Liszt’s Nuages gris: a Tristan parody?

Post–tonal theory class, opening class agenda, two musical excerpts: the iconic opening to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde Act I Prelude and Franz Liszt’s remarkable little piano piece, Nuages gris. The former, completed in 1859, is iconic for signaling the limits of chromatic saturation within common-practice tonality, and its much-debated harmonic structure provides plenty of discussion fodder. The latter, completed in 1881, is remarkable for its radical innovation especially considering the source from which it came. (It’s fun to play the “name that composer” game with this piece.) Tonal, harmonic and metric ambiguities abound throughout, leading to an open-ended final pseudo-cadence that contains elements of both resolution and non-resolution simultaneously. (Liszt’s “cadence”, with its whole-tone final chord, brings to mind the “in-between” music of Alexander Scriabin beginning around the op.53 Piano Sonata No.5. Compare, for example, Liszt’s cadence with the final cadence of Scriabin’s op.56, no.4 etude from 1908. The fact that Scriabin’s cadence has more tonal closure with its descending fifth bass line indicates just how radical Liszt’s piece was, being written 27 years earlier.)

Scriabin Etude

Alexander Scriabin, Etude, op.56 no.4 (ending)

Liszt Nuages Gris

Liszt, Nuages gris, ending (Errata: B-natural in R.H. in final chord)

At any rate, as I worked through Nuages gris once again, I heard something I had never noticed before. There is a striking resemblance between the final 16 bars of the Liszt and the opening 13 bars of the Tristan prelude, though Liszt’s “cloudy” setting prevents the connection from being blatantly obvious. Listen 

Wagner, Tristan Prelude

Wagner, Tristan (1857-59), Act I Prelude opening

Liszt, Nuages Gris

Liszt, Nuages gris (1881), mm.31-48.

The most obvious resemblance, the one that initially caught my ear, is Liszt’s rising chromatic soprano line. Like the Wagner, there are three main phrases consisting of 4 to 5 notes, the first notes of each phrase have longer duration relative to the final notes of each phrase, the final notes of each phrase fall on a weak beat with the penultimate note serving as a kind of accented dissonance, and the entire ascent occupies the same register, ultimately arriving at the pitch F# (which, in both cases, eventually leads to G). Listen to the Liszt passage again (starting at the 2:13 mark in the above YT video). With these resemblances in mind, it’s easy to hear the Tristan prelude in there.

The resemblances don’t end with the melodic ascent, however. The left hand of Liszt’s piece crawls downward chromatically matching the chromatic descents that pervade the Wagner accompaniment. Furthermore, the bass arrival on A connects with what is generally considered to be the initial key of the Wagner prelude, A minor.

Could this be Liszt borrowing from Wagner, whether consciously or subconsciously? Could he be commenting on or even parodying the Wagner passage from two decades earlier?

I investigated a bit and things got pretty interesting. Kenneth Hamilton’s fascinating book chapter entitled “Wagner and Liszt: Elective Affinities” from Richard Wagner and His World explains just how complex the relation between the two in-law composers was at this time. Hamilton, admittedly not interested in refuting the traditional view that “Wagner exploited Liszt — both financially and artistically — and that Liszt allowed himself to be exploited” (p.27), devotes his attention to showing the dramatic impact each had on the artistic endeavors of the other. Below is a timeline of relevant events drawing primarily from events Hamilton’s essay.

1841: Liszt’s song “Die Lorelei” completed.

One instance of outright thievery is obvious: Wagner’s Tristan prelude opening is right there in the opening bars of Liszt’s song “Die Lorelei” from 1841, revised in 1856. Take a listen. In addition to the obvious aural connections, notice the E#-F# motion mimicked by Wagner’s prelude.

Liszt, Die Lorelei

Franz Liszt, “Die Lorelei” (1841, rev. 1856)

(So is Nuages gris an instance of Liszt stealing from himself, filtered through Wagner?)

1844: First version of Liszt’s “Ich möchte hingehn” completed.

The infamous “Tristan chord” (bar 2 of the Wagner prelude) can be found in Liszt’s song “Ich möchte hingehn” originally composed around 1844, thus predating the opera by about 15 years. However, the truth is that Liszt inserted the chord as a quotation of Wagner much later, after Liszt had become familiar with the opera.

1847/?1849: Liszt composes the first of many Wagner transcriptions to come, the Overture to Tannhäuser.

1856-59: Tristan composed

1865Tristan premiered, led by conductor Hans von Bülow (from whom he stole Cosima, Liszt’s daughter, to be his wife). Von Bülow is also responsible for the piano arrangement of the Tristan prelude excerpted above.

1867: Liszt’s piano transcription of the “Liebestod” from Tristan completed

1881: Nuages gris completed, a few months after an accident falling down stairs left him bedridden and ultimately suffering from dropsy.

1882: Liszt’s composes his Solemn March to the Holy Grail (from Parsifal). Beginning in the mid-1870s, Liszt’s arrangements of Wagner’s music veered further and further away from their models. What began as embellishments led to “downright distortions.” Such distorted renderings reached an apex with this Parsifal March, which Hamilton refers to as a “twisted parody rather than a transcription from it, as if Liszt is trying to remember the music but can’t quite figure out how it goes.” (p.42) Hamilton points to this twisted march as the probable cause of Wagner’s sharp attacks on Liszt’s late music. According to Cosima’s diaries from November 1882, her husband referred to these late works of her father as evidence of “budding insanity.”

1883: Wagner’s death

1883: Liszt’s Am Grabe Richard Wagners completed, a “disjointed, nostalgic sketch” that even further extends the tendencies of the Parsifal march.

1886: Liszt’s death. That Tristan was on Liszt’s mind at the end of his life is evidenced by Cosima’s claim that her father’s dying utterance was “Tristan!” — that is, if we are to take that story as being anything more than legend.


About Luke Dahn

Composer and music theorist Luke Dahn is Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Utah. He is also co-founder and artistic co-director of Ensemble Périphérie, and lives in Salt Lake City with his wife Yu Jueng and daughter Mae.
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2 Responses to Liszt’s Nuages gris: a Tristan parody?

  1. Keith Heimann says:

    Fascinating research (as always)!

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