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Franz Liszt

After Aïda's Paris premiere in April 1876, the young, virulently anti-Semitic Vincent d'Indy wrote disgustedly of "this Meyerbeerian-Wagneroid bore with its tendency to Berliozian orchestration, which is only a pale imitation...of the aforementioned masters" -- a remark drawing from musicologist Martin Cooper the sharp riposte, "If d'Indy had it in him to write the last act of Aïda and refrained from doing so by a self-denying ordinance, we might at least admire his moral power." But, he adds, d'Indy's rare lyric inspiration "is a poor substitute for a complete opera of the most potent and dramatic melody...." With Aïda (1870), Verdi intended to end his career, and it is a curious turn that, after the darkly hued and psychologically penetrating operas of the 1860s -- La forza del destino and Don Carlos -- his winding up, so to speak, yielded an apotheosis of the grand spectacle operas on the model of Meyerbeer's Le prophète. The latter work, by the way, elicited from Liszt no less than three elaborately fantastic "Illustrations" and the magnificent Ad nos, ad salutarem undam for organ, an original work taking flight from the Anabaptists' chorale in Le prophète. Liszt followed Verdi's development closely and it is one token of respect for his art that in recasting Verdi for the piano he allows himself far fewer liberties than he had in dealing with Meyerbeer, Bellini, and Donizetti, though a part of that owes to the mature concentration of his own art, which seizes upon one salient moment from the operas -- the tower scene in Il Trovatore, say, or the quartet in Rigoletto -- to project them from the keyboard with visionary grandeur. There are, as well, two approaches to the operas -- the reproduction at the piano of the blood-and-thunder drama, as in the Miserere du Trovatore, and a savored distancing, a recollection of emotion in tranquility, as in Rigoletto: Paraphrase du concert. Composed between 1871 and 1879, the Aïda paraphrase partakes of both. The tune of the priests' chorus preceding the dénouement -- what Liszt termed the "danza sacra" -- was too fine to be left in the background, as it is in the opera, and Liszt gives it delicate play before rendering the lovers' last duet as they are entombed together, "O terra addio." While the duet has its climactic moment, Liszt in recollecting it is moved to compose the sort of paroxysm usually reserved for the coda, though the thundering chords subside into a last quiet statement of the duet.