This is the first set in Franz Liszt's triology, Années de Pèlerinage ("Years of Pilgrimage" or "Years of Travel"). Suisse is comprised of nine pieces, each inspired by scenes or moods associated with Liszt's Swiss travels. He and his one-time lover, Marie d'Agoult (a brilliant and popular writer whose pen name was Daniel Stern), had journeyed throughout Switzerland and Italy during the period, 1835-39. Eight of the items here date from that time, but Orage, placed fifth in order, was composed in 1855, the year the set was published. All pieces, except for Orage and the seventh, Eglogue, are based on pieces in the composer's earlier Album d'un voyageur.
In the first piece, Chapelle de Guillaume Tell (The Chapel of William Tell), Liszt uses Swiss folk material to fashion a depiction of the Swiss hero. A hymn-like tune eventually intensifies and the mood of the piece turns gloriously all-conquering. The music subsides briefly, then the piece ends in a solemn but positive vein. Au Lac de Wallenstadt (At the Lake of Wallenstadt) probably comes as close as anything from the 1830s to foreshadowing Impressionism. This is a serene work that depicts the placid atmosphere of the Lake, with its quiet waves and bucolic scenes. Liszt prefaces this piece with a quote from Byron's Childe Harold.
The third entry here is Pastorale, whose slow rhythm and bright theme continue the peaceful mood and rural atmosphere from the last piece. Au bord d'une source (Beside a spring) is lively but unhurried in its evocation of the playful but calm flow of the water. List precedes the music with a quote from Schiller: "In murmuring coolness begins the play of young nature." Orage (Storm) is an unsettling but brilliant representation of a thunderous storm. There is something glorious about the theme, as if to suggest the power of nature over man. A quote from Childe Harold prefaces the piece.
La Valée d'Obermann (The Valley of Obermann) may be the most profound work in the collection. A melancholy theme establishes the mood here to depict not just a locale, but the eponymous character in an 1804 novel by Etiene Jeane Senancour, Obermann, who, disheartened by his misfortunes, withdraws to the country to seek solace. Cast in three sections, the piece contains themes that are beautiful, transforming from sadness and gloomy pensiveness at the outset to a brighter, if not quite radiant mood in the last section. It is a philosophical not emotional triumph that Liszt arrives at in the end. This piece usually runs close to fifteen minutes and is the longest in the set. Some quotations from the novel and from Byron preface the music.
Eglogue returns to the pastoral mood of the earlier pieces. It is short and gentle, evoking the joy of the dawning of a new day. Several lines from Childe Harold precede the piece. Le mal du pays (loosely, Homesickness or Depression) evokes feelings of gloom, not unlike those found in the opening of d'Obermann; but here the mood is more closely related to yearning and frustration. The work ends on the lower register, offering no relief for the blue feelings. The final entry, Les cloches de Genève, (The Bells of Geneva) contains one of Liszt's more Romantic themes. The music is less evocative of the sound of bells than one hears in Grieg's Bellringing, of a half-century later. But its mood suggests joy and love, perhaps as an antidote to the dark temperament of the previous entry.