Liszt’s ‘Dante Sonata’, Après une lecture de Dante, takes its title from the poem by Victor Hugo, but its subject matter from Dante’s La Divina Commedia, in which Dante and Virgil travel through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Liszt started composing it in September 1839, according to a letter from Marie d’Agoult, who wrote that ‘a fragment dantesque… is sending him to the very Devil. He is so consumed by it that he won’t go to Naples, so as to complete this work.’ Liszt performed the ‘fragment dantesque’ in Vienna in November 1839, but only revised it in 1849 after he had moved to Weimar, long after the end of his relationship with Marie. The complete Italian Année was not published until 1858.
The piece is in three broad sections, linked together by the use of four thematic ideas, introduced early in the piece, and their transformations. Jagged, descending tritones (diabolus in musica) announce the entry to Hell, and later to Purgatory, modified into the interval of a perfect 5th for the entry to Paradise. There is a menacing rising and falling figure, and a chromatic slither; a chorale-like melody introduced at the first big climax – an Ave Maria? – completes the thematic ingredients.
Wailing of the damned, fire, lagrimoso, Francesca da Rimini, infernale, an angelic chorus – all can be heard, imaginatively created by the musical materials. A transformation of the chromatic slither into a melody of yearning lyricism in the glowing key of F# Major is particularly noteworthy.
Technically, the demands of the piece are considerable. Musically, it needs colour and drama; structurally, it has to hang together as a unified whole. It completes the Italian Année de Pèlerinage which begins in Milan with a wedding in Sposalizio, attends a Florentine Medici funeral in Il Penseroso, and vows always to travel hopefully in the words of the Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa. A journey of the heart is followed in the Tre Sonetti del Petrarca, and of the soul – Après une lecture de Dante.
Update – my recording of the Dante Sonata on the album Années de Pèlerinage: Italie is available now on CD and online – here!