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I was watching along with an entertaining video of Liszt's solo piano transcription of Beethoven's 9th symphony. This thing is over an hour long with numerous technical feats and is surely something only an incredibly skilled pianist would even dare to try out.

Which is why it kind of confused me to see fingering markings, not just in a few parts but all over the place.

Sample 1

Sample 2

Sample 3

I wonder why you would add extensive fingering notations to a piece that's clearly only for the very best of pianists, who would presumably no longer need them.

My theories:

  • Liszt just loved being explicit about fingerings, just like he loved adding ossia's.
  • This piece is so long that it is meant to be sight-read for the most part, and finger markings speed that process up.
  • Following the specified fingerings does result in a slight difference in pronunciation of each note compared to alternate fingerings that one might choose, and this difference is something Liszt wanted to specify.

I wonder which of these theories is right, if any, and/or if there's other benefit to adding finger markings to virtuosic piano pieces.

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    @Stretto why are you attacking me for a choice made by either Liszt himself or the 1922 publisher, of which I was asking the purpose? – KeizerHarm Nov 30 '20 at 21:12
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    @Stretto Not clear what your point is. The question isn't whether to follow the fingerings, just why Liszt would have chosen to include them. – Aaron Nov 30 '20 at 22:15
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    @Stretto Actually, we do know that Liszt wrote them, and we have a very good idea why. P.S. Your caps lock key is stuck. – Aaron Nov 30 '20 at 23:58
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    @Stretto You're still having caps lock issues. Once fixed, let me know, and I'd be happy to have a conversation about why asking questions about dead composers is enlightening. – Aaron Dec 1 '20 at 0:27
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    @Stretto umm, netiquette agrees that CAPITAL SENTENCES are like shouting and is considered rude. If you want to emphasize something, just use italic or bold instead. – Andrew T. Dec 1 '20 at 6:34
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In the interest of keeping this post focused, I'll just address the specific question of...

Why did Liszt put fingerings in his transcription of Beethoven's Ninth?

First, it's important to establish whether the fingerings are given by Liszt, which they are. Here is the passage given in OP "sample 1" from the Neue Liszt-Ausgabe edition (1993) (mvmt 4, mm. 462ff).

Beethoven-Liszt Symph. 9, mvmt 4, mm. 462ff

The Neue Liszt-Ausgabe is a scholarly edition intended especially for musicologists studying Liszt's compositional process and style. The edition is very strict in adhering to Liszt's original markings. In particular, this quotation from the "General Preface" to the series:

In the pieces, Liszt's original fingering is given everywhere.1

And in the Preface to Supplement 11, which contains symphonies 5-7, Liszt himself is quoted from a letter to the transcriptions' publisher:

Should you set to engraving the manuscript of the two Symphonies I would ask you to recommend to the engraver that they are engraved with plenty of room because of the fingerings I must add and also because of the complexity of the passages. (italics original; boldface mine)

As to why Liszt would have included them, the Preface begins:

Basically two motives impelled Ferenc Liszt to transcribe for solo piano the symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827): one was the profound respect he felt [for Beethoven].... The second motive derived from the first: he wanted to popularize these masterpieces everywhere. (p. XV; emphasis mine)

A footnote to the above passage includes:

In the 1820s and 1830s few people knew and understood Beethoven's works.

It is important to bear in mind also that Liszt was pioneering new piano techniques. What might be standard fare for today's most advanced pianists would have been largely unknown in Liszt's time. That, combined with Liszt's desire to see his transcriptions used broadly, more than suggests the fingering were to help any and all performers with difficult passages.


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    It should be noted that Liszt had unusually large hands (comfortably capable of a 13th spread), so the fingerings he wrote might not be technically feasible for someone with a more average spread. I'm sure many performers who have played these pieces (myself included, though not very well in this case) have had to make alterations to adjust for that. – Darrel Hoffman Nov 30 '20 at 22:06
  • That's the perfect answer, thank you! I will edit the question title to be more specific about this Liszt piece, for although I had considered ideas that apply to any virtuosic piece, the Beethoven transcription was the origin of the question and as it turns out the reason was quite personal to the man himself. – KeizerHarm Dec 1 '20 at 1:47
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    His transcriptions were so successful at popularizing masterpieces that, by the time orchestral scores of Wagner arrived in the New World, audiences raised on the father-in-law's transcriptions (which took some liberties) thought that the orchestral versions had mistakes. – Camille Goudeseune Dec 1 '20 at 21:29
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    :-) It may be from the preface to Dover's reprint of the Wagner transcriptions. Another: the symphony transcriptions were so popular that the publisher begged Liszt to also do Beethoven's string quartets. Liszt tried, and eventually replied in all seriousness that it was impossible. (Which at our remove is easier to understand.) – Camille Goudeseune Dec 2 '20 at 1:16
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    It's also worth noting that by specifying the fingering, Liszt is giving some hints about how he wants the piece to be phrased. For example, the second passage in the OP's question (343243-343243) could also reasonably be fingered 343243-*2*43243, which would likely represent a subtly different interpretation. – avid Dec 3 '20 at 1:20
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Many times fingerings are a choice of the publisher, not the composer or arranger. Fingerings are quite common in student editions and quite rare in urtexts, although for piano there are manuscripts with fingerings for either special effects or passages seen as particularly difficult by the composer or which the composer wishes to “micromanage”.

For the edition and piece in question, I find it hard to imagine an advanced pianist who doesn’t have a well developed technique for octaves, which may or may not involve alternating the fourth and fifth fingers. So I’m personally convinced that the fingering you’re seeing was added by the publisher or editor for educational purposes.

It could have been added by Liszt, perhaps for his own use and on publication his fingerings were deemed valuable. Personally I would have written a few 5s and 4s here and there and understood that I was going to follow that same finger pattern. This amount of fingering makes the page too busy IMHO and that reinforces my belief that the publisher added them.

One way to find out is to search for different editions, particularly earlier ones.

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  • Fair point; the only version I can find online is from 1922, with the fingering in place. That of course that doesn't say whether Liszt himself wrote them in. Why would a publisher add fingerings though? Educative purposes seem unlikely when the piece itself is so complex. – KeizerHarm Nov 30 '20 at 14:16
  • @KeizerHarm - Possibly for consistency purposes. Wouldn't publishers like to boast that all their piano scores contain clear, lucid fingerings? – Dekkadeci Nov 30 '20 at 14:43
  • @KeizerHarm I agree it seems less likely that this piece would be an educational assignment for any students who are not at a level of developing their own fingerings. I don’t have any good theories. – Todd Wilcox Nov 30 '20 at 14:44
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    @ToddWilcox Two suggested edits: 1) rather than "fingerings are ... rare in urtexts", I suggest, "publisher/editor added fingerings are rare in urtexts" -- composer fingerings would, of course, be included;; 2) "...well developed technique for octaves", the passage I think you're referring to is sixths, so "octaves" -> "sixths". – Aaron Dec 1 '20 at 4:50
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The most difficult piano etudes are published in editions with fingers. Why wouldn't this transcription be published in a similar way?

In both cases I think the point is to give fingerings for those who are working to attain a new skill level.

@ToddWilcox makes an important point about fingerings being (I think usually) the work of the editor.

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  • I had personally not considered a skill level to exist where one can reasonably attempt to learn this Liszt piece but still be helped by explicit finger markings. That was the source of my confusion. – KeizerHarm Dec 1 '20 at 10:12
  • @KeizerHarm Also keep in mind that not everyone who plays is doing so on a professional level. I have personally played the piece in question for my own enjoyment, though nowhere near on a level where I could think about selling tickets. And in this case, that seems to have been Liszt's intent - to help amateurs to play these pieces in their own homes without having to go to a concert hall to hear them. – Darrel Hoffman Dec 1 '20 at 13:58
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I would blame the publisher or editor. They can be overzealous when it comes to simplifying things or fill out a page.

I did some engraving for a publisher and he made me add sporadic fingerings, dynamic markings and phrasing marks. This was back in the day when Finale was just coming out and most all submissions were handwritten. I remember contacting the composer for one work who took all that for granted and really had no opinion one way or the other. I had him mail me A CASSETTE of him playing so I could capture his intent. It didn't help so I added my own. Blame me.

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    The fingering are Liszt's. – Aaron Nov 30 '20 at 22:10

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