Sonata in B minor (Liszt)

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Part of page 11 from the original music manuscript of the sonata.

The Sonata in B minor (German: Klaviersonate h-moll), S.178, is a sonata for solo piano by Franz Liszt. It was completed in 1853 and published in 1854 with a dedication to Robert Schumann.

Scholar Alan Walker described it as "arguably one of the greatest keyboard works ... of the nineteenth century".[1] The piece has received a lot of analytical attention,[2] particularly regarding its musical form.


Liszt noted on the sonata's manuscript that it was completed on February 2, 1853,[3] but he had composed an earlier version by 1849.[4][5] At this point in his life, Liszt's career as a traveling virtuoso had almost entirely subsided, as he had been influenced towards leading the life of a composer rather than a performer by Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein almost five years earlier.[6][not in citation given] Liszt's life was established in Weimar and he was living a comfortable lifestyle, composing, and occasionally performing, entirely by choice rather than necessity.[citation needed]

The sonata was dedicated to Robert Schumann, in return for Schumann's dedication of his Fantasie in C major, Op. 17 (published 1839) to Liszt.[7] A copy of the sonata arrived at Schumann's house in May 1854, after he had entered Endenich sanatorium. His wife Clara Schumann did not perform the sonata; according to scholar Alan Walker she found it "merely a blind noise".[8]


The sonata was published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1854[9] and first performed on January 27, 1857 in Berlin[10] by Hans von Bülow.[11] It was attacked by Eduard Hanslick who said "anyone who has heard it and finds it beautiful is beyond help".[12] Johannes Brahms reputedly fell asleep when Liszt performed the work in 1853,[13] and it was also criticized by the pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein.[citation needed] However, the sonata drew enthusiasm from Richard Wagner following a private performance of the piece by Karl Klindworth on April 5, 1855.[14] Otto Gumprecht of the German newspaper Nationalzeitung referred to it as "an invitation to hissing and stomping".[6] It took a long time for the Sonata to become commonplace in concert repertoire both because of its technical difficulty and negative initial reception due to its status as “new” music. However by the early stages of the twentieth century, the piece had become established as a pinnacle of Liszt’s repertoire and has been a popularly performed and extensively analyzed piece ever since.[citation needed]


There exists a great deal of speculation surrounding the origins of this piece. While Liszt composed a great deal of programmatic works, at no point did he suggest that this piece was constructed upon any idea greater than pure music. However, it has been suggested that the piece could be programmatic of the Faust legend, be based upon the biblical story of the Garden of Eden or even be biographical.[6] The sonata is constructed as a single movement of non-stop music lasting half-an-hour,[14] but it is widely believed that Liszt's piece still fits the mold of a traditional four-movement sonata within the mold of one long sonata form.[citation needed]

Page 25 of the manuscript. The large section crossed out in red contains the original loud ending.

Walker claims the quiet ending of the sonata was an afterthought; the original manuscript contains a crossed-out ending section which would have ended the work loudly instead.[15]


The sonata is notable for being constructed from five motivic elements that are woven into an enormous musical architecture. The motivic units undergo thematic transformation throughout the work to suit the musical context of the moment. A theme that in one context sounds menacing and even violent, is then transformed into a beautiful melody.[16] This technique helps to bind the sonata's sprawling structure into a single cohesive unit. Michael Saffle, Alan Walker, and others contend that the first motive appears at the very start of the piece until bar 8, the second occurs from bar 9 until 12 and the third from measures 13 to 17. The fourth and fifth motives appear later in the piece at measures 105-108 and 327-338 respectively.[17]

Broadly speaking, the sonata has four movements although there is no gap between them. Superimposed upon the four movements is a large sonata form structure, although the precise beginnings and endings of the traditional development and recapitulation sections has long been a topic of debate. Charles Rosen states in his book The Classical Style that the entire piece fits the mold of a sonata form because of the reprise of material from the first movement that had been in D major, the relative major, now reprised in B minor.[18]

Walker believes that the development begins roughly with the slow section at measure 331, the lead-back towards the recapitulation begins at the scherzo fugue, measure 459, and the recapitulation and coda are at measures 533 and 682 respectively.[19] Each of these sections (exposition, development, lead-back, and recapitulation) are examples of Classical forms in and of themselves, which means that this piece is one of the earliest examples of Double-function form, a piece of music which has two classical forms occurring simultaneously, one containing others. For instance the exposition is a sonata form which starts and ends with material in B minor, containing the second part of the exposition and development wandering away from the tonic key, largely through the relative major D. In using this structure, Liszt was influenced by Franz Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy,[6] a work he greatly admired, performed often and arranged for piano and orchestra. Schubert used the same limited number of musical elements to create a broad four movement work, and used a fugal 4th movement. Already in 1851 Liszt experimented with a non-programmatic "four-movements-in-one" form in an extended work for piano solo called Grosses Concert-Solo. This piece, which in 1865 was published as a two-piano version under the title Concerto pathétique, shows a thematic relationship to both the Sonata and the later Faust Symphony.[citation needed]

Performed by Kristian Cvetković

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Camille Saint-Saëns, a close friend of Liszt, made a two-piano arrangement of the Sonata in 1914, but it was never published in his lifetime because of rights issues. It was first published in 2004 by Édition Durand in Paris, edited by Sabrina Teller Ratner. According to a letter from Saint-Saëns to Jacques Durand, dated 23 August 1914, the two-piano arrangement was something that Liszt had announced but never realized.[20]

There is an extremely difficult version of this Sonata in B minor for Solo Violin which was transcribed by Noam Sivan and premiered by violinist Giora Schmidt in September 2011. It has been published by Carl Fischer.

Leo Weiner made an orchestral arrangement of the Sonata in 1955. The arrangement has not been published and exists only in manuscript form. It was recorded in 2006 by the orchestra of Hochschule für Musik "Franz Liszt", Weimar with Nicolás Pasquet conducting.[21]

Heinz Roemheld orchestrated the Sonata which is heard on some 1930s movies, including the The Black Cat (1934), starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, The Raven (1935), as well as the Flash Gordon serials (1936) (Chapters 6-13), Werewolf of London (1936), and Mars Attacks the World (1938).[citation needed]

An Orchestrated version of the lyrical parts of the Sonata appears in the 1960 Hollywood film of Liszt's life called Song Without End (starting 1:07).

There is an orchestrated excerpt version of the Sonata in the 1952 movie Hans Christian Andersen starring Danny Kaye where the ballet scene for "The Little Mermaid" is danced near the end of the film (starting around the 1:23 min).

Frederick Ashton used the Sonata for his 1963 ballet Marguerite and Armand, created for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, based on "The Lady of the Camellias" by Alexandre Dumas, fils. The original performances used an orchestral transcription of the Sonata by Humphrey Searle.[22]

An organ transcription of the Sonata was made in 1984 by Bernhard Haas.[23]

There is also a transcription of the Sonata for solo cello made by cellist Johann Sebastian Paetsch in 2013. This has been published by the Hofmeister Musikverlag in Leipzig. [24]


  1. ^ Walker (1989), p.149
  2. ^ Walker (1989), p.150
  3. ^ Walker (1989), p.150
  4. ^ Gerard Carter, Martin Adler: Liszt Piano Sonata Monographs. Franz Liszt's Precursor Sonata of 1849: a trial run in the Master's inner circle. Wensleydale Press, Sydney, 2011, ISBN 978-3-8442-0842-9.
  5. ^ Mária Eckhardt, preface to Klaviersonate h-moll. Faksimile der Handschrift. Henle, München, revised edition 2015.
  6. ^ a b c d Walker, Alan et al. "Liszt, Franz." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 20 Nov. 2009 <>. (17)
  7. ^ Walker (1989), p.156
  8. ^ Walker (1989), p.156-7
  9. ^ Hamilton (1996), p.58
  10. ^ Walker (1989), p.157
  11. ^ Walker (1989), p.413
  12. ^ Hamilton (1996), p.ix (preface)
  13. ^ Walker (1989), p.229
  14. ^ a b Liszt, Franz, §17: B minor Piano Sonata at Oxford Music Online (subscription required)
  15. ^ Alan Walker, Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years, 1848–1861, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989, p.156. This is in the middle of an extensive analysis of the sonata, pp. 149–157.)
  16. ^ Letter No.216 from Letters of Franz Liszt, Volume 1
  17. ^ Saffle, Michael. "Liszt's sonata in B minor: another look at the 'double function' question." JALS: The journal of the American Liszt Society, 11 (June 1982): (28-29&36-37).
  18. ^ Winklhofr, Sharon. Liszt’s Sonata in B minor; A Study of Autograph Sources and Documents. Ann Arbor, MI. UMI Research Press 1980. (127).
  19. ^ Walker (1989), p.156
  20. ^ Paris: Édition Durand, 2004. Plate D.& F.15316.
    "J'ai envie de faire aussi un arrangement de la Sonate de Liszt pour deux pianos, arrangement annoncé et jamais réalisé par l'auteur."
    ("I also feel like making an arrangement of Liszt's sonata for two pianos, [an] arrangement that was announced and never realized by the author.")
  21. ^ Cologne: Avi-Service, 2008. LC 15080 (booklet)
  22. ^ Nureyev: Marguerite and Armand
  23. ^ Audite, label No. Audite20.009
  24. ^ Leipzig: Friedrich Hofmeister Verlag, FH 2487, Sonate in h-moll, 2014, (Editor/Arranger - Johann Sebastian Paetsch), ISMN: 9790203424871


  • Longyear, R.M. “Liszt's B minor Sonata: Precedents for a structural analysis.” The music review, 34, no. 3-4 (Aug-Nov 1973): 198-209.
  • Longyear, R.M. “The Text of Liszt’s B Minor Piano Sonata.” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 3 (Jul., 1974), pp. 435–450.
  • Ott, Bertrand. “An interpretation of Liszt's Sonata in B minor.” JALS: The journal of the American Liszt Society, 10 (Dec 1981): 30-38.
  • Saffle, Michael. “Liszt's Sonata in B minor: another look at the 'double function' question.” JALS: The journal of the American Liszt Society, 11 (June 1982): 28-39.
  • Szasz, Tibor. “Liszt’s Symbols for the Divine and Diabolical: Their Revelation of a Program in the B Minor Sonata.” Journal of the American Liszt Society, 15 (1984): 39-95.
  • Arnold, Ben. “Recitative in Liszt's solo piano music.” JALS: The journal of the American Liszt Society, 24 (July-Dec 1988): 3-22.
  • Hamilton, Kenneth. "Liszt: Sonata in B minor". Cambridge University Press 1996.
  • Tanner, Mark. “The power of performance as an alternative analytical discourse: The Liszt sonata in B minor.” 19th-century music, 24, no. 2 (fall 2000): 173-192.
  • Brown, David. “The B Minor Sonata Revisited: Deciphering Liszt.” The Musical Times, Vol. 144, No. 1882 (Spring, 2003), pp. 6–15.
  • Walker, Alan. "Franz Liszt: The Weimar Years, 1848–1861." Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989. ISBN 9780801497216

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