscure liturgical issues, and probably never danced at all …