Hungarian composer, pianist, conductor, teacher, arranger, organist, philanthropist, and author Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was a virtuoso. He began playing the piano at a young age, and by the time he was eight years old he was already composing. And, as you can see, he spent his whole life studying, writing, and performing music. I’m not going to go into much detail of his life (because that is another blog post entirely), but I’d like to mention that Liszt famously created the musical genre of the tone poem in 1848 (check out my last post for an example). For more info on his life, read here.
Liszt’s largest collection of works is his piano pieces. They fall under two categories: original works and transcriptions/fantasies on works and themes by other composers. Today I’m going to talk about his work Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) – a set of three piano suites considered some of Liszt’s best work. The first suite, Première année: Suisse (First year: Switzerland), was composed between 1848 and 1854 and was basically a reworking of one of his earlier piano suites, Album d’un voyageur: Part 1: Impressions et Poesies (read here for more). Deuxième année: Italie (Second Year: Italy) was composed between 1837 and 1849, and the third suite, Troisième année (Third Year) was published in 1883 (with the various movements being composed in 1867, 1872, and 1877). This is a huge set of three suites each with several movements and parts; I could not cover them all in one post! Today I want to talk a little bit about Deuxième année: Italie.
This second suite is made of 7 original works, each one inspired by an aspect of Italian culture (for some more information about each individual piece, read here). In particular, three of the movements – Tre sonetti de Petrarca – are based on three poems by Petrarch, an Italian Renaissance scholar and poet. (For more info about Petrach, click here.) Liszt originally wrote these “Petrarch sonnets” for tenor voice and accompanist, but he later re-arranged each one for solo piano. Each of these sonnets are beautiful in their own right and they all deserve analysis. However, I specifically want to focus on the last of the three, Petrarch’s 123rd Sonnet. As you can guess, Liszt based this piece on Petrarch’s 123rd sonnet called I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi (I saw angelic virtue on earth). Here is a basic English translation:
I saw angelic virtue on earth
and heavenly beauty on terrestrial soil,
so I am sad and joyful at the memory,
and what I see seems dream, shadows, smoke:
and I saw two lovely eyes that wept,
that made the sun a thousand times jealous:
and I heard words emerge among sighs
that made the mountains move, and halted rivers.
Love, Judgement, Pity, Worth and Grief,
made a sweeter chorus of weeping
than any other heard beneath the moon:
and heaven so intent upon the harmony
no leaf was seen to move on the boughs,
so filled with sweetness were the wind and air.
Now let’s listen to Liszt’s piano interpretation of this love poem:
The arching melody portrays a sense of longing while the constantly shifting harmonies and tones are reminiscent of the uncertainties – and joys – of love as described in the poem. The chromaticism alternating with sections of beautiful chords portray the poet’s “sad and joyful” response to the memory of his lover (see 2:20-3:03 for an example). The long lines and alternating thick and thin textures could represent the moving mountains and jealous sun and the poet’s own inner anguish over the beauty of his “angelic virtue.” Weaving turbulence over a repeated low E-flat pedal point (see 3:45-4:15) could possibly describe the poet’s characterization of “Love, Judgement, Pity, Worth and Grief” weeping over this “heavenly beauty;” and the piece ends with a total stillness brought about as nature admires the poet’s love (I should point out that the piece ends with a single note at the dynamic marking ppp – which is so quiet!). It is amazing to me what one can do with the inspiration of a poem.
So there you have it! Liszt in a nutshell. I hope that you find as much beauty in Sonetto 123 del Petrarca as I do.