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Take a deeper dive into specific pieces of music and composers with Classical KC and the UMKC Conservatory while learning how they connect to events today.

Franz Liszt's 'Transcendental' works take etudes to the next level

Portrait of Franz Liszt by Henri Lehmann.
Henri Lehmann
Musée Carnavalet
Portrait of Franz Liszt by Henri Lehmann.

From practice rooms to concert halls, Franz Liszt's Transcendental Etudes present pianists with musical and technical hurdles that result in magical performances.

Xiangyu Zhao is a composer, pianist and doctoral candidate at the UMKC Conservatory.

Franz Liszt's Transcendental Etudes are touchstone works for pianists to test their technical and physical strength. For 18 year old pianist Yuchan Lim, his performance of the entire set of etudes helped him with a huge accomplishment: becoming the youngest gold medalist at last year's Van Cliburn Piano Competition.

Before even reaching the concert stage, these etudes have been stretching the limits of pianists' fingers for centuries.

Etude, a word that means “study” in French, is a type of composition that presents technical challenges to practice playing other works fluently. Beethoven’s student, Carl Czerny, composed over a thousand piano etudes, which have been used as method pieces for beginner students over many years.

During the 19th century, however, musical and artistic aspects were added to etude writing, yielding well-known works like Frédéric Chopin’s 27 Piano Etudes. Likewise, Liszt’s piano works are known for both technical and musical difficulties, and his 12 Transcendental Etudes best represent his virtuosic style.

It’s not enough for pianists to only overcome the technical difficulties presented in these pieces. The purely musical issues, along with the requisite physical strength, are mainly what scare pianists away from trying to perform them all. Liszt calls his etudes “transcendental” for these comprehensive and boundless requirements for pianists.

Liszt composed three versions of the Transcendental Etudes. The first version, "Etudes en douze exercises, S.136," was finished when he was only 16 years old. The most known and performed version is the final editing: "Etudes d'exécution transcendante, S.139." He dedicated the work to his teacher Carl Czerny.

Liszt gave titles to ten of the twelve etudes. There are in Italian, French, and German as well. “Mazeppa” describes the legend of Ivan Mazzepa, who was a military and political leader in Ukraine during the 17th century. Liszt also composed a version for orchestra, which he called a “Symphonic Poem.”

The other etude, “Feux Follets,” describes a ghost fire. "Wilde Jagd" concerns the mythological “wild hunt.” And yet, some of the etudes show the other side of Liszt's music style - less dazzling display and more charm and elegance.

Three etudes, "Paysage," "Ricordanza," and "Harmonies du Soir," all contain abundant imagery and graceful melodies. "Paysage" portrays a beautiful landscape, and listeners may even hear the movement of clouds that change the color of sunlight. "Ricordanza," meaning “memory,” seems to tell a story of a loved one in the past. "Harmonies du Soir," or Evening Harmonies, shows a peaceful night with a breeze and river flowing by.

Learning these etudes is like a quarterback studying the entire NFL playbook, understanding all the plays, and executing them according to the coach’s plans. When done right, the final result is akin to Patrick Mahomes scoring a touchdown.

Hear these works performed by pianist Xiangyu Zhao as part of a doctoral recital.

Xiangyu Zhao, piano (Doctoral Recital)
Location: White Recital Hall
Date: Saturday, April 29, 2023
Time: 12:00pm CDT (12:00 EST)

Learn more.