Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage Suisse (published 1855) are not fictional imaginings conjured up at home but his responses, in music, to the alpine landscape and landmarks of Switzerland, which he visited with Marie d’Agoult during the period 1835-1839. While owing a great deal to the romantic poetry of Goethe and Byron (in particular Childe Harold), these are also musical ‘postcards’, and the landscape and places they describe can still be viewed and visited today.
Having just enjoyed another holiday in the French Alps, quite close to the places of Liszt’s peregrinations, it is easy to see how the landscape inspired him. Driving down the autoroute south of Dijon, the first intimation one has of a change in the landscape, from the dull, flat agricultural land of the French interior only occasionally relieved by sugar-beet processing plants and statuesque wind turbines, are the Jura mountains, but these are mere trifles compared to the soaring grandeur of the Alps, whose snowy peaks rise up around Geneva and its lake. One really begins to appreciate their awesomeness when one leaves the motorway to begin a 30 minute ascent up twisting mountain roads to one of the many villages and ski stations that nestle in the high valleys. With spring now underway, there are cowslips and other wild flowers in bloom, and streams, augmented by the melting snow, gush noisily down the slopes, rushing headlong to sea level.
The peaks and high slopes are still snow-covered and on a sunny day the snow glints and glistens like crystal. The sky is intensely blue, the sun, in the thinner mountain air, hot on one’s skin. After a few days in this glorious landscape, one feels refreshed and healthy, released from the smog and noise of the city. Franz and Marie probably felt the same.
The alpine landscape of today isn’t so different from the landscape Liszt encountered in the mid-nineteenth century. Approaching Switzerland from the east, he probably enjoyed the great peaks of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. Travel would have been far more difficult then, with few proper roads through the mountains, but local guides could be hired to take one on walking tours, and there were plenty of refuges and hostels for weary travellers to rest in at the end of a day spent hiking.
In ‘Pastoral’ Liszt evokes lush mountain pastures, wild flowers, birdsong and fauna, and the pleasure of being in such a landscape; while ‘Au Bord du Source’ describes a mountain stream, playfully carving its course towards the sea. ‘Au Lac de Wallenstadt’ vividly captures the image of a beautiful mountain lake, a light breeze ruffling its clear surface.
‘Orage’ describes the rapidly changing weather of the Alps: I’ve sat and watched a storm brewing in the opposite valley, dark clouds rolling in, the heavy sky scored with shards of lightning, and Liszt brilliantly captures the storm with unsettling chromatic scales in octaves, massive left-hand chords and cadenza-like passages.
‘Vallee d’Obermann’ is a more pensive and philosophical piece, and the place itself does not exist. Rather, the music is based on a romantic literary construct. Built on a simple descending figure, which is recapitulated many times throughout the piece, the music is both imposing and wistful, with its impressive double octaves, evoking the grandeur of the landscape, and graceful melodic lines.
‘Eclogue’ returns to the pastoral mood of the earlier pieces. Short and gentle, it evokes the joy of the dawning of a new day. In ‘Le mal du pays’ the homesickness of the traveller is evoked, tinged with depression and yearning, and a poignant farewell to country. Its ending, in the lower register, brings no relief from the melancholy mood. In the final piece of the suite, ‘Les cloches de Genève’, (‘The Bells of Geneva’) the music is less evocative of the sound of bells, but its mood, underlined by one of Liszt’s more romantic melodies, suggests joy and love, providing an antidote to the dark mood of the previous piece.
British pianist Peter Donohoe describes these pieces as ‘very personal and visual… highly emotional for composer, performer and audience’, and a good performance (such as Donohoe’s at the Southbank in February – review here) can be intense, romantic and highly concentrated. The works from the second year (Italy) are, by contrast, more concerned with literary and artistic impulses (a painting by Raphael, a sculpture by Michelangelo, the poetry of Petrarch) but are no less interesting and absorbing, to listen to and to play.
For a good recording of the complete Années de Pèerinage, look no further than Lazar Berman, though I also like Wilhelm Kempf, particularly in the three Petrarch Sonnets.