Franz Liszt

B minor Sonata

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: Approx. 30 Minutes
Genre: Sonata (as “multiple function form”)
Time of Creation: 1849–1853
World Premiere: January 22, 1857 (Berlin)

Table of Contents

Liszt's B minor Sonata in 5 Sentences

The Piano Sonata in B minor (often: “B minor Sonata”) by Franz Liszt is considered one of the most technically difficult compositions for piano ever. Liszt, who as the most important piano virtuoso of his time mastered all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas by heart, strove in this work to combine (Beethovenian) tradition with progress. He succeeded above all in doing so with regard to the form of the B minor Sonata: at the center are five musical ideas that are combined in such a way that a so-called “multiple-function form” (also: “multi-movement in single-movement”) results – the boundaries between the individual movements thus become blurred, also because the movements flow smoothly into one another. Franz Liszt dedicated the work to Robert Schumann (whose wife Clara was rather irritated by the effect of the B minor Sonata – see the quote below), and the piano virtuoso and conductor Hans von Bülow played the premiere.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Liszt's B minor Sonata

Highlight 1: Ghostly beginning

Liszt has his B minor Sonata begin with a “framework” that leaves open many possibilities for development. The opening theme does not consist of full harmonies, but only octaves. If one were to arrange this beginning for orchestra, one would perhaps give the theme to the cellos and double basses – and suddenly have a beginning that would be very similar to Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony”:

Highlight 2: Large arches

Liszt builds everything you can imagine out of the octaves from the beginning. For example, also large melodic arches, approximately in the middle of the work. Already this is really not easy to play…

Highlight 3: Technical mastery

…but when the octaves from the beginning (highlight 1) interlock as imitations, it gets really bad:

Highlight 4: Ghostly conclusion

At the very end, the task of the “ghostly beginning” (Highlight 1) is revealed. It returns at the end and thus forms the formal parenthesis of the work! This results in an unusual effect at that time: Franz Liszt, the great piano virtuoso, does not let his sonata end with a stormy climax or a loud bang, but lets the music disappear into silence:

3 Questions and Answers about Liszt's B minor sonata

Question 1: What are the most important recordings of Liszt's B minor Sonata?

Over time, several recordings of Liszt’s B minor Sonata have become classics. These include the recordings of Horowitz (breathtakingly fast), Zimerman (great contrasts), Gilels (filigree), Pogorelich (with great liberties) and Bolet (impressively relaxed).

Question 2: How did Liszt become a virtuoso?

Franz Liszt had only one piano teacher, Carl Czerny. After that, he developed his technique mostly by himself according to his own needs, which eventually became his rather unique piano technique.

Question 3: What is a Multiple Function Form?

In a Multiple Function Form, several forms are combined within one work. In the case of Liszt’s B minor Sonata, for example, the work as a whole is a sonata (consisting of three parts), and the second part can itself be considered a sonata. So you have a “sonata within a sonata”, so to speak.

2 Recommended Recordings of Liszt's B minor Sonata

Recording 1: Valentina Lisitsa (video production, 2015)

Valentina Lisitsa’s interpretation is (as always) full of surprises, highly virtuosic and with a full piano sound. However, the superior quality of the instrument should also be emphasized here – note the tremendous bass sound (for example, at 03:19):

Recording 2: Krystian Zimerman (Studio, 1991)

This recording by Krystian Zimerman has become a classic. Many say this is Liszt’s B minor Sonata at a level of perfection that will never be equaled again. Indeed, Zimerman manages to bring out convincingly the great contrasts of this work – raw violence and great melodic arcs:

1 Quote about Liszt's B minor Sonata

Liszt sent today a sonata dedicated to Robert and some other things with a friendly letter to me. But these things are scary! Brahms played them for me, but I became completely miserable. ... This is only blind noise – no healthy thought anymore, everything is confused, a clear harmonic sequence can no longer be found out! And I still have to thank him – it is really terrible.

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