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Maria Borg

Write a detailed commentary on Liszt's Vallée d'Obermann. This should include notes on
the history and programme of the work and an analysis.

Vallee d’Obermann is a piece from the first volume, Impressions et poesies, of three suites for
solo piano by Liszt, initially called Album D’un Voyageur (published in 1855) but the name was
later revised to Annees de Pelerinage, this piece was then in the volume entitled Premiere annee:
Suisse. This piece was composed between 1835 and 1838, during Liszt’s years of travel with the
Comtesse Marie D’Algout, hence the title of the suites.

This piece was inspired by an 1804 novel by Etienne de Senancour, Oberman, which
narrates a story of a man called Oberman, who turns to a rural area in Switzlerand to find
himself. Another inspiration is for this piece is the English poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,
which was written in 1812 by Lord Byron. Liszt evidently borrows the word pilgrimage from
Lord Byron, and includes quotes from both the novel and the poem in the preface of the piece.
The novel undoubtedly also inspired him during his own travels in Switzerland, since the piece is
in the volume referring to the country.

Both these quotes most likely express the spiritual link that Liszt felt to the characters in both
literary pieces. One can therefore refer to this piece as program music due to its extra-musical
inspirations.

This piece does not follow any classical form, however the nature of the piece implies its
own sections, following Oberman’s spiritual journey, but is all in one movement. The
descending, scalar, and syncopated main motive (theme A) of this piece is promptly introduced
in the first bar of the piece, starting in E minor, in the left hand. It is immediately developed in
bar 3 with a slightly different rhythmic pattern. The descending movement implies a depressing
mood, as was the character of Oberman throughout most of the novel as he was searching for
himself. This motive is reused and developed throughout all of the sections, as well as
transposed and rhythmically altered through diminution and augmentation – it is again repeated
in bar 3 in G minor, and again in bar 5, but played a third higher this time. It is played once more
in bar 7 in B-flat minor. Liszt continues this metamorphosis of themes throughout the piece.
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In bar 11, what could be referred to as theme B is introduced in the right hand. This three-
note motive is also repeated and developed throughout, in the espressivo section in the last
system of page 32, theme B is played in a B-flat minor, from F-sharp minor.

2nd section of the piece, which begins on page 34. Theme A is also repeated again in bar 13, this
time in the treble clef.

In page 32, theme A begins its their development, being played in the treble clef again,
doubled as octaves.

The second section begins on page 34, where it transposes to C major and the atmosphere
of the piece is much brighter and calmer, marked as pianissimo, dolcissimo. The three-note
motive B here is rhythmically augmented, remaining syncopated with its short-long-short
pattern. The melody is this time played in the top voice, while the accompaniment is in the lower
register left-hand chords.

This section is also more harmonically stable than the other sections, which do not
contain as many resolutions and sound more modal at times (particularly, since motive A begins
on the third of the scale, ending on the 5th). Third system, 3rd bar also contains an authentic
cadence, again stabilizing harmony.

Section 3 begins on page 36, starting with a tremolo in the lower register, left-hand
passage which begins again with pianissimo but quickly moves to a forte in the right-hand, in the
next bar, where the motive appears once again, rhythmically diminished. This depicts the
restlessness of the protagonist, while the appearance of the motive once again depicts the
inevitable fate of the protagonist, this is particularly contrasting to the peaceful appearance of the
motive in the second section.

Bars 128-130 mark a particularly violent passage, marked piu mosso and agitato molto,
where the right hand plays a tremolo in the middle register, and once again, the motive appears
in the left hand. Bars 159-169 then mark a rarely calm moment, where the motive appears once
again in a spare texture, after the development of the violent storm.

Section 4 then begins on page 40, where the key turns to E major and is the most tonally
stable of the sections and sounds quite bright. The piece ends quite mysteriously, without
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offering much closure; much like the novel, possibly implying the unknown future which could
be both positive or negative. The motive appears once again near in the final 10 bars of the piece,
the piu lento section, rhythmically diminished once again. These 10 bars also contain little
movement, and any movement is only descending. Theme A appears once again in the final 2
bars, this time using the Hungarian minor scale.

This piece clearly paints the picture of a dramatic, spiritual journey of the main
protagonist of Oberman, as well as the protagonist in the poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage with
whom Liszt must have felt a spiritual connection.