Variations on a theme of Bach

Franz Liszt

Variations on a theme of Bach in F minor

S. 180

About this work

As Liszt entered his fifties, his career became shrouded in enigma. Having retired from the concert platform in 1847, he performed in public only rarely and for charities. With his resignation as Kapellmeister to the court of Weimar in 1858, he no longer held a public position. It was said that he was a spent force, though a young Brahms and the great violinist Joseph Joachim felt it necessary in 1860 to issue a manifesto against his music. They could not know that the works of Liszt's last quarter century, works to come, would point the way to the most radical music of the twentieth century's first half and to composers as diverse as Busoni and Schoenberg. The vicissitudes marking Liszt's life developed deeper contours. Pope Pius IX refused in 1861 to grant his mistress, Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, a divorce that would allow her to marry Liszt. His son, Daniel, died in 1859, provoking guilt for having spent so little time with his children during his glory years, touring Europe from Russia to Portugal, England to Constantinople. But the most devastating blow was undoubtedly the death of his daughter, Blandine, September 11, 1862, but 26 years old, from the complications of childbirth. Her marriage to Émile Ollivier, a liberal statesman in the regime of Napoleon III and, for a brief moment, premier of France until the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 unseated him, was idyllic, ideal, romantic -- and far more attractive than the tortured union of Liszt's remaining daughter, Cosima, with his protégé, pianist Hans von Bülow. Before the month was out, Ollivier visited Liszt in Rome to share his grief. Liszt's own agonized response took shape in an ever more transported series of variations upon the descending ground bass from the first movement of Bach's cantata "Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen," BWV 12 (Weeping, Wailing, Mourning, Trembling), also found in the Crucifixus of Bach's Mass in B minor, upon which Liszt had already written a brief Prelude for piano in 1859. Chromaticism often obscures key, lending the work a sense of disorientation and pointing ahead to Reger and a host of twentieth century developments. A central recitative momentarily breaks the torrent of invention and soothes vehemence before a new rash of sighing variations begins to build intensity -- halted by a resigned quotation of the cantata's concluding choral, Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan (What God does, that is well done) worked to a grandly affirmative climax in a gesture of acceptance.