What is a piano paraphrase? Part of its seductive fluidity is that it is not a transcription (faithful rewriting), an arrangement, a piano reduction, a fantasy, a souvenir, or reminiscences yet it may contain elements of all of them.
Furthermore, it is not a survey (of sections in chronological sequence), a summary, or a medley of popular sections of a large-scale work.
It is a seemingly improvisatory (no variations or fugue), virtuosic, and agonistic homage to an earlier work. It praises it while seeking to exhibit its own superiority. It showcases it while undermining its uniqueness. It venerates it while domesticating it.
Operatic paraphrases (and comparable fantasies and reminiscences) are especially fascinating since they often have something wildly … operatic about them. Flamboyant, melodramatic, adventurous, histrionic, they flaunt their grandiosity and turn their performer into a protagonist. The performer “dramatizes his struggle to release the composer’s sacred message from the cage of the piano. He thus seizes upon the instability of transcription and folds it into his general concert practice, which constantly stages dramas whose telos is to entice, squeeze or force ‘spirit’ out of the mechanical piano, or release expressivity from material boundedness” (Dana Gooley: “Liszt and the noisiness of pianistic mediation,” Musiktheorie 25: 3, 2010, p. 240).
As a splendid example, here is Liszt’s Paraphrase de concert on Verdi’s Trovatore, S. 433 (1859), which takes on the Act IV Leonora-Manrico duet and the orchestra and the chorus singing the Miserere.
Franz Liszt wrote some 150 piano arrangements of different kinds based on composers from Bach to Wagner. “Opera paraphrases were an integral part of Liszt’s musical personality” (Charles Suttoni: “Opera Paraphrases,” in Ben Arnold, ed.: The Liszt Companion, 2002, p. 179). He composed some 50 opera paraphrases and fantasies throughout his career (1824-1882). “The operas he paraphrased were almost all contemporary works by living composers. Typically he wrote these pieces within a few years, if not within months, of an opera’s premiere” (180).
Opera paraphrases were very popular and “dominated the concert stage for much of the nineteenth century in an age when pianists of the day performed the music of their own time. That was only as it should be. Opera ruled the lyric stage.  Pianists were quick to capitalize on opera’s popularity, and that appeal, coupled with the instrument’s improvements in mechanical action and sonority, fed to ever more ingenious elaboration of operatic material. Virtually every concert program from about 1830 to 1860 included opera fantasies, with each pianist usually writing his or her own, and it was these pieces, not the piano works of Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, or even Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann, that provided the standard concert fare of the period” (179).
The question of cultural context is also very interesting. “In 1800 the instruments and ensembles that constitute musical media – organ, wind band, choir, solo voice, orchestra, etc. – are tied to specific audiences, social contexts, rituals and technical practices that are differentiated and heterogeneous to one another” (Gooley 228). In sharp contrast, in the piano paraphrase, the original socio-spatial context is drastically reconfigured as the earlier piece (say, an opera like Trovatore) is transferred from its original instrumentation, typical venue, standard occasion, assigned time, and audience community (Matthew Gelbart: “Layered Genres and the Development of Modern Listening,” in his Musical Genre and Romantic Ideology: Belonging in the Age of Originality, 2022).
Offering return and repetition through recomposition, a paraphrase elaborates a critical commentary on the earlier work, affirming its place in the canon as it deconstructs it, subverting its apparent artistic unity and exposing its internal (musical as well as cultural) assumptions.
26 January 2023