Franz Liszt and the Battle Against Tonality

Wesley Ivan Rose


Like many of the great Romantic composers of the 19th-century, Franz Liszt (1811-1886) often embedded his own biographical context into his programmatic music. Liszt’s solo piano piece Unstern! Sinistre, Disastro of 1885 exemplifies the height of musical innovation and personal narrative. As part of a comprehensive undergraduate project on the music of Liszt, the central purpose of this research is to identify what led Liszt to compose Unstern. Combining biographical evidence with a theoretical study of this work is essential for a complete interpretation. Theoretical study of Liszt’s late works, which in many ways summarize his compositional development and life-story, shows an innovative composer far ahead of his time. Putting these innovations in a biographical context reveals the influences that led to the striking compositions of Liszt’s old age. Arnold Schoenberg’s “Franz Liszt’s Work and Being” (1911) describes Liszt in history as “one of those who started the battle against tonality, both through themes which point to no absolutely definite tonal center, and through many harmonic details whose musical exploitation has been looked after by his successors.” This battle and legacy is clearly observable in Unstern. Structural, harmonic, and motivic analysis of Unstern was completed in order to identify and interpret its innovative qualities. The analytical work of 20th-century musicologist Elliot Antekoletz was used as a model to examine Liszt’s music. Unstern’s structure dismantles the predominance of the octave divided asymmetrically in music, which was the essential harmonic characteristic of music since the time of J.S. Bach in the Baroque period. Music historians and theorists traditionally associate the shift from asymmetry to symmetry with the music of the early 20th-century. A symmetrically organized tonal plan in Unstern shows Liszt well ahead of his time in 1885. A review of Liszt’s letters and his students’ diary entries from 1885 also contributed to a full view of Unstern’s biographical context, for instance, at the time of composition, Liszt was recovering from a disastrous fall down the stairs of his home in Weimar, Germany. This piece summarizes his personal depression and his inward turn to religion while facing death. With Unstern, Liszt synthesized his lifelong struggle for religious solace from a world in which he was widely known as a charlatan piano virtuoso. Simultaneously, he set the stage for a new era of musical innovation in the 20th-century.


Liszt; Unstern; Modernism

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