Transcendental Étude No. 4 (Liszt)

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Not to be confused with Mazeppa (symphonic poem).
Excerpt from the 'Allegro deciso' section of Transcendental Étude No. 4

Franz Liszt's Transcendental Étude No. 4 in D minor, "Mazeppa", is the fourth Transcendental Étude, published in 1852. This complex and virtuosic staple of the Romantic Era repertoire was inspired by Victor Hugo's poem "Mazeppa", in which Mazeppa is strapped onto a horse and the horse is set free to run wild.


This étude features distinct sections, almost invariably separated by powerful progressions in double octaves. After a short ad libitum cadenza, the main theme is presented in octaves accompanied by a flurry of thirds in the center of the keyboard, giving the impression of a horse galloping in a cloud of dust. The theme returns immediately this time with a thinner texture. After a thunderous chromatic scale in alternating octaves arrives the quieter "Lo stesso tempo" in which the left hand plays a modified version of the theme while the right hand plays sweeping arpeggios in intervals up and down the keyboard. An "Il canto espressivo ed appassionato assai" (sung expressively and with much passion) immediately follows in which the main theme reappears, this time accompanied by repeated thirds in both hands in addition to a chromatic scale in the left.

The original theme makes a more recognizable return in the "Animato" yet this time it is much more discreet and quiet, alluding to the horse's waning physical condition. Yet the horse, in an unexpected burst of energy, gallops faster than he has ever before, as illustrated in the "Allegro deciso," a pianistic feat in which a variation of the original theme is played at a breakneck tempo.

Finally, a grandiose finale represents Liszt's interpretation of the last verse of the poem: "il tombe, et se relève roi !" (he falls then rises a king).

Technical difficulties[edit]

Mazeppa is ranked among one of the most difficult of the twelve études both musically and technically. According to G. Henle Verlag, a German publisher of sheet music, it is rated at the highest difficulty along with five other compositions within this set of Transcendental Études.[1] Successful execution requires great speed and endurance, as well as a complete familiarity with the piano due to the abundance of jumps that span more than an octave.

Liszt, as usual, indicates a rather odd fingering: the fast successive thirds in the beginning two sections should be played only with the index and fourth finger, alternating hands every two intervals. This fingering hinders speed, is more difficult than moving from the thumb and third finger for the first interval to the index and fourth for the second interval, and is therefore not used by every performer. However, this fingering is given for specific purposes; it makes the consecutive thirds sound more like a horse by preventing legato and expressive playing and builds strength in the second and fourth fingers. Earlier versions were marked "Staccatissimo"; some later editions are marked "Sempre fortissimo e con strepito."

An earlier version of this piece was published under the same name in 1840 (S.138). However, it was based on the fourth étude from Douze Grandes Études (S.137). Hence they are more similar in form than the last published version.


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