Transcendental Études, S. 139

These Etudes, written by Franz Liszt, were a revision if a series of etudes written in 1837 (which were actually elaborations on a set written in 1826). Published in 1852, they are among the most difficult pieces in the entire keyboard repertoire.

No. 1 (Preludio) – C major

The first etude can be played in under a minute if the presto marking is followed. It begins boldly in C major, and has a very difficult passage in which the bottom two voices ascend in chromatic thirds at an eighth pulse, while the top voice has straight sixteenth-notes:

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No. 2 (Molto vivace) – A minor

This piece highlights alternating and overlapping hands. It also has very quick and large right hand leaps, which is why it was given the nickname “Fusées” (rockets) by Ferruccio Busoni in his edition.

No. 3 (Paysage) – F major

This etude is slightly reminiscent of Chopin’s Etude in E major. It is more approachable than the others in Liszt’s collection, but separating melody from the thick accompanimental texture is a great challenge for the pianist:

 

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No. 4 (Mazeppa) – D minor

This etude is inspired by Victor Hugo’s poem “Mazeppa.” Mazeppa is a man who is punished by being strapped on a horse who is set free to run in the wild. Now, listening to this piece, critics of Liszt may be disgusted with how busy and technical it is. However, whe considering his attempt to portray the aforementioned poem, one may come to believe that Liszt was the only one who could have set this poem to music.

It is quite formulaic, with the technical challenge being rapid parallel thirds. This occurs in both hands. The sections are clearly punctuated by notorious double-octave runs that cause even the bravest crew to abandon ship. Even in the slower section, in which the melody becomes simple and the intensity of the piece calms, there are impossible accompaniment patterns around it:

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See also how Liszt sets the final line of the poem: “il tombe, et se relève roi!” (he falls then rises a king):

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No. 5 (Feux Follets) – Bb major – listened to this in class

Nicknamed “Wills o’ the Wisp,” this whimsical piece features blazing fast chromatic runs in the right hand for a greater portion of the work. The dynamics shift very suddenly and frequently. The piece is unpredictable, as is the wind.

No. 6 (Vision) – G minor

This etude has the challenges of accompaniment figures that span very large intervals, well above that of an octave. In some editions the beginning is marked to be played only with the left hand, though it is already difficult enough with both!

 

No. 7 (Eroica) – Eb major

The seventh etude is in Eb major and is nicknamed “Eroica” as a tip of the cap to Beethoven, whose “Eroica” symphony was also in Eb major. The heroic motive is very march like, and is much simpler than much of the entire work:

 

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Liszt then embellishes the motive. including more virtuosic accompaniment. It is worth noting that many composers, including Busoni, thought that the earlier versions of this etude were more challenging. With that said, the final version does contain entire sections of octaves in both hands:

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No. 8 (Wilde Jagd) – C minor

Another fast one, this was titled “Wilde Jagd” by Liszt, which translates to “wild hunt.” The A section is in C minor, and the B section is in E-flat major. The piece ends with a flurry of descending chords in the right hand:

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No. 9 (Ricordanza) – Ab major

This etude contrasts his bolder and more epic etudes such as “Mazeppa” and “Wilde Jagd” in its sweeter affect, but it maintains its virtuosity. It is perhaps more challenging for some pianists to play all of the rapid runs and thick chords at the more reserved dynamic levels instructed here by Liszt. Here is a classic Liszt cadenza that is played fairly soft:

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No. 10 (Allegro agitato molto) – F minor

This etude is one of the more frequently played of the set. It begins with rapidly alternating chords in both hands:

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The accompaniment patterns, once again, are impossible. However, the melody is much more prominent overall than many of the other movement, which is likely a primary reason that it is one of the most played.

No. 11 (Harmonies du Soir) – Db major

As indicated in the title (Harmonies du Soir), this piece is made up of lots of chords. They are usually rolled chords, and that combined with the harmonic language makes this piece sound like a precursor to impressionism. Here is an excerpt from earlier in the beginning, notice the top line:

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Compare that top line now with a section from Debussy’s Clair de Lune:

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In both excerpt we have rolled chords decreasing in energy heading to the next (busier) section.

No. 12 (Chasse-Neige) – Bb minor

This piece depicts a violent snowstorm (Chasse-Neige), and features a simple melody with both hands having tremolos underneath:

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Publishers of Liszt’s music include:

  • Henle Verlag

Notable performers with recordings of this piece include:

  • Claudio Arrau
  • Evgeny Kissen

Captain Thaddius’ Hot Take:

Undertaking this work is a pianist’s suicide note. Unless you are one of the best performers in the world, with flawless technique, you will spend forever practicing this, hurt your arms, develop tendonitis, and stop playing until you heal. Then, you will move on to something else. If you do manage to learn one of the pieces, chances are nobody in the audience that isn’t interested in piano for virtuosity’s sake will enjoy listening to it. Just choose something else!!

 

 

 

Notable recordings: Kissen

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