Recorded on 04/21/1997, uploaded on 08/27/2011
Musician's or Publisher's Notes
In his later years, Franz Liszt abandoned the virtuosic style of his past compositions that had simultaneously won him both fame and condemnation as a composer. He embarked, instead, on a path of experimentation, of reflective and introspective pieces that he composed solely for himself. His style fundamentally changed, in a manner far more dramatic than even the change between Beethoven’s early and late periods. No more were the melodies and harmonies written for showmanship; now every note and rest was carefully weighed and calculated, and a severe economy of means practiced. He experimented in techniques, such as atonality and quartal harmonies, which would not be seen by the general musical world for some decades later. Some of these pieces grew out of an increasing awareness of his own mortality and it was beneath the despair of declining health that he penned what is considered to be one of his most influential compositions, though hardly one of his most popular with audiences: Nuages gris.
Composed on Augusts 24, 1881, Nuages gris (“Grey Clouds”) is a striking prelude to the Impressionism of Debussy. Indeed, Debussy, as well as Stravinsky, was one of the earliest to sing the piece’s praises. Marked Andante and commencing quietly, it opens with an eerily melody (or rather, a melodic fragment), which despite the opening melodic movement of a perfect fourth followed by an augmented forth, nevertheless establishes the tonic of G. However, as the piece progresses what feeling of tonality which exists at the beginning is eventually lost. This fragment is reiterated four times without embellishment, emphasizing the stark economical means of Liszt late music. On the melody’s third repetition, a tremolando figure begins in the bass, oscillating slowly and ominously between B-flat and A, and with little regard to the movement of the melody above it. Halfway through the piece, the music changes: the melodic fragment becomes a sort of ostinato bass over which a new motif emerges. This somewhat contrasting section, however, is short-lived. A more conventional accompaniment pattern, though unconventionally based around augmented triads, commences in the left hand over a slowly rising chromatic line in the right. This section, too, is fleeting, evaporating away as the treble climbs up to a high F-sharp. Without a doubt, the most striking feature of the piece is the closing: two chords, unrelated and certainly unjustifiable even by the farthest stretches of the rules of tonal harmony, serve as the final cadence, creating instead of a sense of finality, a feeling of infinite drifting, like the morose and immeasurable expanse of rain clouds. Joseph DuBose
courtesy of the Liszt-Kodaly Society of Spain
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