A Year of Pilgrimage

A Year of Pilgrimage

To celebrate the bicentenary of Franz Liszt's birth, amateur pianist James Holden sets himself a new challenge.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being a bit too ambitious. An amateur pianist of the most moderate ability, I had never studied a work so challenging before, let alone one so long. The technical demands were one thing — there were several passages where I knew my fingers would end up in knots — but also I wasn’t sure that I would be able to meet the piece’s complex emotional demands; here was both a call to worship and an act of worship in its own right. I had decided to teach myself to play ‘Angelus! Prière aux anges gardiens’, the first piece in Franz Liszt’s book Années de Pèlerinage, troisième année (1883). 

The first time I heard the ‘Angelus!’ it was the recording that Lazar Berman made for Deutsche Grammophon in the 1970s. Other-worldly and utterly beautiful, I thought then. There seemed to be a sense of breadth in these notes — a spaciousness that was only exaggerated by the analogue hiss of the needle on the vinyl. 

After hearing a pianist friend give an impromptu performance of the work — he made it look so easy — I decided to give it a try myself. Starting to read through a new piano piece is a bit like beginning a long novel, a sense of setting off into a rich and complex portrait of the world. I shifted a little nervously on my chair like a student waiting for an exam to start. Eventually, I drew in a deep breath, lifted my hands onto the keyboard and began to play.

But it didn’t sound right. I stopped. The work should open with a gentle rocking figure that’s designed to mimic church bells ringing out over the countryside, but the rhythm confused me. I resorted to counting out the beats in the bar much as my teacher had had to do in my very earliest piano lessons. One, two, three, four, five six; one, two, three, four, five, six. Slowly, the difficulties began to resolve themselves, and with each attempt I managed to play that opening passage a little more fluently.

I spent the next few days practicing the rest of the piece, but it took me much longer to overcome the problems past the first sixteen bars. I was confused by all of its odd modulations, rhythms and tied notes. And I found it particularly hard to keep track of the various accidentals that Liszt introduces (which include the occasional dreaded double sharp). But gradually I could isolate the bell-like melody line from the accompaniment and make it sing. It was simply necessary for me to hold my hands higher, to keep my wrists softer and loosen my stiff shoulders a little — I could hear my old teacher’s voice again.

At the end of ‘Angelus!’ the music falls away until all that is left is a short melody played without adornment. After a week or so of practice I had worked my way through to this simple coda, but to my surprise I found that playing this little tune was an exhausting experience. More mundanely, the fact that this final phrase is supposed to be played very  softly also presented me with a new problem: our old piano desperately needed to be regulated again, which is to say that the action needed to be adjusted to give me more control, smoothness and possibility of expression. Too often, these notes would either not sound at all or would boom out.

‘Angelus! Prière aux anges gardiens’ was the first stop on my own Lisztian ‘année de pèlerinage’, my own year of pilgrimage. I have set out to learn several of the composer’s other shorter and easier pieces, including the ‘Schlummerlied’, ‘En Rêve: Nocturne’ and the famously portentous ‘Nuages gris’. 

None of this is out of the blue. This year marks the bicentenary of the composer’s birth in Raiding, Hungary — Liszt was born on 22 October 1811. This anniversary is  being marked by a number of special events, international festivals, radio broadcasts, television programmes and academic conferences around the world. I’ll be staying put: Liszt’s music — together with my old piano — can take me from Switzerland and Sénancour’s ‘Vallée d’Obermann’ to the Italy of Michelangelo, Petrarch and Dante; here are the songs of the Venetian gondoliers and places like Weimar, Budapest and Rome, and ultimately Bayreuth, home of the Wagners and final resting place of Liszt himself.

Published on 1 September 2011

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