The Un-Liszt-ed Sonata: An Examination of Nested Structures and Cloudy Connections


“Sorrowful and great is the artist’s destiny.”

-Franz Liszt


Like any work of art that is able to withstand the test of time, Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor contains layers of meaning beyond what is immediately apparent. While his sonata can be analyzed through the lens of conventional sonatas, it is possible Liszt had a clever agenda of broader form and hidden inspirations in mind during its composition. Looking deeper, the observer could identify an overarching sonata form that can be superimposed over the whole four-movement work as well as cryptic inspirations for the principle, recurring themes that hint towards an autobiographical intent.

An examination of the Liszt Sonata by Alan Walker yields an unexpectedly bland result, in that it only scratches the surface of possible analyses. One of the most accomplished Liszt scholars of recent years, Alan Walker, an English-born, Canadian musicologist, focused his chief areas of research on Romantic music, musical aesthetics, and criticism. He is responsible for an incredibly extensive, three-volume biography of Liszt; a work to which he dedicated the better part of a quarter of a century. It was the first work of its kind to comprehend both the breadth and complex elements of Liszt’s life and his works.[1]

The first and most conventional school of thought when analyzing the Liszt Sonata is to look at it as one large sonata allegro movement. Indeed this is exactly what Alan Walker does during his analysis in Reflections on Liszt. This analysis tracks the introduction and development of themes throughout the sonata. Walker puts forth the following framework for the larger structure of the work as seen in Figure 1.

Form Diagram

Fig. 1, form chart[2]

In this manner, the overarching sonata form is clearly being superimposed over the four movement substructure of the piece. Looking briefly into each of these sections, one finds three different motives (Figures 2, 3, and 4) presented during the introduction. Each of these motives is built upon and expanded to become the first and second themes of the exposition (Figures 5 and 6).

1. Intro (a)   2. Intro (b)

Fig. 2, motive a[3]                                                      Fig. 3, motive b

3. Intro (c)           4. T1

Fig. 4, motive c                                                           Fig. 5, theme 1

5. T2

Fig. 6, theme 2

Both the b and c motives are clearly visible in theme one while the driving eighth-notes of motive c provide a foundation for theme two. In addition to the established motives, Liszt is also reaching for other inspirations with the second theme. Walker noted this, citing the similarity between it and the plainchant “Crux fidelis.”[4] Liszt continues on through the second and third movements, establishing a development section (Figure 7) as well as a retransition (Figure 8).

6. Development 7. Leadback

Fig. 7, development                                                        Fig. 8, retransition

8. Recap, T1 9. Recap, T2

Fig. 9, restatement of theme 1                                     Fig. 10, restatement of theme 2

Finally he arrives at the fourth movement and what can be considered to be the recapitulation of the larger movement (Figures 9 and 10).

In this method of analysis, the varying structures are plain to see. The overarching sonata and how Liszt creates it is clear. However, the breaking down of the sonata in this manner serves a two-fold purpose for the scholar; it provides a solid foundation and understanding of the work as well as acting as a springboard into other, less conventional analyses. One such analysis would be to explore the possibility of the sonata having an autobiographical intent.

The program behind the sonata that may have served as inspiration for Liszt was never stipulated by him. Thus all possible sources of inspiration that have occurred to historians throughout the years are merely speculation based upon what seems to be solid evidence uncovered through research. Among the most popularly held beliefs are the four following theses: 1) The sonata is a musical portrait of the Faust Legend; 2) The sonata is about the divine and diabolical; 3) The sonata is an allegory set in the Garden of Eden and deals with issues such as the fall of man; 4) The sonata has no programmatic allusions, it is absolute music. It is music simply for music’s sake.[5] Each of these four explanations is equally plausible. It is fair to say that given the circumstances surrounding Liszt at the time of its composition in 1853, the Sonata in B Minor has autobiographical programmatic allusions. Among the aspects of his life that played into the composition of the sonata perhaps the most important was his relationship with the Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, his mistress for thirteen years at Weimar and close friend for the better part of half of a century.

Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein was born to a wealthy, Polish landowner. From her father, Peter, Carolyne received proper training in the daily affairs of business, knowing that Carolyne would one day inherit his fortune and be responsible for its management.[6] Peter also sought to ensure a secure marriage for his daughter. At the age of seventeen she received an offer of matrimony from Prince Nicholas Sayn-Wittgenstein. Despite Peter’s reservations that Nicholas only sought his daughter’s hand for monetary reasons, he nevertheless placed a pressure upon Carolyne to accept the prince’s offer. Twice she declined Nicholas’s proposal, accepting the third time only out of fear of her father. She and Nicholas were married for four years before their marriage inevitably failed due to their incompatibility; they agreed upon a permanent separation but not annulment of their marriage.[7]

Feeling responsible for his daughter’s unhappiness, Peter announced his remorse upon his deathbed, too late to reconcile with his daughter. Thus Peter died and all his wealth passed on to his daughter. This life event coupled with her marriage signaled the true beginning of problems for Carolyne. The father of her husband, Nicholas, died the same year. However, rather than pass his assets on to his children immediately, the testament of Field Marshal Ludwig Adolf Peter von Sayn-Wittgenstein could not be executed until after his wife died, some fourteen years later. Because of this, Carolyne was the financial provider for Nicholas and thus a hostage of the situation. As a result, Nicholas doubled his resolve to not have the marriage between him and Carolyne dissolved.[8] In addition to this, three of Carolyne’s cousins came forward with a false will of her father’s that stipulated that they were to be the recipients of his wealth. Fortunately, the last of these issues was resolved quickly and the issue was put to rest. However, her situation with her estranged husband continued to plague her throughout her relationship with Liszt.[9]

Armed with the knowledge of Carolyne’s life, more unconventional analyses gain more credence and clarity. One such analysis was performed by David Brown. A specialist in the areas of Russian and English Renaissance music, Brown enjoyed a successful career as a lecturer at Southampton University.[10] Through his studies, Brown became intrigued by the commonalities that the openings of both Liszt’s Sonata and Faust Symphony, composed 4 years after the sonata, share. Key among them was the use of a curious descending scale that, through previous research on the symphony, had come to be associated with Liszt’s name.[11]

While Brown does not refute the idea that there are overarching forms at work, he does disagree in the construction of the melodies and themes and their provenance. The construction of the principal themes of the work out of the three motives presented at the beginning still holds for Brown. However, he argues that the thematic material for these motives has its roots in ciphers generated both with the names of Liszt and Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein. From both their names, Liszt was actually able to draw out almost the same cipher (see Figure 11 and 12), the only difference being one interval which was major rather than minor.[12] Using similar methods he was able to develop a “pitch profile;” the distinguishing feature between the two being the fall of Liszt’s and rise of Carolyne’s (Figure 13).[13]

Screenshot 2014-05-14 15.39.51                      Screenshot 2014-05-14 15.39.38

Fig. 11, Liszt’s own cipher[14]                         Fig. 12, Carolyne’s cipher

 Screenshot 2014-05-14 15.39.08

Fig. 12, Liszt’s and Carolyne’s scales

For Brown, the integration and interplay between these two scales forms the basis of his analysis. He uses them to better understand the construction of each of the themes, going so far as to ascribe specific names to each one. For example, out of Carolyne’s scale, Liszt develops Carolyne’s theme or as it was previously referred to, theme 2. He also specifies Liszt’s love theme or as it was referred to earlier motive c. This sort of analysis opens to the door to a lesser considered path for Liszt’s inspiration when composing this piece; that of an autobiographical inspiration.

As can be seen from the earlier discourse on Carolyne’s tumultuous history it seemed inevitable that her time with Liszt was never destined to be perfect. Liszt and Carolyne met in 1847 while they were both in Kiev. Carolyne attended a recital of his and having become taken with his playing, like so many women of that age, donated one hundred roubles for his charity.[15] Walker acknowledges that in Liszt, Carolyne may have found a liberation from her situation in life. Walker describes Liszt as a “true connoisseur of the fair sex.”[16] He is of the opinion that Liszt would have recognized the signs of the repressed desires and pain that were masked behind her gruff exterior, both in looks and emotions. It seems as though Walker was right as Liszt soon joined Carolyne and her daughter, Princess Marie, at their fortress manor in Woronice. This would be the first many sojourns that Liszt took with Carolyne and her daughter. Indeed, it becomes apparent that a deep romance and relationship soon formed between Liszt and Carolyne. When they were apart from each other, they were in constant correspondence. Luckily, a great deal of the letters between them have survived the ravages of time and play a crucial role in providing a testament of their love and affection for one another. In one such letter from early 1848, Liszt writes to Carolyne:

My heart is swelling, my brain burning and desiccating…Is this living, it it loving, to be feeling and thinking with such pangs as I experience? Let me be swallowed up in and repose in you; that is my sole destiny, and with God’s blessing it will be a glorious one![17]

It is clear to any reader that the relationship the two of them share goes beyond the bounds of normal friendship. They are in love with one another, categorically and undeniably.

As with most people in their situation, the desire arose between them to make their love official and legal through the process of matrimony, thereby ensuring their happiness together and making Liszt the legal stepfather to Marie. Liszt subtly suggested this desire in a letter to his mother in 1848 saying, “It is not impossible that at last I shall strike a very good bargain. But I dare not speak of it for fear that I shall look ridiculous.”[18] However, as was previously elucidated, Carolyne was still married to Nicholas who was not ready to relinquish his marital bond and status to Carolyne. It wasn’t until 1852 that Nicholas put forth the conditions under which he was willing to consent to a divorce. Foremost among them that Carolyne would lose guardianship of Princess Marie.[19] Obviously Carolyne was not ready to allow this to come to pass, thus her illicit relationship with Liszt continued. From this unfortunate situation comes the inspiration for Liszt and his sonata.

With this knowledge in mind as well as the cipher analysis of Brown, one is able to look at the Liszt’s sonata in a whole new light. It becomes clear that there are autobiographical motivations at work. The use of ciphers that have been generated with their names might even be enough to suggest this. It seems to become more and more irrefutable as the work progresses. The interplay of the melodies created with the use of the ciphers is meant to be representative of the relationship they had. The melodies are never quite one, but they are never fully separated. They are interacting with each other on an intimate emotional level just as two lovers would. The listener is able to see and hear how different melodies play off of one another and push the progress of the piece onward. The fire in one melody might be tempered by the compassion in another. This point is illustrated in the two melodies to which Brown attributes to being Liszt’s love theme and Carolyne’s love theme (Figure 13, Figure 14).

Screenshot 2014-05-14 15.41.06                                Screenshot 2014-05-14 15.41.53

Fig. 13, Liszt’s love theme                                     Fig. 14, Carolyne’s love theme

The shape of each of these sections is essentially the same. However everything that is going on around these melodies lends each its own distinct pathos. The stylistic markings of these differing sections would be enough to illustrate the differing personalities that they are meant to embody. Liszt’s theme is marked marcato while Carolyne’s is a more lyrical cantando espressivo. The urgency in the first is placated by the yearning and lyricism in the other. This is as close as Liszt and Carolyne will get throughout the entire work.  Similar to how they never achieved marriage in life, they never achieve a whole union in music.  This results in an illustration of the desperation of their situation, which seems to come through at the conclusion of the work. The piece ends just as it begins, with Liszt’s solitary, descending scale mirroring how Liszt must have felt about his relationship at this point in 1853; he was alone, he found Carolyne, he hoped to marry her, but was ultimately thwarted by powers beyond his control.

While this seems to be a rather pessimistic view of the autobiographical intent, it is possible that this was not the purpose Liszt had in mind. True, the work chronicles a relationship that is operating to the best of its ability under difficult and tumultuous circumstance and true, the ending leaves the listener with a certain level of despair. But this may have been by design. Liszt never spoke about the piece nor did he offer programmatic notes to suggest meaning as he would have for other works. This could have been because the work was only to be understood by one person and that person did not need any explanation as to its meaning.


Below is a recording of one of Liszt’s Students, Arthur Friedheim, performing the sonata. As a student of Liszt, this will probably be as close as one could get to hearing the piece from the composer himself.


Nick Kovach









 Brown, David. “The B Minor Sonata Revisited: Deciphering Liszt.” The Musical Times 144, no. 1882 (2003): 6-15.

Liszt, Franz. Franz Liszt Selected Letters. Edited by Adrian Williams. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

Liszt, Franz. Sonata in B Minor for Piano. New York: G. Schirmer, 1909.

Le Huray, Peter. “Brown, David.” In Borowski to Canobbio. Edited by Stanley Sadie. 2nd ed. Vol. 4 of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. New York: Grove, 2001.

Tyrrell, John. “Walker, Alan” In Wagon to Zywny. Edited by Stanley Sadie. 2nd ed. Vol. 27 of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. New York: Grove, 2001.

Walker, Alan. Reflections on Liszt. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005.

Walker, Alan. The Weimar Years 1848-1861. Vol. 2 of Franz Liszt. London: Faber and Faber, 1989.

[1] Tyrrell, “Walker, Alan,” 28.

[2] Walker, Reflections, 129.

[3] Liszt, Sonata in B Minor. Figures 2-10, 13, and 14 are all excerpts taken from a performer’s score.

[4] Walker, Reflections, 132. Due to the possible source, this motive has come to be referred to by some as ‘the cross motive.’ This explication of the melody here adds fuel to the fire for the argument that the work has religious underpinnings.

[5] Walker, Weimar, 150. There are many other theories, however these are four of the most widely accepted explanations for the sonata’s composition. Further study and investigation would undoubtedly yield further results. Nevertheless, no one will be able to confirm any of them as Liszt never sanctioned any programmatic elements. Indeed he even was reported to be particularly silent when it came to discussion of this work.

[6] Walker, Weimar, 25-29. Her father, and mother, Peter and Pauline respectively, separated early in her life leading to her being raised almost singularly by her father. From her father, who was an introverted and bookish person by nature, she gained a certain propensity for habits such as debate, reading, and cigar smoking.

[7] Walker, Weimar, 25-28.

[8] Walker, Weimar, 29.

[9] Walker, Weimar, 31.

[10] Le Huray, “Brown, David,” 439. Among his publications, he is most well known for his four-volume study on Tchaikovsky. Similar to the multi-volume biography on Liszt that Walker penned, so too did Brown’s publication become an authoritative source on its respective subject.

[11] Brown, Deciphering Liszt, 6.

[12] Brown, Deciphering Liszt, 7. In this case, it is the difference between a major second and a minor second.

[13] Brown, Deciphering Liszt, 7.

[14] In this instance, the cipher was generated using his Hungarian-style Christian name, Ferenc, which he received upon his baptism into the Roman Catholic Church.

[15] Carolyne was actually in Kiev on business. It was quite by chance that she and Liszt met. She had been informed by an associate of a recital which Liszt had given that caused somewhat of an uproar in the town and having been intrigued by this, decided to experience his playing herself.

[16] Walker, Weimar, 31.

[17] Liszt, Selected Letters, 262.

[18] Liszt, Selected letters, 257. The bargain that is alluded to in the letter could only be construed to be a marriage between himself and the princess.

[19] Walker, Weimar, 141. It also stipulated that in the event of remarriage Nicholas would receive one-seventh of her fortune with the rest going to Princess Marie (who would no longer be under Carolyne’s guardianship) and Carolyne would receive 200,000 roubles in cash(~$5,500).