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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 5 Virtuosos
Richard Taruskin

It was inevitable that a new concept of instrumental virtuosity should have brought about a reconceptualization of the musical genre in which such virtuosity was traditionally exhibited. Accordingly, the nineteenth-century concerto—under the impact of the new virtuosity, but also under the impact of more general notions of romantic heroism and individualism to which the new virtuosity was itself a response—underwent a thorough transformation in form and conceptual content alike, and took on a new expressive significance.

Like so many other romantic reconceptualizations, this one can be traced back—if desired—to Beethoven. And of course such a tracing was desired by the protagonists of the change, for whom the titanic figure of Beethoven provided the ideal precedent and validation. Beethoven himself inherited the concerto—both as a form and as an “idea”—from Mozart. The directness of the succession can be seen most dramatically, perhaps, in Beethoven's Concerto no. 3 in C minor, op. 37 (1800), the first movement of which is so obviously modeled on that of Mozart's C-minor concerto, K. 491 (1786), by all odds Mozart's most “Beethovenian” work (Ex. 5-7a).

The Concerto Transformed

ex. 5-7a Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Concerto no. 3, I, opening theme (mm. 1-8)

The Concerto Transformed

ex. 5-7b Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Concerto no. 3, I, first solo entrance

The Beethoven and Mozart themes are of course orchestral themes. The Mozartean concerto that Beethoven inherited was the “symphonized” variant of the old ritornello form, in which a full-blown (but harmonically static) orchestral “exposition” stands in for the first ritornello, to be repeated (now in harmonically dynamic form) with the participation of the solo instrument upon its entry. Even though, as we know from accounts of actual performances, the soloist participated in a supporting role in all the tuttis, and even though the featured solo entrance could be mighty dramatic (as can be certainly be seen in Example 5-7b), the delayed solo entrance, and the elaborateness of the orchestral preface to it, tended to equalize the roles of soloist and orchestra. The concept of concerto that Mozart's continued to uphold was one of cooperation or conspiracy—that is, “concerted action” (as per the Italian concertare: to plan together, to hatch a plot, etc.)—rather than one of contest or opposition (for which the relevant Italian verb is contrastare).

The new virtuosity decisively altered the balance of forces in favor of the soloist, the lonely romantic “hero.” And so the beginning of Beethoven's next concerto, the Fourth, op. 58 (1805), is widely regarded as a romantic watershed (see Ex. 5-8), as its proximity to the Eroica Symphony (op. 55) seems to advertise. To open with the soloist rather than the orchestra was indeed a novelty (though not wholly unprecedented), even if the quietness of the exchange gives little inkling of heroism. The entry of the orchestra on a “remote” harmony (“V of vi” only in retrospect!) does tend to put the two forces somewhat at odds, and can be justly read as “romantic.” (The opposition of forces is far more obvious in the second movement, known to have been intended by Beethoven as a portrayal of “Orpheus in Hades,” with the piano cast as the protagonist and the orchestral strings as the Furies; some scholars, notably Owen Jander, have suggested that the entire concerto be “decoded” in the light of that reading.)15 Immediately after this exchange, however, the music settles into the familiar pattern; the soloist must wait almost seventy measures before regaining the spotlight.

The opening of Beethoven's Concerto no. 5 in E♭ major, op. 73 (1809), cast in the “Eroica” key and nicknamed “The Emperor” on account of its commanding size, is indisputably, indeed supremely, heroic. The work actually begins with a cadenza—or rather with three cadenzas, each embellishing the next harmony in a cadential succession. Even after this magnificent self-assertion, though, the solo instrument must recede to its traditional subordinate role, calmly awaiting its turn for formal reentry, which only takes place in m. 104.

Real integration of solo and tutti in a single thematic exposition had to await the advent of the generation born in the first decade of the new century. There was a forerunner of sorts in Weber's Konzertstück in F minor for piano and orchestra (1821), a single-movement “concert piece” more or less in the form of a traditional symphonic first movement with slow introduction, but with the piano and the orchestra freely sharing the thematic material from the outset. The unusual relationship of the performing forces had an “external” motivation in the form of a “program” or plot line, akin to the one that motivated the slow movement of Beethoven's fourth concerto. The piano is cast as a protagonist, the wife of a knight-crusader anxiously awaiting, then joyfully greeting, his return.

The Concerto Transformed

ex. 5-8 Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Concerto no. 4, I, mm. 1-14

The three mature concertos by Mendelssohn, by contrast, treat the new relationship of soloist and orchestra as standard operating procedure, requiring no special justification. The new relationship involves not only the sharing of thematic material between the forces, but also the nature and the role of the cadenza. In his two piano concertos—in G minor, op. 25 (1831), and D minor, op. 40 (1837)—the cadenza, rather than preceding the final tutti, forms a transition that joins the first and second movements in an unbroken continuity. In the Violin Concerto in E minor, op. 64 (1844), Mendelssohn's last orchestral work, the cadenza, fully written out (although marked ad libitum, meaning that the tempo should be free), is cast in the role of “retransitioner,” elegantly bridging the development and recapitulation. The reentry of the first theme against the soloist's continuing arpeggios is a justly celebrated moment.

Also very elegant is the way in which the solo violin and the orchestra share the thematic material in the exposition and recapitulation. At the outset, it is the violin, singing in its most brilliant register, that gets to announce the soaring opening theme. The second theme, by contrast, is played by a wind choir over a violin pedal (the new tonic key having been neatly calculated to coincide with the soloist's lowest open string). In the recapitulation, the orchestra gets both themes: the first scintillatingly accompanied by the violin's continuing figuration as noted, the second presented as it was in the exposition, but with enriched instrumental colors.

Hand in hand with the integration of solo and tutti, in Mendelssohn's influential conception, went the compacting and streamlining of the overall form by means of transitions, minimizing formal breaks and creating an impression of “organic” structural unity. Behind it stood an even more influential idea, enunciated by Goethe, Mendelssohn's (and Germany's) benevolent mentor, that artistic form should imitate the forms (Gestalten) of nature, first among which was the Urpflanze, the “primal plant,” nature's microcosm, all of whose parts were symbiotic.16 While scientific in “form,” this idea was quite mystically romantic in “content” (compare William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: “To see a world in a grain of sand/And a heaven in a wild flower”). Its influence led to new concepts of form founded primarily on thematic rather than tonal relations; we will be much preoccupied with them in chapters to come. But while romantic in its striving after organic unity, and while that organicism allows the soloist greater “thematic” prominence than previously the norm, Mendelssohn's concerto concept is nevertheless anything but heroic. The virtuosity it calls for is of the “brilliant,” ingratiating sort, and the soloist and orchestra are forever deferring to one another, graciously concerned that each get its share. That carefully maintained equality could even be called the perfection of the Mozartean concerto ideal. In any case it was a short-lived moment of amicable equilibrium, soon to be upended by the new virtuosity.

Liszt's long-gestating Concerto no. 1, cast not by any accident or oversight in the Eroica-cum-Emperor key of E♭ major, was sketched five years before Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, and completed five years after it; but it seems to come from another “period” altogether (not to say another planet). It is dedicated to Henry Litolff (1818–91), a French pianist-composer of English birth, who was experimenting with a new and enlarged concerto concept that he called concerto symphonique.

In a way this new genre was a modernization of an old one: the symphonie concertante (or sinfonia concertante), a symphony with important obbligato parts for a group of virtuoso soloists—itself a modernization of an even older form, the concerto grosso. Haydn and Mozart had written examples (Haydn for a concertino of mixed winds and strings; Mozart, respectively, for woodwind quartet and for violin and viola in tandem). The symphonie concertante flourished especially in Paris, as a regularly featured attraction at the Concert Spirituel. It even had a specialist composer, the Italian-born violinist Giuseppe Maria Cambini (1746–1825), who wrote more than eighty.

Litolff's concertos symphoniques differed from symphonies concertantes mainly in medium: a single piano soloist and a large orchestra that carried most of the thematic weight. Liszt's debt to Litolff is evident not only in the dedication of the concerto, and in its weighty “bigness” rather than brilliance of conception, but also (and most specifically) in its colorful orchestration that included piccolo and triangle, instruments first used by Litolff in the context of a keyboard concerto. Yet where Litolff's concertos were expansive four-movement affairs, Liszt opted, in keeping with the new “Goethean” fashion, for an even greater “organic” compression than Mendelssohn's.

His model here, perhaps surprisingly, was Schubert, still a composer of fairly local Viennese reputation at the time. The point of contact was Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy, his most virtuosic piano work, which Liszt began including in his concerts in the 1840s, and even arranged later as a concerto with orchestra. As noted in chapter 2, its four movements are all linked by transitions, so that the work is played without interruption. The “organic” continuity thus created, moreover, proceeds through a complete (and typically Schubertian) circle of major thirds, the four movements cadencing respectively in C major, E major, A♭ major, and C. As we shall see, Liszt became fascinated with this harmonic procedure and made it “typically Lisztian,” in the process disseminating it widely, thanks to his enormous fame and prestige, and to the high-powered assertiveness with which his virtuoso manner could project substantive stylistic novelties.

The Concerto Transformed

ex. 5-9a Franz Liszt, Piano Concerto no. 1, mm. 1-4

It is that manner, and that assertiveness, with which we are mainly concerned at present, and they hit the listener like a cannon blast in the opening phrases of the First Concerto (Ex. 5-9a), modeled in their rhetoric so closely on the opening blast from Beethoven's Fifth that their novelty, in seeming paradox, is all the more vividly displayed. Two peremptory unison phrases in sequence, set off by fermatas: but where Beethoven's phrases were degrees of the diatonic scale, Liszt's are chromatic segments that give no hint of a tonal orientation in themselves. They speak, in short, the language not of the sonata but of the fantasia.

The Concerto TransformedThe Concerto Transformed

ex. 5-9b Franz Liszt, Piano Concerto no. 1, mm. 14-23

Between the two of them they encompass four half steps descending two at a time, or (to put it the other way round) two whole steps that together descend a major third. At first Liszt chooses to interpret the final note of the descent as an enharmonically notated flat submediant (albeit disguised by the fermataed wind chord that harmonizes it as the fifth of an enharmonically notated “Neapolitan”), resolving straightaway to the dominant, on which the piano makes its Emperor Concerto–like entry, leading to a frankly marked cadenza (even more frankly labeled grandioso) that puts the opening chromatic idea through a little development section which circles back to the dominant to prepare for an orchestral reentry that (we have every reason to assume) will serve as expository ritornello.

The Concerto Transformed

ex. 5-9c Franz Liszt, Piano Concerto no. 1, mm. 25-37

And so it appears to do (Ex. 5-9b), until the piano cuts it off in measure 17 with another cadenza, which modulates to the Neapolitan key forecast in the opening bars. The orchestra tries again in the new key, only to be cut off for the third time by the piano (m. 23). By now there can be no doubt who is running the show. The soloist repeatedly, sometimes quite violently, seizes the spotlight, each time in order to display another facet of his personality—and the masculine pronoun seems justified not only by the aggressive nature of the pianist's interventions, but by his seductive advances on individual members of the supporting band. This third cadenza, for example, trails off into a long meditative episode (the second theme?) in which the piano is joined, beginning in measure 25, by several other solo instruments (clarinet, violins, cello) for confiding, seemingly amorous exchanges (Ex. 5-9c).

The overall form of the piece is likewise a display of various facets of a single entity: four linked episodes standing in (as per the Wanderer Fantasy) for movements, in which the last closes the tonal circle initiated by the first, and in which the middle episodes assume the characters of the traditional cantabile slow movement (quasi adagio at m. 99) and, abetted by the frolicsome triangle, the traditional scherzo (allegretto vivace at m. 175).

The Concerto TransformedThe Concerto Transformed

ex. 5-9d Franz Liszt, Piano Concerto no. 1, mm. 61-70

All of these facet-episodes, however, are motivically linked. The initial sequenced phrase, like the one that begins Beethoven's Fifth, shows up in the most various guises. Perhaps the most important is the one that first appears in the piano at m. 61 (Ex. 5-9d), a passage in bravura double octaves marked con impeto (with abandon), in which the chromatic descent is extended to encompass an entire octave—and then three octaves (!), so that the passage traverses the entire keyboard. It returns in m. 292 to form a bridge between the scherzo and the finale; and, played presto at m. 494, it returns again (this time in the tonic) to bring the whole concerto to a close.

At once “organic” and quite unconventional is the concerto's tonal organization or “key scheme.” The tonal space traversed by the original sequence, both in its four-half-step entirety (E♭–B) and in its two constituent phrases (E♭–D♭; D♭–B), governs many of the concerto's defining tonal relationships. The most “local” of these is the harmonization given the octave passage just described in Ex. 5-9d. The full chromatic scale occupies three beats, each containing four notes. Thus each beat contains the four-descending-half-step motive, and each repetition of the motive is harmonized with a root position triad, thus filling out a complete Schubertian cycle of major thirds to match the melodic completion of the chromatic scale: F♯–D–B♭–F♯. (On its last appearance the harmonization is “in the tonic” [i.e., E♭–B–G–E♭] exactly reproducing the root progression in the Sanctus from Schubert's Mass in E♭ major, cited in Ex. 2-11.)

The same relations, at the “global” level, define the tonal shape of the concerto as a whole. The work opens and closes in its nominal tonic, E♭. The Quasi adagio is cast in B major, and the bridge to the last movement (allegro animato at m. 292) is cast in C♯ (=D♭) major. This last, being a repetition of the octaves passage, is also harmonized by a circle of major thirds, C♯–A–F–C♯, one that exactly fills in the gaps, so to speak, between notes in the “tonic” circle described in the previous paragraph. The two circles of thirds are related exactly the way the opening pair of thematic statements relates to the chromatic scale: major thirds (four-half-step segments) subdivided into major seconds (two-half-step segments). Thus a thematic idea is interpreted harmonically to provide a tonal coherence based not on the generic circle of fifths but (as in some late works of Schubert) on an ad hoc circle of thirds. This is striking evidence indeed of the gradual shift from key to theme and motive as prime form-definer as the concept of “organic” unity took hold.

Particularly telling, from the standpoint of “organic” construction (or unity-within-diversity), are the thematic reprises in contrasting tempos and “characters.” The Concerto's finale contains four such reprises, turning it into a sort of “recapitulation” of the whole. Most radically altered are two: the solo flute theme that is first heard piano (and marked dolce, espressivo) at m. 155, the slow movement's quiet coda, returns forte (marked appassionato) at m. 321 to round off the mercurial transition (poco a poco più animato) into the finale.

Most striking of all is the reuse of the ruminative main theme of the Quasi adagio—utterly transformed in key, tempo, and articulation, differently harmonized, and differently continued—as the propulsive main theme of the finale (allegro marziale animato). Actually, the Adagio theme is divided into two new themes, each with an independent continuation: compare mm. 108–110 of the big piano solo in the Adagio with mm. 352 ff in the finale, and mm. 110–112 with mm. 368 ff (see Ex. 5-10).

The Concerto Transformed

ex. 5-10a Franz Liszt, Piano Concerto no. 1, Adagio, mm. 108-112

The Concerto Transformed

ex. 5-10b Franz Liszt, Piano Concerto no. 1, Finale, mm. 352-56

The Concerto Transformed

ex. 5-10c Franz Liszt, Piano Concerto no. 1, Finale, mm. 368-72

Liszt eventually gave a name to this fusing of variation technique with that of symphonic development and recapitulation. He called it “thematic transformation” (thematische Verwandlung). He proudly described it in a letter to his uncle Eduard (also a pianist) as “the binding together and rounding off of a whole piece at its close,” and added that the idea “is somewhat my own.”17 Clearly, though, it drew on a great deal of existing lore, both compositional and “philosophical” or aesthetic, and synthesized it in a manner that, depending on the point of view, could be variously described as unprecedentedly free or unprecedentedly rigorous. Either way, it could all be traced back to Beethoven, whose achievement could be similarly (variously and contradictorily) described.

Such technical and formal observations could be multiplied practically ad libitum: consider, for example, the fairly long stretch (mm. 320–37), where in a footnote Liszt directs the conductor's attention to “the rhythm of the first theme in the kettledrum,” another idea (“abstracted rhythm”) plainly—and proudly—appropriated from Beethoven's Fifth. They evince—or advertise—not only a wish to achieve a tight “organic” construction, but its realization as well. They testify, too, and somewhat ostentatiously, to the composer's impressive organizational skills: virtuoso composing to match virtuoso playing. And yet the result, for all its tightness and control, is a unique and unpredictable form; and the impression the concerto makes (and is designed to make) in its unfolding is that of a spontaneously inspired fantasia, an untrammeled train of associative thought, in which the soloist, the dominant personality, enjoys a hitherto unprecedented freedom to lead the orchestra—and the audience—whither he will.


(15) See Owen Jander, Beethoven's “Orpheus” Concerto: The Fourth Piano Concerto in Its Cultural Context (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2009).

(16) See Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären (Gotha, 1790).

(17) Letters of Franz Liszt, Vol. I, p. 330.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Virtuosos." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-005003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 5 Virtuosos. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 20 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-005003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Virtuosos." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 20 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-005003.xml