The music of Franz Liszt bridges the romantics, the impressionists, and the moderns.
The three books of Liszt’s Annees De Pelerinage document his wide travels. The first book is inspired by the natural world of Switzerland. Italy and its poets and painters inspire the second book. The third book is rooted in Liszt’s later years in Rome and is more spiritual in nature. Its music is mostly darker and more difficult than the first two books.
The most popular piece from the third book is Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este. This is the first piece of musical impressionism and inspired Debussy, Ravel and many others.
Liszt composed this piece in 1877, by which time impressionism in the visual arts was taking off (the Exhibition of the Impressionists was held in 1874). In the 1870s, Liszt regularly visited the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, which was where his friend Cardinal Hohenlohe lived in the summer.
Like impressionist painting, the piece makes great use of colour, light, and texture. It sparkles with arpeggios, tremolandos and trills, which capture the play of water. In terms of harmony, it makes heavy use of 7thand 9thchords (the 9thchord is a staple of the impressionist music to come).
On one level, the music captures the physical play of the fountains at the Villa d-Este, and this is how the music starts. But in the middle of the music score, Liszt inserted a quotation from the Gospel of John:
But the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
At this point, the music shifts from its simple depiction of nature to a deeper contemplation of the eternal.
In the hands of a pianist like Claudio Arrau this piece is a multi-dimensional masterpiece of tone colour, texture, and feeling. Too many modern pianists focus on the surface sheen of this piece and miss its multiple layers.
If you are into great piano playing have a look at this video, which unpacks Arrau’s playing of this piece: