And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.—Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream
In recent decades several scholars have convincingly located elements of Liszt's compositional technique in the training in improvisation that he undertook with Carl Czerny. Carrying on from this, we might now ask, What did Liszt actually improvise on when his subject was not a musical motif handed to him by his teacher for practice or a selection of tunes suggested by his audience, picked out from a vase with a flourish as the climax to a concert? Was he inspired to initial extemporization, and subsequently to written composition, by “airy nothing,” by potent yet nebulous “poetic ideas” stimulated by recollections of lakes (Au lac de Wallenstadt) or streams (Au bord d’une source) and masterpieces of poetry or prose (Dante's Divine Comedy, Senancour's Obermann)? Or was his starting point occasionally more down to earth: preexisting music tailored, adapted, and transformed to suit the subject in hand?
Liszt himself understandably insisted upon the former, although I am here proposing the latter. In the preface (1842) to his Album d’un voyageur, his most ambitious collection of music to date, he emphasized the inspiration of life lived, of nature, of places and peoples. This was his own musical travelogue, recollected in tranquility: “As I soon as I started to work my memories intensified.” His aim was to heighten expression to such an extent that music “became a poetic language perhaps more appropriate than poetry itself to express those things within our souls that transcend the common horizon.”
I doubt neither Liszt's sincerity nor the multifarious nature of the influences upon him, nor the really startling originality of much of his music. Nevertheless, I do argue here that several aspects of major works from the 1830s were clearly inspired by pieces from Liszt's public or private performance repertoire, that there was a direct line from his virtuoso recreations in concert—his outrageously extensive modernizing, updating, and transforming of other composers’ music—to his own original works.