Sabbath musical delight: Franz Liszt, “Mazeppa” (piano and orchestra versions)


Ivan Stepanovych Mazepa (also spelled Mazeppa;[1] Ukrainian: Іван Степанович Мазепа, PolishJan Mazepa Kołodyński; 30 March [O.S. 20 March] 1639 – 2 October [O.S. 21 September] 1709)[2] served as the Hetman of Zaporizhian Host in 1687–1708. He was awarded a title of Prince of the Holy Roman Empire in 1707 for his efforts for the Holy League.[3] The historical events of Mazepa’s life have inspired many literary, artistic and musical works. He was famous as a patron of the arts.

Mazepa played an important role in the Battle of Poltava (1709), where after learning that Tsar Peter I intended to relieve him as acting Hetman (military leader) of Zaporizhian Host (a Cossack state) and to replace him with Alexander Menshikov, he deserted his army and sided with King Charles XII of Sweden. The political consequences and interpretation of this desertion have resonated in the national histories both of Russia and of Ukraine.[…]

The literary works alluded to above include both an 1818 epic poem by Lord Byron and a much shorter one in the 1829 collection “Les Orientales” by Victor Hugo. Young Franz Liszt read the latter and used it (as was his wont) as inspiration to write a virtuosic piano piece, which he reworked several times until including it as Nr. 4 of his daunting Transcendental Etudes. (Hugo’s poem is included with the original printed score. By the way, the original French title, Etudes d’execution transcendentale, literally: studies in transcendental performance, makes it clear the title referred not to the spiritual transcendant but to pushing beyond the limits of then-established piano technique.)

This is Daniil Trifonov’s piano performance from his Grammy-winning recording of the Transcendental Etudes. As the artist put it in an interview, “The pieces for the winning CD, Liszt’s Transcendental Études were chosen “because they all have a story” and not for “being challenging technically.”” [*]

Later Liszt reworked his piano etude into a symphonic poem, performed here by the Berlin Philharmonic.

Enjoy, have a nice weekend, and shabbat shalom!

[*] A longtime favorite of mine in the collection is Nr. 11 in Db major, “Harmonies du soir” — one of the first Liszt pieces I ever heard.

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