The twelve “Transcendental Études” of Liszt are ingenious works of art that tell a story. Most of them have descriptive titles.
English: Beginning of the Transcendental Étude No. 5, “Feux Follets”, by Franz Liszt. Español: Comienzo del difícil Estudio trascendental nº5, “Feux follets”, de Franz Liszt. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Étude is a French noun meaning “study.” When a musical composition is called an étude, it is not only a work of art, but also a vehicle of instruction. An étude usually illustrates a specific technical maneuver that a musician can practice.
Franz Liszt was a piano virtuoso, so it is not surprising that he wrote a lot of etudes for piano. Of special interest are twelve compositions called “Études d’exécution transcendante,” which are known as “Transcendental Études” in English. They are all classified as S. 139, which means that this group of works is the 139th item in Humphrey Searle’s catalogue of the works of Franz Liszt.
In these compositions, the artistic element predominates, while the pedagogic purpose of the étude is all but forgotten. Moreover, there is a descriptive element in these compositions, as is evident from the titles that Liszt gave to many of them.
The first étude bears the title “Preludio,” which is an Italian word meaning “prelude” or “overture.” It is a short introductory piece characterized by swirls of notes.
According to Wikipedia, Liszt did not give a title to the second étude, but Feruccio Busoni supplied the title “Fusées” when he published these works. One of the definitions of the French word “fusée” is “rocket.”
The third étude is entitled “Paysage,” which means “landscape” or “scenery” in French. It has a peaceful, dreamy melody. According to Favorite Classical Composers, the inspiration for this ètude may have been scenery that he viewed while he was riding on a train.
The fourth étude is one that children would like. It is entitled “Mazeppa” and has a galloping melody. Mazeppa was a historical figure who inspired literary works by Lord Byron and the Russian writer Pushkin. According to Byron’s poem, Mazeppa was caught while engaging in the same sort of unsavory escapade that disfigured the life of Byron himself. His captors tied him firmly to the back of a Ukrainian horse, which transported the helpless Mazeppa into the wilderness. He managed to survive the ordeal.