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Liszt in Italy (CD Decca "Années de pèlerinage", 2011)

More than any other composer, Franz Liszt (1811-1886) exploited Italy’s literary and artistic heritage to the full in his music. Liszt spent around two years, between 1837 and 1839, travelling in Italy, staying at Lake Como, Milan, Florence, Lucca, Pisa and Rome. He was won over by the beauties of the country’s art and landscapes, and avidly read many of the Italy’s literary masterpieces. Ultimately he lived in Rome on an almost permanent basis from 1861 until the end of his life. He had come to the Eternal City to make arrangements for his marriage to Princess Carolyne von Sayn Wittgenstein, but bureaucratic difficulties arising from her previous marriage prevented the wedding from taking place. In 1865 he took minor orders, and his connection to Italy and the Catholic faith became an important part of his life.


Années de Pèlerinage, Italie is a collection of pieces published in 1858, but initially conceived by Liszt during that first two-year period in Italy. The work is a kind of travel diary that combines a complete mastery of the instrument with a penetrating insight into Italian culture and the nature of his sources of inspiration. Liszt manages to give us a greater appreciation of the poetry of Raphael’s painting and the masterpieces of Dante and Petrarch in the way he transposes them into music, displaying both great sensitivity and respect for their stylistic and expressive details.


Sposalizio takes its inspiration from Raphael’s  painting The Marriage of the Virgin, which Liszt manages to “repaint” in sound, respecting the particular stylistic characteristics of the original. All the delicate colouring and magical, motionless purity of the artwork, now held in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, is preserved in Liszt’s music.


Il Penseroso is a strikingly modern piece inspired by Michelangelo’s statue on the tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici in the Medici Chapel in Florence. Liszt also prefaced the score with a sonnet by Michelangelo, which serves as a kind of motto, and accurately conveys the dark, anguished mood of the piece.

    Grato m’è il sonno, e più l’esser di sasso.

    Mentre che il danno e la vergogna dura.

    Non veder, non sentir m’è gran ventura

    Però non mi destar, deh’—parla basso!


    Sleep, nay, being made of rock,

    makes me happy whilst harm and shame endure.

    It is a great adventure neither to see nor to hear.

    However, disturb me not, pray—lower your voice!


The poem’s sombre tone is powerfully expressed in the obsessive repetition of bare octaves in dotted rhythm, which undergo different harmonisations to give a sense of dark foreboding.


The Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa, in contrast, is much lighter in mood, and uses a cheerful, march-like song attributed to this Baroque painter. In fact, the song is the work of Bononcini, although the text could be by Salvator Rosa. It reads:


    Vado ben spesso cangiando loco,

    Ma non so mai cangiar desio.

    Sempre l’istesso sarà il mio fuoco,

    E sarò sempre l’istesso anch’io.


    I very often go about to various places,

    but I never know how to vary my desire.

    My fire shall always remain unchanged,

    and so (therefore) shall I.



The lightheartedness of the piece plays a balancing role in the overall cycle, making up for the “heaviness” of Il Penseroso, and, with its major-key tonality, preparing for the impassioned sweep of the following Sonnetto del Petraca.


Liszt set three Petrarch Sonnets to music, originally for voice and piano, before  transcribing them for piano solo, the form in which they are better known. It is noticeable here how closely the music follows the emotions of the texts. The first sonnet, “Benedetto sia ’l giorno represents perfectly the heady rapture of being in love through a melody of charged sensual expressivity, filled with tension and effects of light and shade. The second sonnet, “Pace non trovo”, on the other hand, is marked by strong contrasts and abrupt changes of emotion prompted by unrequited love, expressed musically in a bold and thoroughly modern use of harmony. The third sonnet “Io vidi in terra” stands in stark contrast, with its idealised, platonic vision of romantic love expressed in a rarefied, blissful mood. Liszt uses the most delicate of sounds to convey the sublimation of passion: intangible, celestial sonorities that anticipate French Impressionism.


The Fantasia quasi Sonata “après une lecture de Dante” is a vast musical canvas inspired by the Divine Comedy, and Inferno in particular. Liszt succeeds in conjuring up the dark, disturbing atmosphere of Hell, the wailing of the damned, and Dante looking on in fear and alarm, but without creating simply programme music. Indeed, Liszt here makes no explicit reference to characters or episodes in the Divine Comedy. Nevertheless, the central section of the piece seems clearly to refer to the story of Paolo and Francesca. God’s gaze is equally discernible, and it becomes increasingly evident in the final section, where the chorale theme heard previously returns in a blaze of light, as if to emphasise God’s omnipotence and his final triumph over Evil.


The Deux Légendes were composed in Rome between 1861 and 1863, and inspired by episodes in the lives of two great Italian saints: St Francis of Assisi and St Francis of Paola. In the original version, Liszt included the texts that he drew his inspiration from, the Little Flowers of St Francis of Assisi and the Life of St Francis of Paola described by Giuseppe Miscimarra. Once again, the music is a tribute to Italy, this time to the mystical and spiritual aspects of the country’s Christian tradition. The first Legend, St. François d’Assise: La prédication aux oiseaux conjures up St Francis’s angelic vision and unshakeable faith in a melodious, mystic dialogue with the birds. Liszt represents their song with figurations at the top of the keyboard that anticipate the piano timbres of Ravel and Messiaen. St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots tells the story of the miracle of the saint walking across the storm-tossed Strait of Messina, to arrive unharmed in Sicily. Liszt fully conveys both the serene spiritual energy of St Francis and the ravaging power of the stormy sea, with rich sounds that exploit the resonances of the lower register.


The Ave Maria “Die Glocken von Rom” (The bells of Rome) was composed in Rome in 1862. The introductory five-note motif is very similar to the one that opens Sposalizio, and it is no coincidence that it is also dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, The sound of the bells is first conjured up in distant pianissimo echoes in the bass, then in increasingly noisy pealing up until the final, impassioned triumph, the expression of a deeply-felt and sincere devotion.