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An Analysis Of Liszt Sonata

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Published: Mon, 08 May 2017

This essay starts from the background of Piano Sonata in B minor. It then focuses on the importance of this work in romantic period. I will analyze the structure of this sonata, compare few scholars analysis and discuss how the technique of thematic use in the piece.

Liszt appreciated Beethoven’s music. He looked upon Beethoven’s piano sonatas as models. He was influenced by Beethoven a lot. The sonata’s development from baroque, classical to romantic period, approached the peak in the beginning of nineteenth century. Liszt’s Sonata in B minor leads a really important role. There are lots of arguments for this piece in the sonata literatures. The content and musical structure both are the topics of which are considered to continue the heritage of music in the past and usher in the future.

Liszt had composed three solo piano sonata in 1825, however these pieces were unpublished and now are lost. The only piano sonata now exist is “Sonata in B minor”. Liszt had the conception of this piece from 1851, until 1853 he completed this sonata. The sonata first publicly performed by Liszt’s pupil, Hans von Bülow on January 27, 1857 in Berlin. It has been first published in the spring of 1854 with a dedication to Schumann. Liszt said in a letter that this was his meaning of expressing appreciation for Schumann ‘s having dedicated to him the Fantasy op.17 in C (1838).

As a musician anxious to avoid formulaic composition, Liszt surely would have been delighted at the amount of scholarly bickering engendered by the Sonata in B minor. We discover from Winklhofer, for instance, that ‘for more than a century after its composition, the formal architecture of Liszt’s sonata has eluded convincing explanation’- until her own, of course m and so much for Newman, Longyear and the rest. Presumably until then all convincing performances of the Sonata, and the copies by Reubke and Liapunov, were achieved by serendipity.

– Hamilton, K. (1996) “Liszt Sonata in B Minor” P.28

Some of the analytical arguments over the form of the Sonata are largely discussed. The analysis of W. S. Newman has been most influential, He proposed a new idea “double-function form”, which means a structure that can be considered both as one continuous movement and simultaneously as a composite of the movements of a multi-movement work. In other words, the Sonata, though in one movement, presents elements of a first movement- slow movement- scherzo- finale structure. Newman was the first to illustrate this double-function view. Since in both views a multi movement structural mold predominated over that of a sonata form in one movement, the problem of large scale structure became a clouded issue. Whatever their differences, Newman, Longyear and Winklhofer are at least agreed with one point: that the sonata is not a programmatic work, and that as a result analysis of it can only proceed on purely musical terms. Liszt himself never dropped the slightest hint that the Sonata had a programme, but this is no problem, as several writers have been kind enough to supply one for him.

The Structure of the Sonata in B minor According to William Newman:

Double-function analysis (Four movements in one)

First movement of a sonata

exposition bar 1-330 development bar 331-525

recapitulation bar 525-681 coda bar 682-760

Four movements sonata

First movement bar 1-330 slow movement bar 331-459

scherzo bar 460-524 finale bar 525-681

coda bar 682-760

Allegro Andante Fugato Allegro Coda

Incomplete Sonatina





Incomplete Sonatina






The Structure of the Sonata in B minor According to Rey Longyear:

Double-function analysis (Three movements in one)

First movement of a sonata

introduction bar 1-7 exposition bar 8- 178

development bar 179-459 recapitulation bar 460-649

coda bar 650-760

Three movements sonata

First movement bar 1-330 Slow movement bar 331-459

finale bar 460-760

Allegro Andante Fugato Coda

First movement

Slow movement



Scherzando Coda




The Structure of the Sonata in B minor According to Winklhofer:

One-movement sonata form analysis

First movement of a sonata

exposition bar 1 -204 development bar 205-452

recapitulation bar 453-649 coda bar 650-760

Newman seems to sense that the double-function theory weakens under scrutiny. He warns twice of “the danger of making Procrustean beds out of such classifications.” The consequences of applying a rigid formal scheme upon a piece never born upon such terrain are dismissed as “compromises” which Liszt saw as necessary to retain the double-function dynamic. Nevertheless, this analysis is the most influential to appear thus far.

Rey Longyear also describes the work as a series of distinct movements, which combine for a large sonata form. He finds three movements (“First Movement,” ” Slow Movement” and” Finale”) in place of Newman’s four, but provides no justification for these designations.

– Winklhofer, S. (1978)Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor. P.120

In my opinion, I analyze this sonata B minor in three movements (“First Movement,” ” Slow Movement” and” Coda”) and combine a large sonata form. I will discuss why and analyze the structure in my essay.

First mvt. Second mvt. Third mvt. coda

















Unstable (G minor- B minor)B minor- D major

F sharp major-

A major-

F sharp major

B flat minor-

B minor-

B major

B major










































Section one Exposition

We can see section one as an exposition of the sonata form. From beginning to mm.17 is theme A, Liszt uses the variety of theme A in the whole piece. A1, A2, A3 motive lead the development of whole piece. William Stein Newman thought “motive A” is the important link which starts and ends every different section in the whole piece.

More noticeable here than the attractive character of these ideas is the effect on harmonic. The Sonata in B minor does not start in B minor, nor is any other key stably established. The first seven bars (mm.1-7) is a tonal centre of G as a beginning. The focus on G in motive A1 then serves as a point of common contact to the start of A2. In theme A, there are lots A sharp which is leading tone of B minor, can not resolve to B minor because of vague tone(Example 1 mm.1-17). Motive A1 begins with lento assai and sotto voce, consists of descending scales suggesting either G minor or C minor, with continuously alterations. The second motive A2 is characterized by its contour, which outlines a diminished seventh, and by its robust, dotted rhythms. This motive A2 also begins on G, but implies B minor, ending on A sharp. We may expect the tonic followed by this leading tone. Instantly the third motive (A3) is presented, a striking upbeat contour, starting on B minor but leaving with a diminished seventh on the leading tone to G at m.17. (see Example 1)

Example 1 mm.1-17


Liszt expresses his thematic presentation with fermatas on the rests at m.17 in the end. What follows is a brief section of transition. Those sequences all start on diminished seventh. This harmonic is really unstable, proceeds in chromatically ascending sequences, and presents a variation of motive A2 at m.25. Although the E flat major chord in mm.24-25 marks the peak of the chromatic rise which began in m.18, it is the result of a illusive cadential move. The dominant seventh on B at bar 24 which prepares E minor rather than E flat major. Liszt avoids affirmation of a key here again. (see example 2)

Example 2 m.18-31未命名2.PNG

He want a breathtaking arrival on F sharp in m.30, that why he chose the A2 motive for mm.25-29, and why the resolution is postponed , is explained by the first full cadence of this Sonata, finally appeared at bar 30-31. At m.31, Liszt delays the G as an appoggiatura to F sharp, the dominant of B. The entire element from mm.1-32 is an expended harmonic move from G at the beginning, to a implication of B minor (m.13), and the F sharp in m.30, and finally to B minor (m.32). The result is an dramatic cadential progression VI-i-V-I.









b: vi



V7 → i

Liszt uses only two motivic elements, derived from A2 and A3. Regular two bar phrases predominate. The harmonic rhythm has become slow and even, despite the speed of execution in performance, and the marking sempre forte ed agitato. Finally, he uses the subdominant to confirm B minor (Example 3. mm.32-44).

Example 3. mm.32-44

Beginning with bar 45, following the tonal presentation of B minor, we can see four sections of transitional material. The first section (bar 45-54) contains of A2 fragments appearing in sequence; second (bar 55-66) and third (bar67-81) sections use motive A2 in the famous passage of octaves, and the fourth (bar 81-104) changes back to A1.

At bar 105 first appear new theme B, and the key changes to D major.(Example 4) Theme B comes from Crux fidelis of plain chant. Here it is enough to draw attention to the imaginative phrase structure of this melody-two two- bar units then one five-bar phrase. The harmonic stability of the Grandioso theme in the Sonata is conspicuous by comparison with that of the exposition explored thus far. B minor had been weakened because of its delayed presentation and the use of subdominant rather than dominant confirmation. Although bar 105-119 is prepared for by strong cadential motion, which creates the expectation of an impending tonal plateau firmly seated in the secondary key, this is not in fact what occurs. The stability of D major is only momentary.

Example 4:

The motive of A2 moves into F major; and then D minor at bar 133-134. The section is static rather than dynamic in the sense of polarized tonal moves; Liszt moves to colorful harmonic areas related to D major. There is an extend of A2 at the section of dolce con grazia at bar 125, the value of note is expanded at right hand.

At bar 141-152 , A3 reappears and serves two purposes: First is to provide closure to the tonal deflection, second is to allow a transitional phrase introducing the last structural division of the exposition. The section (bar 153-204) offers a masterful transformation, theme C. Theme C appears at bar 153, this theme C has triggered a heated debate. Lots of scholars thought theme C is variation of A3, so it is not a new theme. However, the atmosphere is totally different, so it can be independent. The aggressive character of the original has become lyrical by means of rhythmic augmentation, a triplet accompaniment, and a new harmonization.

At bar 171, the triplet transformed to upper voice, the motive A2 appeared indistinctly on lower voice at bar 179. Liszt reinforced motive A2 by octave chords at bar 205 and 221.

Motive A3 appeared from bar 255, the tempo become agitated, from scale to octave parallel.

After bar 277, motive A1 developed from bar 275-286, and followed by motive A2. The key modulated dramatically to C sharp minor at bar 297 and theme B appeared.

Bar 275-281

Bar 294-302

The end of exposition mainly based on motive A3, some motive A2 modulated to E minor which integrate with A3. The lower voice continued repeating motive A3, and motive A2, the value of note is expanded at the upper voice.

Section 2 Development

The Andante starts roughly with a new Theme D at bar 331(example 5). A chorale which unfolds in tonal ambiguity as a parallel to the opening of the sonata at bar 1-7. Once again the structural seam is blurred, here by introducing the first chord of the Andante three bars early, then sustaining it until the changes of key, meter and tempo are accomplished silently at bar 331. Tempo is from Andante sostenuto to Quasi Adagio at bar 347, the key modulates to A major and theme C appears at bar 349. Theme B appears at bar 363 as F sharp major and modulates to g minor reappears again at bar 376. This is the only time theme B shows as minor (example 6). After the contrast between upper and lower voice, theme D which only showed twice in development now reaches a climax in development section (example 7). There are lots of diminished seventh and semitone after the climax.

“The Andante maintains the basic sonata characteristics. A secondary key area in the lowered mediant is presented after the opening tonic statement in F sharp; following two modulatory sections, both the chorale and the secondary material return for reinterpretation in F sharp. Like the first presentation of the chorale, the recapitulation at mm.393ff. likewise makes a gradual approach to the tonic. F sharp is confirmed throughout the remainder of the slow movement, particularly in an attenuated dominant progression at mm. 415-33.”

– Winklhofer, S. (1978)Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor. P.158

From bar 454, motive A1 becomes a bridge which connects development and recapitulation and at bar 460 Liszt used the term G flat instead of F sharp (enharmonic equivalent) for the changes of the key, which is from F sharp major to B flat minor (example 8).

Example 5:

Example 6:

Example 7:

Example 8:

Section 3 Recapitulation

In the Classical Style, Charles Rosen discusses “one fixed rule of sonata recapitulation: material originally exposed in the dominant or dominant substitute must be represented in the tonic fairly completely, even if rewritten and reordered…This is , of course, not a rule at all but a sensitivity to tonal relationships.” Liszt conforms to this requirement. After the reinterpretation of secondary key area in the exposition in B major as a muted point of arrival, he omits the tonal deflection and its transitional tail, the bar 153-178 from the exposition are then restated in the tonic (mm.616-614); after m.644, motive A2 modulates, as did the original passage in the exposition.

– Winklhofer, S. (1978)Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor. P.154

Why did I choose the fugue section (from bar 460) as a beginning of recapitulation?

The structure in section 3 is similar to section 1, and the motives are symmetrical. This is why I choose the fugue section as a beginning of recapitulation. The reason why there is no motive A1 in the beginning, it is because motive A1 have already appeared at the end of development (bar 453-459, example 8), so the recapitulation starts with motive A2 and A3 (example 9).

example 9:

The fugue’s counterpoint gradually transforms itself in masterly fashion into a more homophonic texture, a process initiated by the combination of A2, articulated in chords, with A3 (bar502-508). A middle voice, also sounding A3, produces a stretto between the two lower parts. Motive A2 chords take on a more agitated dotted rhythm while the left hand forsakes A3 to take up A2- but in inversion at bar 509. At bar 554 the chromatic flux that introduced the B flat major to G minor to E flat major sequences of motive A2 takes a new turn. Liszt landed on a chord of E flat again, but without the sequence. The chord of E fat accompanies theme A1 (bars 555-560) to develop, however, serves to affirm the tonic of B rather than move away from it. The E flat chord maintains its first inversion bass of G, but upper voices move on to B and E nature, and theme A1 is repeated again. The G bass turns to F sharp, the dominant of B, and motive A2 and A1 alternate in different registers of piano. The variant of shapes taken by these two motives can stop the inevitable pull to B, its dominant pedal attached in the bass. At bar 673 we hear them A2 in the same position again, but marked Presto with its initial G immediately contradicted by G sharp, simultaneously the beginning of the coda and a reworking of the false recapitulation, now transformed in the original key. Motive A1 increases in momentum to open the doors for a Prestissimo variation of motive A2 and arrive in B major with fff. After setting the entire keyboard ringing with the dominant seventh of B, suddenly breaks off. A silence introduces a recall of the Andante sostenuto in the tonic, its final cadence strangely interrupted (bar 728-729). The bass note has landed on B, nut the upper parts presents the diminished seventh chord of motive A2, the harmony that prepared the way for the Andante’s first appearance (bar 328-330). The Andante recall seems to be going into reverse as the bass intones the sinister chatter of motive A3 on B. A weak cadence on a chord of B major is darkened twice by a reminder of the dissonant G with which the Sonata began. The final chord progression at bar 754-760 is probably the most remarkable of its type in the piano literature of the entire nineteenth century. A minor and F major are bravely posed for a coloristic approach to B major by thirds. The six four inversion of B major offers an accurate arrangement, the sonority is like bell-ringing, and the rhythm is disoriented. This unstable chord fulfills the function of closure normally supplied by a triad in root position. The root of this B major chord is then repeated in the bass as an unexpected point, just like a punctuation of full stop at the end (example 10).

Example 10

”In summarizing the relationship between content and form in the Sonata, the evidence of Liszt’s conscious control is overwhelming. The Sonata exhibits the same sensitive balancing of tonal and thematic elements for which Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven are recognized. The underlying differences issue from the change in the basic chord grammar. Weakening the tonic areas in a sonata form was only one structural manifestation of contemporary attitudes toward form, The expressivity of the sonata procedure had taken on a new dimension.”

– Winklhofer, S. (1978)Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor. P.164

How do the great pianists think about the structure?

The great pianist , Alfred Brendel and Claudio Arrau, they think this sonata is one movement structure. From Alfred Brendel’s Book “Music Sounded Out” Alfred Brendel thought this piece as one movement structure including five sections. Claudio Arrau thought this sonata contains six sections. In Joseph Horowitz’s Book “Conversations with Arrau” Arrau said that the mastery of construction sets this sonata apart. In its time such free form in a sonata was completely unknown.

How does analysis affect performance?

What effect should music’s structure have on the way in which music is performed? In particular, how should the results of analysis be conveyed to the listener? One familiar response- at least, the one I have heard most often- asserts that analysis is useful because, knowing what a piece of music contains in terms of structure, the performer can proceed to ‘bring it out’.

-Rink,J. (1995)The Practice of Performance

In Alfred Brendel’s books: Schunabel always encouraged students to find out as much as possible about the structure, harmonies, motivic technique, used in each score. But there is no basis for interpretation in most of this….To begin the study of a new work by analyzing its form, in school-term paper fashion, is more harmful than helpful…True analysis is but a clarification and intensification of musical sensitivity, an additional push in the right direction as established by musical instinct. Like Schnabel, I feel that few analytic insights have a direct bearing on performance, and that analysis should be the outcome of an intimate familiarity with the piece rather than an input of established concepts.

A more convincing explanation for the genesis of the Sonata appears in an examination of Liszt’s corpus of one-movement instrumental works from the early fifties. As he discovered unusual formal procedures in the symphonic poems, for example, it seems more likely that he decided to experiment similarly in piano compositions. This hints that solutions to specific structural problems flooded into ideas for the content and architecture of the Sonata. The inspirational source was therefore an internal one, within Liszt’s own imagination, and related to his current orchestral projects.

Liszt’s perceptive of the classical style, and his acknowledge recognition of a linking Beethoven’s treatment of form in the late works, and his own in the fifties, is worth examining. His intellectual approach to formal theory suggests an undiscovered avenue for understanding the basic technique of the Sonata. Liszt implemented structural principles adapted from the classical style should prove that the B minor Sonata was bound to tradition more securely than is commonly considered, and that his accomplishment of balance between traditional form and inspirational consent was in fact approached at skillfully.

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