Understanding Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor, S.178 (Part 1)

Liszt's Sonata in B Minor

Cover of Piano Sonata b minor – Facsimile of the autograph, HN 3227, published by G. Henle Publishers

Not that many classical composers write a single piece of composition that turns out to be a crown jewel of that genre in history. Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor was composed in 1853, soon after he ended his career as a virtuoso pianist touring throughout Europe. But it was first publicly performed only four years later. Its private performances prior to that was poorly received; it is told that the great Johannes Brahms fell asleep when he was in the audience. It only showed that, just as his piano playing being always at unmatched cutting-edge, this piece was so forward-looking and ground-breaking that it could not have been promptly accepted by his contemporaries.

Pianist Stephen Hough said it right, this great work appeals equally to the head and to the heart.[1] It’s probably the latter that one would first observe and feel when listening to the piece. To me broad range of emotions one can experience throughout the piece is hard to resist, makes you wanting to listen to it more and thus enjoy it more. To some extent listeners are probably so overwhelmed by the strong emotions and expressiveness of the piece that they find it harder to perceive the overall structure of the work. The fact that the sonata is an unbroken 30-minute long large composition just makes it even worse. But, equally as the emotional aspect of the piece that moves us, the more we dive into the structural analysis of the sonata, the more interesting and fascinating it becomes, and the closer we are drawn to it. That is probably why there have been so large quantity of scholarly publications and books on this single piece.

The most notable feature of the Sonata is probably the culmination of the technique of thematic transformation. Thematic transformation, though loosely a sort of variation, is characteristically different from conventional variation in that, the motifs or themes it is based on can undergo drastic change in character and become a separate theme on its own and go through its development life cycle, in contrasting with the original theme; on the other hand, the linkage remains among the original and derived themes through a composition. In essence, unity across variation and derived independent themes are the two aspects of thematic transformation compared to traditional variation.

Liszt was certainly not the first employing such technique, Beethoven (in his Ninth Symphony‘s final movement) and Schubert (in his Wanderer Fantasy) had used it before. It would be fair to say Schubert’s work had direct influence on Liszt when he wrote the Sonata. According to Alan Walker in his book Reflections on Liszt, what’s unique about this Sonata is that, “not only are its four movements rolled into one, but they are themselves composed against a background of a full-scale sonata scheme — exposition, development, and recapitulation. That is, Liszt has composed a sonata across a sonata…not only are its four movements linked, but the material is constantly making contributions to two sonata forms simultaneously.”[2]

Here is Walker’s visualization of the overall structure:

Analyzing the details underneath this architecture is simply fascinating. Below is a rather simplistic comb-through of the piece, listing the three motifs and themes derived from them (based on Bärenreiter 1983 edition)[3].

(Section time based on Claudio Arrau recording, Philips 1970)

In the first 15 bars, Liszt gives us the three themes (I tend to call them motifs yet they seem more prominent than the conventional sense of motifs) that this entire work is built upon. These themes are the basis of all the metamorphosis performed through out the piece, and more importantly are the sources from which primary & secondary subjects are created to serve the structural purposes of both this four-movements-in-one sonata piece, and the higher-level sonata form on top of it (the “double function”).

Liszt wasted no bars and presented the theme (1) right from the first measure; it consists of slow syncopated two notes, followed by descending gypsy scale, which gives a “pensive and brooding impression”, as Kenneth Hamilton put it[4]:

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Theme (2) starts with a sudden octave leap followed by abrupt descending triplet, filled with tension and defiance (m.8):

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Theme (3) features the repetition of heavy hammer blows, feels up close and rather intimidating (m.13):

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These three themes, and the short transition passage that follows, form the introduction of the sonata form (bar 1-31).

At bar 32, it has been general consensus that it is the beginning of the exposition, where subject A (m.32) grows out of theme (2) and (3). This is the first time in the Sonata that tonic key B minor is reached and firmly asserted:

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This main subject is then reinstated at least three times by powerful octaves, followed by much elaborated theme (3) constantly pounding, creating sustained tension, while theme (1) walks down the scales on the base, then repeating itself with increased intensity, and together they lead to a climactic release to arrival at relative D major, the Grandiose, which is now subject B (m.105):

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The subject’s melody rhythmically resembles theme (2); Walker considers it a “countermelody” to theme (2); and the left hand’s constant reiteration of the accompaniment’s quavers is obviously based on theme (3)[5].

As the emotion quiets down, after a brief recall of subject A, comes a transformation of theme (2) with augmentation, marked dolce con grazia (sweet with grace). This gentle mood prepares the emotional flow to enter into the new subject C (m.153), which is this brilliant and beautiful transfiguration of theme (3), simply by doubling the meter (from eighth to quarter notes) and accompanied by augmented triplets. Liszt marked it cantando espressivo (singing expressive), its tranquility and intimacy greatly contrast the passionate subject B which ended just moments ago:

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Here, Walker’s analysis considers a secondary subject group as a whole in contrast to subject A. He puts following two more subjects in addition to B & C mentioned above into the group:

  1. Grandiose (subject B, m.105)
  2. dolce con grazia, m.120
  3. cantando espressivo (subject C, m.153)
  4. vivamente, m.239

It seems to me though (2) and (4) above are less of a subject but more of part of the ongoing transformation of theme (2) within the exposition. Looking at bar 120 (dolce con grazia), 161 (dolce), 179 (sempre), 205 (Allegro energico) and 239 (vivamente), these are all passages that contribute to the constant transformation of theme (2), therefore overall are part of exposition of subject A (which is rooted on theme 2). The material in (2) and (4) above are not more prominent than the other theme 2-based passages, and as Walker pointed out, they were dropped altogether in recapitulation.

The reason I consider materials in bar 153-160 a standalone subject is that it prominently stands out in exposition and later on during recapitulation. First, it represents a major emotional shift away from the other two subjects (A & B), the stark contrast between its sweet melody and the grandeur of previous subjects simply cannot be overlooked. Second, this material carries forward its own momentum in further transformation and emotional development, most evidently starting at bar 191 (agitato, where the subjects becomes agitated and nervous), and bar 255 (incalzando, where it becomes forceful, faster and boisterous). And finally, it is not hard to see that Liszt uses this subject to play the alternating role against a theme (2) during exposition.

The development section of the sonata form here starts with a new subject D (m.331), marked Andante sostenuto. The subject is yet another metamorphosis of theme (2), now in a slow, light and almost solitary mood:

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The tranquil mood extends further with recall of theme C, followed then by a lighter presentation of the Grandiose (theme B), which then repeatedly pushing higher and higher the emotional waves until reaching probably the climax of the entire piece, bar 397. Within that same bar, as the climactic F# major chord still reverberating in the air, gradually rising from left hand is an ascending scale that leads to the repeat of theme D, but now sweet and lush with the augmentation by left hand flowing up and down the scale. It’s just breathtaking:

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What follows the Andante sostenuto has been the core of the long debates by scholars on the form of the Sonata. At bar 460, Liszt launches the fugal Allegro energico , which is mostly around theme (2) and (3).

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The faster tempo and staccato rhythm certainly form a sharp contrast with the Andante, which probably makes it even more controversial on exactly how this part should be placed in the Sonata’s overall structure. Looking at the chart I put above, it’s clear that this is the only section that sets the two forms apart, the four-movement Sonata piece and the sonata form superimposed on top; without it, the two forms are identical. Walker believes the section indeed serves the “double function” purpose, stated that “Liszt turns his Fugato into both a third movement and an extended leadback into the recapitulation”[6]. Hamilton’s view on the other hand seems less assertive, says that “the section either development or part of a non-tonic recapitulation, or a scherzo, or not, depending on your reaction to this stroke of genius”[7].

The recapitulation of the Sonata starts at bar 533, where subject A is repeated just as bar 32, on the tonic B minor. Compared to the much extensive, near 300-bar long exposition, the recapitulation is only about half in length, with much condensed reprise of subject B and C. Intuitively to our ears, the final climax that is reached by bar 710, where Walker stresses the importance of a long enough silence, seems to be the natural end of recomposition of all the key subjects, hence bar 711 would mark the start of of the coda. Yet as we see in Walker’s diagram, he considers the coda starts at bar 682, an exuberant Prestissimo that leads to a triumphant Grandiose subject B then to the final climax at bar 710. I admit having difficulty to grasp such determination.

Based on what’s discovered in the original manuscript, Liszt made drastic change to the ending, by replacing the original loud flourish ending with what we see today the Andante sustenuto followed by reprise of the initial three themes, and meticulously in a reversed order to achieve a symmetric shape of the structure. The opening theme 1 (m.1), theme 2 (m.8) and theme 3 (m.13), are now mirrored here, coming in with theme 3 (m.729), theme 2 (m.737) and theme 1 (m.750). And to echo the introduction of the sonata form with a quiet ending, it couldn’t be more appropriate to start with the quiet Andante sostenuto (subject D) at bar 711. I’d still see here to be the start of the coda, both from the emotional flow and structural perspective.


[1] Stephen Hough on Liszt Sonata in B minor
[2] Walker, A: “Reflection on Liszt”, p. 129
[3] Liszt Sonata in B Minor, complete score, Bärenreiter (1983), on IMSLP
[4] Hamilton K: “Liszt: Sonata in B-minor”, p.34
[5] Walker, A: “Reflection on Liszt”, p. 132
[6] Walker, A: “Reflection on Liszt”, p. 136
[7] Hamilton K: “Liszt: Sonata in B-minor”, p.45



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