The Last Judgement

Doctoral Solo Recital 3

Franz Liszt: Sonata in B minor
Franz Liszt: “Grey Clouds”
Alban Berg: Sonata, Op. 1

With any recital program, I am always looking for an overall theme or story to base mine off of. I’d rather not restrict myself to the ‘sampler plate’ recital, typically including non-related pieces from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras with one other piece that’s usually Contemporary. Personally, I find it very important to have an underlying narrative to share, or a significant connection between the musical pieces to make. My recent attempt with this resulted in an all-Bach recital in 2019, including transcriptions from Liszt, Busoni, and Siloti.

For my final solo Doctoral recital, I will be starting the program with Liszt’s infamous Sonata in B minor, a single-movement monument in the piano repertoire due to its length of 30 minutes with no breaks, and its divine use of Liszt’s compositional practice of ‘thematic transformation.’ The ending of the Sonata paves way for the recital program’s ‘connecting piece’ to introduce Liszt’s miniature impressionistic work, “Grey Clouds,” immediately followed by Alban Berg’s Sonata, Op. 1.

With much inspiration from Dr. Paul Barnes’s lecture, “Liszt and the Cross,” musicians can now envision the Liszt Sonata as a sacrament – a physical manifestation of Divine energy, similar to the purpose of Iconography. This primarily comes from Liszt’s background in wanting to become a Priest, and his devotion to the Reformed Catholic church and Byzantine chant. The Sonata includes three themes presented at the beginning: 1.) Symbolism of Evil, 2.) Mankind, 3.) Satan. Later in the work, we discover two more important melodic segments that create the foundation for the entire Sonata: the Cross motive in the Exposition, and the Devotion that signifies the beginning of the ‘Development’.

The conclusion of the Sonata is incredibly profound since it no longer follows the ‘norm’ of a bombastic, fortissimo ending, just like every other Sonata that had been produced up to that point in time (with exception to Beethoven’s divine Op. 111 conclusion). Instead, Liszt’s pianississimo (ppp) ending could symbolically represent the separation of the Saved and the Damned when Christ returns and judges the living and the dead: the Last Judgement.

Nuages Gris (“Grey Clouds”) follows in the direction that the Sonata concluded with: an impressionistic, timeless approach to music with overwhelming power given to sonority rather than strict harmonic progression. Personally, I imagine this miniature 2-minute work as the grey clouds that signify the beginning of the Last Judgement, and the following 1,000 years that Satan will be imprisoned in the Abyss. With the very soft tremolo octave murmurs in the bass, the repetitious melody offers no optimism for the fate of the Damned – even the final chords of the piece offer no resolution.

Alban Berg’s Sonata, Op. 1 opens identically to Nuages Gris with the two rising 4th intervals. The harmonic instability throughout Berg’s Sonata reveals some of Schoenberg’s influence, but it does not fully conform to the Second Viennese School practices. Given that both Liszt’s and Berg’s sonatas are both in the key of B minor, Berg wanted to compose on a harmonic tightrope, delicately balancing between full-fledged tonality, and the seemingly chaotic-evil atonality.

Although I have not yet found any religious associations in Berg’s life, I imagine his Sonata, Op. 1 as ‘the rest of the story’ regarding the Last Judgement. As we know from reading Revelation 20, Satan is to be released from prison following his millennia sentence. Satan will go out to deceive nations yet again, and spread as much sinful corruption as possible before he is thrown into the lake of fire. For the first time in Berg’s Sonata, the single-movement work concludes with a fulfilled, yet sorrowful B minor chord that is segmented and rhythmically displaced across the keyboard.