Movement 1: Andante
Movement 2: L'istesso tempo
Movement 3: Cadenza del pianoforte – A tempo
Movement 4: Allegro moderato: Tempo di polacca
Movement 5: Tempo primo
Movement 6: Allegro marziale
The structure of the De Profundis is remarkable, both in itself and for what it presages in Liszt’s symphonic thinking: the piece is a vast sonata movement, containing a slow movement, itself based on the plainsong which does duty for the second subject, and a contrasting scherzo in the form of a polonaise, and ending with a coda based on the slow movement but transformed into a march.
The principal tonality is D minor, but the slow movement is in A flat and the polonaise is in C sharp minor. The difficult question in terms of the serious nature of the work is how to account for the presence of the polonaise. There is certainly nothing in the text of the psalm to account for it. Had the piece come from Liszt’s later life it would be easy to see a tribute to the Princess zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. Here it is more puzzling, but the whole section suggests a capitulation to worldliness not unlike the temptations of Faust by Mephistopheles—Berlioz had introduced Liszt to Gérard de Nerval’s French translation of the first part of Goethe’s play in December, 1830—which are rejected by the sterner stuff of the main material, and which are prefaced by the extremely softened version of the melody advanced by the slow movement—possibly a premonition of Gretchen in the Faust Symphony, and certainly in the same key. It may not be too wide of the mark to see the Faust programme in the whole work—brooding, questioning, prayer, temptation and redemption are all in the piece—alongside the cry of the psalmist for God’s forgiveness:
Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord : Lord, hear my voice.
O let thine ears consider well : the voice of my complaint.
If thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss : O Lord, who may abide it?
For there is mercy with thee : therefore shalt thou be feared.
I look for the Lord ; my soul doth wait for him : in his word is my trust.
My soul fleeth unto the Lord : before the morning watch, I say, before the morning watch.
O Israel, trust in the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy : and with him is plenteous redemption.
And he shall redeem Israel : from all his sins. (Psalm 130 [Vulgate 129])
The work unfolds at an unhurried pace: the opening Andante presents two motifs—the first in octaves in the bass, the second in thirds in the piano. These alternate until the piano plays the first of several cadenzas, where the music is reminiscent in harmony and shape to the first of the Apparitions of the previous year. The orchestra returns and the material reaches its first great climax, before subsiding to the opening phrase over a timpani pedal D in an attempt to re-establish the tonic key of D minor. When that tonality arrives, it is with a brisk new theme of repeated notes first announced by the violas, and the orchestra develops the material sequentially until F major is reached, and with it the plainsong De Profundis appears for the first time. It must be said that this theme has not been located by the present writer outside the works of Liszt, and although Liszt reminds Lammenais in the letter quoted above of their mutual interest in the theme which he describes both as a plainsong and as a faburden, it is not to be found in any of the traditional Catholic repositories of plainchant, nor does it resemble any of the chants commonly applied to this particular psalm. Perhaps the melody is of later origin, and is merely something which Liszt and Lammenais knew as the commonly performed music for the psalm at some time and place when they were together (and it may then be of an origin similar to that of the Psalm which Liszt transcribes in the Album d’un voyageur, or of the Miserere—another psalm, of course—of the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses). In any case, the melody as such contains but five notes—the first is heard twenty-one times in succession, the second and the fourth ten times each, and the third, like the fifth, once only. The harmony may originate in some psalter, too, but Liszt is happy to vary the mode—the orchestra gives the whole verse in F major, then the piano plays alone in F sharp minor, at which point the Latin text of the first two verses is overlaid:
De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine : Domine exaudi vocem meam.
Fiant aures tuae intendentes : in vocem deprecationis meae.
After a restatement of the psalm by piano and winds a long development section ensues in which the psalm rhythm is often applied to the accompaniment of the opening material, culminating in a close with four mighty E flats from the depths of the piano. The slow movement begins with a piano cadenza for which some of the material of the very first cadenza provides the springboard, but which is interspersed with phrases of the psalm, now in A flat major. Finally a new melody of disarming beauty emerges, clearly derived from the psalm, and at the end of the cadenza this is taken up by divided strings and piano. After a full close comes the scherzo in the style of a polonaise—except that it keeps sidestepping the traditional 3/4 for passages in 2/4. The form of this section is: polonaise; episode in 2/4; trio melody in A major; polonaise first variation; 2/4 episode first variation; brief quotation of psalm theme; trio first variation in B flat minor/major; truncated polonaise second variation; 2/4 episode second variation; trio second variation in D flat major; development of polonaise with psalm rhythm and main material leading to the recapitulation proper. This section is greatly telescoped, and we arrive quickly at the reprise of the psalm theme from the full orchestra, thence into a modulatory episode (with the soloist) which emerges in D major, with the concluding march. As we have seen, the march takes the slow movement melody as its basis, but after its mightiest statement it subsides over a timpani roll to the concluding phrases which combine fragments of the psalm with the march rhythm to end the work with a quieter confidence.
from notes by Leslie Howard © 1998