The Piano at the Opera
For almost as long as the piano has been in existence, composers have pilfered the best tunes from the opera house and brought them into the salon and recital hall. Operatic music on the piano can range from the respectful arrangement to the free (and occasionally not so respectful) paraphrase: from a practical translation of notes onto the keyboard to wildly virtuosic fantasias...not to mention, as this playlist shows, 'rambles', 'pastiches', sets of variations, 'Réminiscences' and 'Souvenirs'.Read more…
Franz Liszt was the first great exponent of the genre and his numerous transcriptions and fantasies (you might also want to explore the playlist: 'Franz Liszt: Tributes and Transcriptions') show a composer trying to go beyond mere showpieces into something with greater musical ambition and integrity. This is the case, for example, in his ambitious "Réminscences" on 'Norma' and 'Don Giovanni' (or 'Don Juan', as it was then often known).
By contrast, Liszt's rival Sigismond Thalberg called upon a series of stock techniques to wow his audience. One special, 'magic' trick involved playing flourishes of scales or arpeggios while the melody would be sung out in the piano's middle range: an effect that gave the impression of the pianist having three hands. His Fantasy on Rossini’s 'Moïse et Pharaon' is of special historic interest, too, taking themes from an opera that is rarely heard today but was the runaway hit in Paris of the late 1820s and 1830s.
As piano technique developed further, so transcriptions became more outrageous: listen to Louis Brassin's increasingly virtuosic arrangement of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" or Vladimir Horowitz's 'Carmen' Fantasy. They also became more adventurous and impressionistic, subjecting musical themes to harmonic rethinkings or viewing them through modernistic prisms. As in the case of Earl Wild's Virtuoso Etudes on Gershwin, they also started to look beyond the opera house to Broadway. "Souvenirs de Bayreuth’' by Gabriel Fauré and André Messager, meanwhile – the only piano duet in the playlist – show that it wasn’t always necessary to take everything 100% seriously.