There is so much music inspired by songs!
Some of the music is well-known – an example being Schumann’s beautiful song Widmung and Liszt’s popular piano transcription of it (here is Argerich’s interpretation). Some others are much less well-known but are gems nonetheless – there are many of these, including Bartok’s piano renditions of Hungarian peasant songs from the region of Csik, or even Rachmaninoff’s piano transcriptions of his own songs.
Some of the songs or vocal works turned out to be fertile ground for pianistic imaginations, Schubert’s Der Wanderer (D.489) song, for example, has had direct “siblings” – two clear ones, in fact, as in his own piano sonata in B flat major (D.960), very much in the left hand a few times in the first movement and perhaps most explicit when, in the development section of the first movement, when around bars 159–160 it became an almost literal quotation of the song’s piano introduction, as well as the Fantasie in C major, with an 8-bar phrase of the song (“the sun seems old, the blossom withered, life ….”) quoted almost exactly in its second movement (which is in the “Wanderer” key of C sharp minor too), and with multiple references and allusions to the song throughout the piece, including the rhythmic pattern of “long-short-short” in two of the other three movements. There are less direct connections in other works too.
Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli (here with Richter playing) shows the well-travelled composer that Liszt was (Liszt’s years of travels took him very often to Italy in the 1830s and he also spent a great deal of his later years in the country that inspired a vast body of works, both original and transcribed); it was constructed from 3 Italian folk songs, one for each movement. (The first “movement”, Gondolier’s song, was based on a well-known melody composed by Peruchini, an Italian composer born in 1784; the song is equally inclucded in Liszt’s symphonic poem Tasso; the second “movement”, meanwhile, is also based on the gondolier’s song, this time from Rossini’s Otello, “Nessun maggior dolore” [“No more pain”] in Act III, which premiered in Naples in 1816 and is set in Venice. The third “movement”, the Tarantella, is based on themes of Cottrau, a French composer who lived and worked in Naples.)
The repertoire is rich and sometimes under-appreciated. In fact, Liszt made piano transcriptions on the vocal works of almost 100 other composers as well as his own.
Schubert’s songs was objects that “bring tears to my eyes”, said Liszt, and in his transcriptions of Schubert’s songs, Liszt often made sure to provide the words of the original note-by-note throughout the piano score.
One of the piano pieces where Liszt did not write the words over the notes was his piano versions of his own song setting of Petrarch’s sonnets, even if the sense of poetry remains crucial to the understanding of the piano music (here is Arrau’s rendition of Sonnet 104).
In some instances the composer is almost obsessed with a song and crafted multiple versions of it in different formulations.
To do justice to these sometimes technically also difficult pieces, we need pianists who play the piano with an understanding of these songs (and the text) while also working hard to sustain a legato “singing line” on the piano (the piano, after all, gets its sounds from hammers striking the strings). “Sing it!” – admonishes one of the most well-known piano teachers today. The “piano that sings” with the poetry is magical when it happens and is an inspiring goal for any pianist!