Vallée d’Obermann is certainly the best-known among the movements of the present suite. No dance or march, it is a grandiose dramatic tableau and one of the earliest, and most powerful, examples of Lisztian program music.
Étienne Pivert de Senancour (1770-1843) published his novel Oberman (Obermann in later editions) in 1804. The protagonist is a real Byronic hero years before Byron’s Manfred and Childe Harold; like them, he is estranged from society and seeks relief for his intense emotional suffering by communing with a nature he worships. Senancour spent many years in Switzerland, and the memory of the Alps was a major source of inspiration for the novel, which was written in epistolary form. The program of Liszt’s piece is expressed in the three quotes—two from Senancour and one from Byron—printed in the score.
What would I? What am I? What must I ask of Nature?….Every cause is invisible, every aim deceptive; every form changes, all continuance comes to an end….I feel, I exist simply to be the prey of untamable desires, to be besotted by the spell of a fantastic world, and to stand aghast at its dazzling falsity.
Inexpressible responsiveness, alike the charm and torment of our idle years, profound sense of a Nature everywhere overwhelming and everywhere inscrutable; infinite passion, ripened wisdom, ecstatic self-surrender, everything a human heart can hold of need and utter weariness, I felt them all, sounded the depths of all, during that memorable night. I took an ominous stride towards the age of decline; I swallowed up ten years of my life.
Senancour, transl. J. Anthony Barnes
Could I embody and unbosom now
That which is most within me,–could I wreak
My thoughts upon expression, and thus throw
Soul, heart, mind, passions, feelings, strong or weak,
All that I would have sought, and all I seek,
Bear, know, feel, and yet breathe—into one word,
And that one word were Lightning, I would speak;
But as it is, I live and die unheard,
With a most voiceless thought, sheathing it as a sword.
Byron: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
The first version of Vallée d’Obermann goes back to the 1830s and was published in 1842 as part of Album d’un voyageur. After settling in Weimar, Liszt completely revised the work. Although the technical demands remained undiminished, the emphasis shifted from virtuoso display to dramatic expression. Similarly to the symphonic poems on which he was working at the same time, the idea of “character variation” comes strongly to the fore. Thus, the expressive opening melody, first heard in the bass register, becomes intensely passionate in the “recitative” section before pressing on, ever livelier and more powerful, towards the stunning final dénouement.
It was in this form that Vallée d’Obermann was published in 1855 as part of Book I (“Switzerland”) of the Années de pèlerinage. Liszt attached great significance to this piece. When, around 1880, Eduard Lassen arranged it for piano trio, Liszt composed a new introduction, and then proceeded to write not one but two piano-trio versions of his own.