Liszt – A Tale of Two Women. Sonetto del Petrarca 104

 I have written elsewhere of Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage, a set of three volumes plus a supplement, Venezia e Napoli , the composition of which spanned Liszt’s life from his twenties to his seventies, from youth to what used to be considered old age. And I have recorded the second volume. The music encompasses many places, literary works, art, sculpture, scenery, political statements, religion, and thoughts of death.

Inevitably, along the way, there was romance.

It is fascinating to see how Liszt reworked early pieces into their later forms. Liszt’s Tre Sonetti del Petrarca started life as songs. He received the inspiration for them from Petrarch’s Sonnets while travelling in Italy with Marie, Countess d’Agoult, (pictured above) in 1838-39.  They were reworked as piano solos, eventually appearing in the 1850s in the second volume of the AnnéesItalie; but by then Marie had been superceded in Liszt’s affections by Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein (left).



The best known of the Sonetti is number 104, Pace non Trovo. Liszt prints the original sonnet in Italian; he wants us to know the poem …


In English – ‘I find no peace, but for war am not inclined; I fear, yet hope; I burn, yet am turned to ice; I soar in the heavens, but lie upon the ground; I hold nothing, though I embrace the whole world. Love has me in a prison which he neither opens nor shuts fast; he neither claims me for his own nor loosens my halter; he neither slays nor unshackles me; he would not have me live, yet leaves me with my torment. Eyeless I gaze, and tongueless I cry out; I long to perish, yet plead for succour; I hate myself, but love another. I feed on grief, yet weeping, laugh; death and life alike repel me; and to this state I am come, my lady, because of you.’

Comparison  with the voice/piano version, which is almost operatic, is helpful: the voice has a recitative before settling into a quasi-aria, whereas the piano version, after an opening which sounds to me like someone rushing up the stairs, moves quickly to three statements of the theme; one with chords in the style of a recitative, one at a forte dynamic level – the RH in a higher range, the LH now flowing. The third statement is the grandest: fortissimo, the RH in octaves, the LH in interlocking patterns of chords, with explosive bass octaves.  There are mood swings in the piece similar to the contrasts in the poem, with moments of great tenderness and repose giving way to torment and anguish.

The final section is masterly, as we are told who has caused the tumult in the poet’s life: ‘my lady, because of you’. The piece ends quietly, still with a harmonic  frisson which reminds us of the poet’s angst, even in the penultimate chord.

Here is Nelson Freire:


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