Maryam Plays Liszt

In my lecture preceding a performance of Liszt’s Italian year of Pilgramage, I give a general overview of the many facets of Liszt’s career. While he is mostly (and rightly) known as a celebrity pianist and composer, he was also a very generous teacher, theorist, writer, and scholar. This overview is followed by a second, entailing his compositional output as a whole, and then, more specifically, where his Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgramage) fit in.

Franz Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage are suites for solo piano that demonstrate his characteristic compositional virtuosity and sophistication of emotional expression. My program presents the second and largest of the three years in its entirety, one inspired by Italian painting, sculpture, song, poetry, and literature, composed in its entirety between 1837 and 1849. While the musical details of the set should be clearly heard through my performance, the artistic inspiration of each is what I’d like to briefly explore as program notes below. In my performance, each work will be accompanied by a slide depicting the respective inspiration as I play. The sonnets will be read aloud.

I. Sposalizio

The first of the set is inspired by Raphael’s “The Marriage of the Virgin”. Characteristic of Italian High Renaissance, this oil painting depicts the marriage ceremony itself. Liszt’s work is evocative of this painting in its structure, but more importantly, it evokes the feeling of viewing the painting, rather than the painting itself. The work begins with a simple melody that transforms into music more complex. Liszt explores the nature of the Virgin, as pure, yet with tinges of sadness, perhaps even melancholy. A climax transforms Her into the likes of the Queen of Heaven, in all her beauty and power, after which Liszt’s music ends serenely. In its entirety, Sposalizio evokes the composure, balance, and symmetry of Raphael’s original painting.

II. Il Penseroso

Inspired by Michelangelo’s sculpture, “The Thinker”, which illustrates a man deep in thought, the listener finds the final, serene, E major chord of Sposalizio transformed into stark octaves Es heralding the key of C sharp minor. Il Penseroso is as severe and harsh as the stone from which it draws its inspiration. The work seems impenetrable to any outside influence, both rhythmically and emotionally, and it ends as starkly as it begins, with C# octaves in the bass. Interestingly enough, this work exists separately in in rarely performed longer version, titled “La Notte”.

III. Canzonetta del Salvador Rosa

The seriousness of the second work transforms artfully into the humor of the third. Aptly titled, this canzonetta is inspired by song itself. In spite of its credit to Salvador Rosa, an Italian Baroque painter, poet, and printmaker, many sources alternatively suggest Italian composer Giovanni Bononcini as the original source. Marked “Andante marziale", the humor here is characterized not only by the sharpness and edginess of dotted rhythm but by the text of the song. A man travels many places, but remains, in essence the same, a perhaps even philosophical quandary that offsets the lightness of the music to which it is set. The text is certainly an interesting parallel and perhaps even commentary upon Liszt’s own travels in this work, and perhaps even my own “traveling” in performing this set at various locations.

IV-VI. Tre Sonetti di Petrarca

These sonnets perhaps represent a second group within the set, if one considers the previous three as the first. As noted, the sonnets were inspired by Italian Renaissance scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca, often considered by many sources the founder of humanism. Liszt writes in his composition, “Ed il suo lauro cresceva col suo amor per Laura”, alluding to Petrarch’s lifelong passion and love for Laura, a woman who Petrarch is to have first seen in the church of Sainte-Claire d’Avignon in the early fourteenth century. It is important to note that while a work like Sposalizio evokes the feeling of viewing the painting, and the reaction of the viewer, these sonnets are more direct musical compositions of the poems themselves. Indeed, Liszt copies these poems with their accurate-as-possible various translations as a preface to each in the Henle Urtext edition. I have re-typed them below exactly as they appear in the aforementioned edition, with credit to each respective translator. These poems are most clearly ones of love, love of various natures, and the feelings these natures evoke, from the raw to the transcendental. As was common in Renaissance poetry of the time, they feature interesting psychological twists and turns, so to speak, of the narrator’s perspective. These turns, and their psychological colors, are composed by Liszt in sound.

Sonneto 47

Blest be the year, the month, the hour, the day

Blest be the ceaseless accents of my tongue,

Unwearied breathing my loved lady’s name:

Blest my fond wishes, sighs, and tears, and pains:

Blest be the lays in which her praise I sung,

That on all sides acquired to her fair fame,

And blest my thoughts! for o’er them all she reigns.

(Translation: Lady Dacre, London 1859)

Sonetto 104

Warefare I cannot wage, yet know not peace;

I fear, I hope, I burn, I freeze again;

Mount to the skies, then bow to earth my face;

Grasp the whole world, yet nothing can obtain.

His prisoner Love nor frees, nor will detain;

In toils he holds me not, nor will release;

He slays me not, nor yet will he unchain;

Nor joy allows, nor lets my sorrow cease.

Sightless I see my fair; though mute, I mourn;

I score existence, and yet court its stay;

Detest myself, and for another burn;

By grief I’m nurtured; and though tearful, gay;

Death I despise, and life alike I hate:

Such, lady, dost though make my wayward state!

(Translation: John Nott, London 1879)

Sonetto 123

Yes, I beheld on earth angelic grace,

And charms divine which mortals rarely see,

Such as both glad and pain the memory;

Vain, light, unreal is all else I trace:

Tears I saw shower’d from those fine eyes apace,

Of which the sun ofttimes might envious be;

Accents I heard sigh’d forth so movingly,

As to stay floods, or mountains to displace.

Love and good sense, firmness, with pity join’d

And wailful grief, a sweeter concert made

Than ever yet was pour’d on human ear:

And heaven unto the music so inclined,

That not a leaf was seen to stir the shade;

Such melody had fraught the winds, the atmosphere.

(Translation: John Nott, London 1879)

VII. Après une Lecture de Dante, Fantasia quasi Sonata

“Après une Lecture de Dante, Fantasia quasi Sonata”, colloquially and especially among pianists known as “The Dante Sonata”, comprises roughly a third of the set, with the Petrarch sonnets and the first three works comprising a third, each. It is often performed as a stand-alone, and, from this particular set, most directly exemplifies the characteristic flamboyance and freedom of Lisztian writing. A prime example of program music, the work is most directly inspired by Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, a narrative poem describing visions of the after-life, travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Like Sposalizio, this composition is Liszt’s musical impressions of the literary work, rather than a direct musical narration of the work itself. Note that the title begins “Après une Lecture de Dante”, in other words, the composition is of the feelings and reactions “after” hearing Dante’s poem. Two main themes transform and progress throughout this composition, one of Hell, characterized by tritones, the Devil’s interval, and one more heavenly, of redemption, even of love. The drama in the work lies in how these themes interweave rather freely throughout through various pianistic textures. This final work certainly brings the set to a close; it is a transcendent culmination emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

Hope to see some if not all of you all at one of my upcoming performances of this magnificent set!