Franz Liszt's Concert Etude No.3 'Un Sospiro'

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Classical Piano By: Tutor no longer registered
Subject: Piano » Classical Piano
Last updated: 13/02/2012
Tags: building towards a performance, classical piano, lizst, piano music, romanticism

Preparing a Performance of Franz Liszt's Concert Etude No.3 'Un Sospiro'    

Hear the piece here (with score):


In this article I am hoping to evaluate my own success in overcoming the plethora of musical and technical problems presented by this very challenging piece, Liszt’s Concert Etude No.3 ‘Un Sospiro’ (Italian for ‘a sigh’). The piece requires the performer to play a simple melody with alternating hands, underpinned by busy arpeggio figures in the accompaniment. One of my sternest challenges will be to maintain a beauty of tone colour and shaping in the melody whilst at the same time controlling the leaping of hands and rapid arpeggios in a manner that is technically secure and convincing. I aim primarily to assess how successful I have been in exploiting the various aspects of my performance preparation (these include comparing contrasting recordings, receiving feedback after an informal performance, and recording myself) to ensure that I play the piece to the best of my ability. Furthermore, I will look to examine the potential of these experiences in developing and improving my own approach to teaching.  Keith Swanwick reminds us of the close links between our own musicianship and teaching –  to be a good teacher, we must aim to provide “a model of sensitive musical behaviour” (Swanwick, 1999, p.54)  in our approach to both performance and practice.

I have always taken great enjoyment in playing piano works in the tradition of programme music - that which is consciously associated with non-musical ideas, images or events; works I have enjoyed playing in this tradition include Ravel’s “Jeux d’Eau”, Debussy’s “L’Isle Joyeuse”, and Liszt’s own “Funerailles”. The composer was prolific in this field – “nearly all of Liszt’s compositions arose from programmatic associations” (Baker, in Hamilton p.116, 2005). I was particularly attracted by this piece because it offers the technical virtuosity and challenges of an Etude in its traditional, literal sense of ‘technical study’, but it is also composed in a dramatic, expressive style that makes it ideal for concert performance. It is one of three concert etudes that were given the titles ‘Il Lamento’ (The Lament), ‘La Leggierezza’ (Lightness) and ‘Un Sospiro’ (A Sigh) after Liszt had written them, to emphasise their “poetic rather than technical aspects” (Hamilton, 2005, p.75). It is rich in lyric beauty, yet highly virtuosic, still geared towards the ‘Etude’s traditional function of helping the performer in the acquisition of a better technique. It has been said of Lizst that “his technical imagination as a writer of piano music and his command of keyboard colour were unsurpassed” (Hamilton, 2005, p.57).

After receiving feedback on my first performance in a masterclass, it became evident that improvement was needed in both the tone quality of the melody and the balancing of the hands. I had a strong tendency towards landing too heavily (resulting in a ‘plonking’ effect) when crossing over with the left hand - the alternation of hands in playing the melody notes needed greater control in order to achieve an even, singing tone. Equally, regarding the balance, the left hand, especially at the opening, was too prominent and needed to be reduced to more of a tranquil murmur. I resolved to pay some careful attention to these areas. On the whole, I found performing in the masterclass to be a positive experience. I was given realistic and constructive feedback which implied that the piece required significant improvement, but I was not made to feel out of my depth in undertaking such a technically demanding work.

Overall, I hope to make optimum use of this assignment by studying the piece in meticulous detail, being attentive and responsive to the feedback I receive for my initial performance, and further developing my practicing skills. I feel that doing this will improve my understanding of how to convey to my pupils the most effective and efficient approaches to practice and performance. Tessa   Nicholson draws attention to the close link between one’s own learning experiences as a pianist and the teaching that one carries out, asserting that “good teaching produces good teachers” and “The further you take your own playing with good lessons, the better you will teach” (Nicholson, Effective Practising, 2011).

The Learning Process:

The colossal number of notes on each page (a total of 2,835 in the whole piece) and the dense rapidity of its passagework make ‘Un Sospiro’ as visually daunting as any piano work. In these passages, I regularly faced the challenges of “rapid changes of finger-position, quick changes of hand-shape and finger-changes on repeated notes” (D’Abreu, 1964, p.53-4). What are the best ways of working towards technical security and control when faced with this? An important start is to retain an awareness of the fact that “florid passages are made up of either scales or chords, or both” (D’Abreu, 1964, p.53) – and break the piece down accordingly. The piece is full of rapid passages in the accompaniment whose basic structure is made up of chords. In tackling these, a logical and effective way to allow the fingers to become accustomed to the hand positions required is to convert them into ‘chord-blocks’. D’Abreu carefully explains this process – “By practicing as suggested [shown in Images 1a and 1b in the appendix] one learns to shift rapidly from one hand position to another; also one gets accustomed to judging with accuracy the distance between each pair of notes” (D’Abreu, 1964, p.54).

I found that adopting the ‘chord conversions’ approach made it possible for me to view each dense flurry of notes as a coherent block, and in this way achieve far better technical control and security, as well as gaining a very full sense of the harmonic progressions in the piece. Harmonic analysis is very important in making the reading and learning of ‘Un Sospiro’ easier – breaking down clusters of 14 or 15 notes into a single harmony is crucial to mentally simplifying and memorising such music.

From a technical point of view, the athletic demands of the piece are considerable. If we were to summarise the key aspects of technique explored in it, we could say that it focuses primarily on the areas of crossing hands, playing a melody with alternating hands, and arpeggios. As described, it has proven fruitful both for security of learning and technical control to practice the latter of these in ‘chord conversions’. However, I was careful not to overuse this approach or rely exclusively on it, as in my eventual performance, I would perform the arpeggios with optimum smoothness and precision, not as chords, but as they are written in fast flourishes of notes.  Sidney Harrison attests that “If you want athletic skill, you will find no better friend than scales and arpeggios” (Harrison, 1982, p.34), and expresses clear theories about the best way to approach playing and practising these. Though his ideas are basics to be applied from an early age, I feel one must at all levels pay attention to them and be certain that they are being carried out. A true finger action combined with appropriate movement of the arm, applicable to both scales and arpeggios, must be manifest in this piece – “Each note should be released exactly when the next begins” and one should “play from a still or a smoothly gliding arm and hand” (Harrison, 1982, p.33/34). I was sure to closely observe my arm and finger action when playing the arpeggios.

As mentioned in the introduction, one of my most significant personal struggles in undertaking this piece was to maintain a beauty of tone amidst the copious virtuosity. “In later music, a truly sonorous ‘cantabile’ with a softer accompaniment is an inestimably important element in a successful performance” (Nicholson, 2011). Overcoming the physical challenges of the fast arpeggios as well as the rapid crossing and alternation of hands, could on no account be to the detriment of an exquisite cantando effect (‘singing-tone’, like cantabile) in the melody. Harrison makes clear his views on the nature of the enigmatic ‘singing-tone’, stating that while “some teachers argue that you can increase the fullness, roundness, depth and quality of a note without making it louder” he believes that “you can appear to do so”, “if we make long notes loud enough to last their length” (Harrison, 1982, p. 40). Harrison follows the principle that “the longer notes of a melody should be pushed ‘deeper into the upholstery’” (Harrison, 1982, p. 40). He cites examples which very clearly validate this approach, such as Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, where a pianissimo G sharp (see Image 2, appendix) is a dotted crotchet over 9 triplet quavers – despite being marked pianissimo we must play it loud enough to prevail for 9 beats.

The melody of Un Sospiro is however in quavers – significantly shorter – and when Harrison himself suggests, “let us say, by way of general guidance, that minims and crotchets are deep” (Harrison, 1982, p.42), we must consider to what extent his ideas are applicable in this piece.  We should however remember the ferociously active and busy nature of the accompaniment, which consists of a mixture of semiquaver septuplets or sextuplets (7 or 6 notes) and demisemiquavers (8 notes per beat). Comparatively, the notes of the melody are long and dominant and I had to strive to ensure that I used Harrison’s “arm touch” to project them  – “your arm pushes the key, thinking of the tone that is needed for the duration of the note.  But immediately after the note has begun to sound, the arm can half-release the pressure for the remainder of the time.” (Harrison, 1982, p.42). Of course, the alternation of the hands means that half the melody is played in ‘leaps’, which made producing such a tone even more challenging than it would normally be.

After my masterclass performance exposed an accompaniment that was noticeably too prominent, and a tendency to undermine the cantabile effect by ‘plonking’ the melody notes that involved leaps, I decided that it was of paramount importance to undertake copious further slow practice in order to better these areas. In striving to improve my cantabile and balance of hands, I found to be sensible the approaches suggested by Tessa Nicholson – “extremely slowly, together...leaning into the ‘cantabile hand and lightening the arm of the accompaniment” (Nicholson, 2011).

I am yet to touch on one of the most significant, if not the greatest technical challenges in this work – the leaps. The melody, as said, is played with alternating hands. Every time the left hand  plays a melody note, two leaps of significant distance (one up to the note, then down again)  must be effected; this must be carried out with such ease and security that it does not affect the smoothness of the melodic shape or the cantando tone quality that the melody requires. Therefore, for the purpose of coming to terms with this challenge, one cannot overstate the importance of slow and meticulous practice of ‘leaps by preparation’.

D’Abreu explains the process (see appendix Images 3a and b), the correct application of which is in my opinion fundamental to a convincing performance of ‘Un Sospiro’: “quickly releasing a note, moving rapidly to the next and finally depressing the key” (D’Abreu, 1964, p.50). In this piece the left and right hand share the content of harmony and melody over a wide tessitura; as a result, the amount of geographical movement that the left hand leaps require is quite formidable. In order, then, for them to be carried out as effortlessly as possible, I had to ensure that I was completely economical in my approach to the ‘preparation sequence’. I was sure to make the hand move horizontally and skim the keys – “excessive movement only increases distance and effort and impairs judgement” (D’Abreu, 1964, p.51). I found that copious slow practice of this technique, with the use of muscular, photographic and aural memory to learn the notes, helped me to gradually find my way towards technical security in this piece.

Comparison of two recordings by different pianists, Marc-Andre Hamelin and Earl Wild:

When listening to Hamelin’s performance, immediately striking is the subtlety of tone colour he is able to generate. He successfully abstains from heavy fingerwork when playing the accompaniment under the melody, and his use of pedalling is very adept. As a result he achieves the shimmering effect of a harp in the accompanying arpeggios, which are exquisitely subdued – he suppresses the busy accompaniment very effectively. Earl Wild’s arpeggios are heavier and more audible, however his melody is noticeably stronger and more impassioned – he plays it with an extraordinary clarity and singing tone, which I was keen to recreate. Hamelin is not as successful in projecting every note; some appear to be fainter than others. It is interesting to see how the two pianists have responded in different ways to the great challenges presented by the balancing of hands. Wild focuses on mastering “a truly sonorous ‘cantabile’” while Hamelin excels in his creation of a “‘softer accompaniment’”. On hearing both performances I resolved to, as challenging as it would be, attempt to combine Wild’s masterful projection of the melody with Hamelin’s exquisite suppression of the accompaniment - in Tessa Nicholson’s eyes, the two combined are an “inestimably important element in a successful performance” (Nicholson, 2011).

Earl Wild uses interesting and thoughtfully applied rubato, in a more capricious, unpredictable manner than Hamelin. This gives the piece a more impressionistic and dreamy feel, contrasting with the more continuous, almost ceaseless flow that seems to characterise the main theme in Hamelin’s performance. In particular, in bars 4, 7 and 17, points at which the notes of the melody reach their highest pitch, Wild noticeably gives space to the melody to create a floating, drifting effect. Hamelin does not steer entirely clear of rubato, his tendency is however to reserve it for the ends of phrases, carefully ‘placing’ the last note – throughout the phrases themselves there is clear drive and continuity. Although both approaches have their merits, I feel Wild’s application of rubato is perhaps excessive and detracts from the flow and coherence of the phrases; my own use of rhythmic freedom was more sparing.

There is noticeable contrast in the approach to characterisation between the two pianists. Wild does not shy away from extremes of dynamics, and treats a climactic section of the piece (bars 30-37) in a highly dramatic, emotionally charged manner. The bass chords and octaves are played majestically, and the phrases are appropriately slowed for dramatic effect. Whilst Hamelin’s rendition of the middle section is not short of volume, his tempo remains quite consistent and his playing style very collected – Wild makes more elaborate bodily gestures. Hamelin’s overall interpretation of the piece is beautifully serene and measured; he does strive for intense pathos in the way that Wild does. I felt that his performance was suitably emotive but, with its dynamic extremes and ample rubato, too variable and unpredictable in its character.

Hamelin’s tendency is to use the pedal extensively and consistently, more so than Wild who seems to favour precise clarity of fingerwork over shimmering harp effects. This contrast in approach is perhaps most obvious in the small cadenza sections at bars 37 and 52: Hamelin’s interpretation is ethereal and glittering, reminiscent of the tone quality encountered in such works as Ravel’s Jeux D’Eau and Gaspard de la Nuit, whilst Wild makes it a succession of very clear notes rather than a wash of sound. Both create an impressive sound; personally, I found that it felt comfortable to use the pedal more generously.


Writing this article has been highly beneficial in providing me with the opportunity to engage in a detailed analysis and evaluation of my own approaches to practice. I feel that the piece ‘Un Sospiro’ was an excellent vehicle for such a project, as it offers great scope for development of many facets of piano-playing, including aspects of technique, approach to tone quality and balance, and interpretation of musical character. I have developed greater confidence and awareness in many of these areas, and I feel that I will be able to make this beneficial to my students.  Susan Hallam reminds us that “pupils do not naturally adopt the most efficient and effective methods of practice” (Hallam, 1998, p.153). As a teacher, we have the responsibility to provide guidance and support for the challenges that pupils face outside of lessons – such as “dealing with technical difficulties”, “developing musical ideas”, “increasing concentration” and “improving motivation to practise” (Hallam, 1998, p.153). I am certain that the development of our own understanding of effective practice, which this article has created ample opportunity for, will prove to broaden and enrich our own teaching.


Performance Evaluation

fter three months of studying this piece, I was hoping to perform it with a largely reliable technique and security, as well as demonstrating clear empathy for the poetic expressivity and lyricism that it requires. However I was not expecting, after this length of preparation time, that it would be a fully technically and musically accomplished performance.

It was a high priority for me to demonstrate that I was acting on the valuable feedback given to me in the masterclass. I felt that, to a large extent, I had been successful in improving the areas that were mentioned in the class. Especially, I thought that tone quality and balance of hands showed marked improvements from the last time I played the piece. My careful practice of the left hand leaps that occur in the opening melody (bars 3-8), as well as my refingering of octaves(bars 13-18), allowed me to perform the challenging alternation of hands in the melody with greater control and ease, as well as producing a better singing tone. There melody was now smoother, concealing the fact that it is played by alternating hands. The stronger cantando effect, achieved by using arm weight, meant that the melody projected more prominently over the accompaniment than before.

In such a work, every bar is extremely dense and busy – there is no relief from the constant activity until the very end of the piece. Maintaining momentum and concentration throughout is therefore vital. I felt that my concentration was appropriately intense during passages of alternating hands – I listened intently to each melodic note and registered each harmony as I played - I could not afford to do anything other than this. Perhaps I relinquished the intensity in the middle passage (bars 30 – 37), where the hands no longer alternate. The music of this passage is no less mentally demanding than the opening, with sweeping arpeggios in the right hand and leaping chords in the right. I rushed this section and did not think enough whilst playing it – it needed more time and rhythmic freedom, as well as more careful listening.

Whilst I feel fairly confident in facing the technical challenges presented by arpeggios, large chords and octaves, a relative weakness in my piano technique, as confirmed by my most recent teacher, has always been the area of close finger-work. This was exposed in the two cadenza passages of ‘Un Sospiro’ (bars 37 and 52) – which lacked control, clarity and evenness. I should look to develop this aspect of my technique by spending extra time on five-finger exercises and scale-exercises from my workbook (Rafael Joseffy’s “The School of Advanced Piano Playing”), practising them slowly and in rhythmic transformations (eg dotted rhythms). I can then apply the approaches used for these exercises in the two challenging cadenzas.

Overall I felt that I showed a good overall understanding for the character of the piece and played the melody expressively. I am not as yet assured enough in my technical command of it to play it with the passion and involvement that it merits. More careful work on certain arpeggio passages (such as bars 35-37, 53-61) with the use of chord conversions and rhythmic transformations, as well as careful attention to the fingerwork of the cadenza passages, should help me towards the necessary security to achieve this.



Uzler, M., Gordon S., and Mc-Bride-Smith S. (2000) The Well-Tempered Keyboard Teacher USA Schirmer Books

D’Abreu, G. (1964) Playing the Piano with Confidence Faber and Faber

Hamilton, K. (2005) The Cambridge Companion to Liszt Cambridge University Press

Harrison, S. (1988) The Young Person’s Guide to Playing the Piano Faber and Faber

Hallam, S. (1998) Instrumental Teaching. Heinemann

Swanwick, K. (1999) Teaching Music Musically. Routledge: London and New York



Ignatius-Fleet, H. (2011) Mind Mapping and Memorisation PPTC

Ignatius-Fleet, H. (2011) Towards The Ideal Pianistic Gesture PPTC

Nicholson, T. (2011)  Effective practising PPTC



Harrison, S. (1988) The Young Person’s Guide to Playing the Piano Faber and Faber

Kentner, L. (1976) Piano, Kahn and Averill 

Mills, J. (2007) Instrumental Teaching Faber Music Ltd

Last, J. (1972)  The Young Pianist. Oxford University Press

Mackworth-Young, L. (2000) Tuning In: Practical Psychology for Musicians. Norfolk: MMM Publications

Hallam, S. (1998) Instrumental Teaching. Heinemann

Swanwick, K. (1999) Teaching Music Musically. Routledge: London and New York

D’Abreu, G. (1964) Playing the Piano with Confidence Faber and Faber

Westney, W. (2003) The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self

Amadeus Press

Uzler, M., Gordon S., and Mc-Bride-Smith S. (2000) The Well-Tempered Keyboard Teacher USA Schirmer Books



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