May Composer: Franz Liszt
Étude No. 3 in G# minor, ‘La Campanella’, 1851
This was the first piece of classical music that hooked me in…okay other than the Doctor Who theme and probably countless other film and television soundtracks. But in terms of listening to the music without associating it with any sort of visual story, Liszt’s ‘La Campanella’ was it.
It’s a short, fast, melodically tinkling kind of piece, which makes sense as La Campanella means ‘little bell’ in Italian. I’m not sure what it was about the piece that did it for me. I have a soft spot for the piano and the form is similar enough to the pop/rock song I usually listened to — five minutes of a repetitious melody and a thundering climax around the ¾ mark — which actually makes it sound a little more like a novel.
It reminds me of driving over Arthurs Pass in the Southern Alps of New Zealand. A relatively short drive in comparison with some mountain ranges, it’s impressive, scary and sometimes disgustingly beautiful. You weave and wind your way through bare hills climbing all the while. You breach what you think is the top where you get a brief glimpse of a magnificent view before finding yourself on the way down again, only to repeat the same again and again in slightly different ways.
Now you’re in a forest, now there’s a rushing stream beside you, a rocky outcrop ahead. Then finally you climb steeper than before and find yourself teetering almost on the edge of the road, the curve so steep, so sheer that surely you’re about to drive off the edge of the world. But no, you descend into a series of winding, swirling narrow roads into a gorge of wonder…and then emerge out the other side somewhat breathless in a flat and serene environment.
Liszt was a prodigious pianist so it’s not surprising that this piece turns out to be quite technically difficult. It’s also indicative of its time in the Romantic Era (1820-1910) where may composers were said to be out to show off their abilities.
What did surprise me somewhat was to find out that this piece was derived from another composer’s work, Paganini’s ‘Violin Concerto No.2 in B minor’. When Liszt met Paganini, a composer and violin virtuoso he became enamoured with him and wrote a series of Etude’s based on Paganini’s own work as a homage Grandes etudes de Paganini.
He’s interesting too Liszt because not long before he composed this piece, he’d become one of the first rock star style classical performers. He travelled Europe playing concerts for years and the term Lisztomania was coined, due to the hysteria he could cause in his fans.
I felt a little flush when I read this, thinking I too perhaps had fallen for something similar, but as I’ve said before popular is often popular for a reason.