About This Work
Novelist and historian Ferdinand Gregorovius noted in his diary, April 13, 1862, "Have made Liszt's acquaintance; a striking, uncanny figure -- tall, thin, and with long grey hair. Frau von S. maintains that he is burnt out and that only the
outer walls remain, from which a little ghost-like flame hisses forth." The previous decade had not been kind to Liszt, marked as it was by increasing friction between the Weimar court -- to whom Liszt was Kapellmeister -- and his soul-mate and companion, Princess Carloyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein; Tsar Alexander II's confiscation of the Princess' vast fortune in 1855; Liszt's resignation as Kapellmeister in 1858, following a demonstration against his production of Peter Cornelius' comic masterpiece Der Barbier von Bagdad; the death of his son Daniel in 1859; the stinging repudiation of his music, with that of Wagner and the New German School, by Joachim and Brahms, in 1861; the Pope's refusal to grant Princess Carolyne the divorce that would allow her to marry Liszt, also in 1861; and the death of Liszt's daughter Blandine in 1862. The following year he would take up residence at the Madonna del Rosario outside Rome, though he still traveled and played a major part in European musical life. And on April 25, 1865, he would take holy orders and don a cassock, becoming the Abbé Liszt. Though he remained prolific to the end of his life, religious themes and choral music would absorb the major part of his compositional energies. Composed in 1862, at this crucial turning point, Gnomenreigen is the more remarkable in being -- with its companion piece, the blithely proto-Impressionist Waldesrauschen -- a throwback to the youthful efflorescence of the 1830s and 1840s such as the first two books of the Années de pèlerinage, or the Études d'exécution transcendante, with the Feux follets from which Gnomenreigen has affinities, though Liszt, entering his old masterly phase, achieves similarly volatile effects with slenderer, almost skeletal, writing. However spectral the gnomes of Gnomenreigen, their deft, mercurially flickering evocation is far more than "a little ghost-like flame." In folktales and the occult lore of Paracelsus, gnomes are dwarfic creatures of earth, guardians of buried treasure, telluric spirits, though -- in Liszt's hands -- their kinetic frolics are anything but earthbound, suggesting a darting playfulness possible only to sprites, genius, or highly trained hands.
-- Adrian Corleonis
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