Have you ever forgotten the pleasures of an early romance, or been unable to recall a tune that is just at the back of your mind? Or, perhaps like late Liszt, have you ever forgotten your keys?
Such is the fate of a great deal of wonderful music, and prompted by the occasion of what would have been Liszt’s 203rd birthday, I bring to your attention three “forgotten” manuscripts held at the Library of Congress. Dating from a remarkable period in Liszt’s compositional output (that would see the creation of such works as the last three Mephisto Waltzes, the Bagatelle without Tonality and Via Crucis) are Liszt’s oeuvres oubliées: the four Forgotten Waltzes and the Forgotten Romance.
The Library of Congress has three of these manuscripts, the most famous of which is the Valse oubliée no. 1 (S215:1) from 1881. Unusual among the late works, this waltz managed to make it into the hands of performers, and remains a popular work to this day. While Liszt would eventually call it a “forgotten” waltz, as you can see on the manuscript image it is here titled simply Valse.
Lesser known, and unpublished until 1954, is Liszt’s fourth Forgotten Waltz (S215:4), composed in 1884. As is often the case in the body of Liszt’s waltzes, he plays with the perceptions of the listener in the ways that the measures are divided and the phrases are illuminated, so that the waltz characteristics are masked at times in clever ways to serve broader musical ideas. It is highly recommended that pianists who only know the Chopin waltzes should check out this wonderful set of works, in addition to the last three Mephisto Waltzes.
One of the great things about primary sources is that they accord the viewer a fly-on-the-wall status for part of the creative process of a given work. One can see what the original thoughts were, and how they were adapted during the process or after the fact by the composer. Such details are to be found in the Library’s “oubliée” manuscripts.
In the case of our final forgotten feature, the Romance oubliée, there is an interesting backstory. Around 1844 Liszt composed a song called “O, pourquoi donc.” This little-known piece was published in Moscow that year and some thirty years later in Leipzig, but remained obscure, only to be reprinted in 1989 by the British Liszt Society. In 1848, Liszt created a piano version of the song, now entitled Romance (S169). The publication history of this work is a bit obscure–it is listed as being first published posthumously in 1908, but for the purposes of this story, it seems that it may have appeared at some point, because Liszt received a request to have it reprinted in 1880 [Source: William Wright, “Chamber Music,” in The Liszt Companion, p.223].
In any case, it was Liszt’s response that is of interest. Perhaps he had forgotten about the piece himself–instead of allowing the issuing of the older piece, Liszt instead composed a new work, the Romance oubliée, based on the same material for viola and piano (the only original work he wrote for that combination–his transcription of Berlioz’ Harold in Italy is the only other extant viola/piano work). The work is a nostalgic reminiscence of the earlier Romance, and offers a beautiful, personal reflection on times past. Liszt made versions of the Romance oubliée for violin and piano, cello and piano, and also a version for piano solo. It is this last version that is held at the Library of Congress. The manuscript is incomplete (missing the gorgeous coda), but we are glad that Liszt composed this remembrance of his forgotten romance.