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8.570516 - LISZT: Dante Symphony / Dante Sonata (arr. for 2 pianos) (Liszt Complete Piano Music, Vol. 26)
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Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Dante Sonata • Dante Symphony


Who in Vienna is to be my partner in the Dante Symphony? Two pianos are needed; I can only deal with one in the Wagner Society soirée at yours on Wednesday 24 March. Assure immediately the chairman of the society, Herr Ludwig Koch, of my willingness. Should the second part of the Dante Symphony (Purgatorio) be performed, ask friend Zellner to take charge of the harmonium and take care of the five voices, soprano and alto. The whole symphony lasts no longer than one hour.
Letter from Liszt to Ludwig Bösendorfer, Budapest, 11 March 1880.
The Vienna performance mentioned did not take place.

Born at Raiding, in Hungary, in 1811, the son of Adam Liszt, a steward in the service of Haydn's former patrons, the Esterházy Princes, Franz Liszt had early encouragement from members of the Hungarian nobility, allowing him in 1822 to go to Vienna, for lessons with Czerny and a famous meeting with Beethoven. From there he moved to Paris, where Cherubini refused him admission to the Conservatoire, as a foreigner. Nevertheless he was able to impress audiences by his performance, now supported by the Erard family, piano manufacturers whose wares he was able to advertise in the concert tours on which he embarked. In 1827 Adam Liszt died, and Franz Liszt was now joined again by his mother in Paris, while using his time to teach, to read and benefit from the intellectual society with which he came into contact. His interest in virtuoso performance was renewed when he heard the great violinist Paganini, whose technical accomplishments he now set out to emulate.

The years that followed brought a series of compositions, including transcriptions of songs and operatic fantasies, part of the stock-in-trade of a virtuoso. Liszt's relationship with a married woman, the Comtesse Marie d'Agoult, led to his departure from Paris for years of travel abroad, first to Switzerland, then back to Paris, before leaving for Italy, Vienna and Hungary. By 1844 his relationship with his mistress, the mother of his three children, was at an end, but his concert activities continued until 1847, the year in which his association began with Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a Polish heiress, the estranged wife of a Russian prince. The following year he settled with her in Weimar, the city of Goethe, turning his attention now to the development of a newer form of orchestral music, the symphonic poem, and, as always, to the revision and publication of earlier compositions.

It was in 1861, at the age of fifty, that Liszt moved to Rome, following Princess Carolyne, who had settled there a year earlier. Divorce and annulment seemed to have opened the way to their marriage, but they now continued to live in separate apartments in the city. Liszt eventually took minor orders and developed a pattern of life that divided his time between Weimar, where he imparted advice to a younger generation, Rome, where he was able to pursue his religious interests, and Pest, where he returned now as a national hero. He died in 1886 in Bayreuth, where his daughter Cosima, widow of Richard Wagner, lived, more concerned with the continued propagation of her husband's music.

Liszt had lacked formal education, but in Paris was able to make up for any deficiency in this respect by his own wide reading and by association with leading writers and artists of the time. His elopement with Marie d'Agoult in 1835 had first taken the couple to Switzerland, where their daughter Blandine was born. A period back in Paris was followed in 1837 by further travel, now to Italy, where a second daughter, Cosima, was born on Christmas Eve. A later biographer painted an idyllic picture of a period that in fact brought practical difficulties and discomforts, with the romantic suggestion that Liszt and his mistress read Dante together by the side of a statue of Dante and Beatrice. Marie d'Agoult later saw herself in the latter rôle, an identification that Liszt could, later, at least, only greet with scepticism. Nevertheless the months spent in Italy did provide the occasion for reading Petrarch and Dante, the latter, to whom Liszt was said to have a resemblance in profile, familiar enough to him from his Paris days.

It was not until the autumn of 1839 at San Rossore that Liszt began work on his fragment dantesque, which he duly performed in Vienna in a concert on 5 December. The piece, described by a critic as something of an improvisation inspired by a reading of the Divina Commedia, was to be reworked by Liszt at Weimar to form the seventh piece in his Années de pèlerinage, deuxième année (Italie), where it appears as Après une lecture du Dante, Fantasia quasi Sonata, a title taken from Victor Hugo's poem Après une lecture de Dante, published in 1837 in the collection Les Voix intérieures. Victor Hugo concerns himself with the first section, Inferno, which he sees as a picture of life, 'son chemin brumeux d'obstacles encombré', finally alleviated by the presence of Virgil, 'le Virgile serein qui dit; Continuons!'.

Widely known as the Dante Sonata, here in Vittorio Bresciani's arrangement for two pianos, the work opens with ominous descending tritones, suggesting the entrance to Hell, with its forbidding 'Lasciate ogni speranza, voi che entrate' ('Abandon all hope, you who enter') in Canto III of the Inferno. The first subject, Presto agitato assai, marked also lamentoso, represents the cries of the damned, 'sospiri, pianti ed alti guai'. A secondary hymn-like theme emerges, derived from the first theme and identified in a copy of the work annotated by Liszt's English pupil Walter Bache as Lucifer, 'Vexilla regis prodeunt inferni / Verso di noi' (qv. Alan Walker, Franz Liszt: The Virtuoso Years 1811-1847, London, 1983). This is interrupted by the opening tritone motif, leading to a quasi-improvisatory passage, before resuming a more tranquil course. An episode reflects the love and 'dolci sospiri' of Paolo and Francesca, but the Devil's interval, the tritone, is never far away. The work ends with a glimpse of hope, perhaps suggesting the final lines of Dante's Inferno, as the poet and his guide, Virgil, emerge into the upper world: 'Tanto ch'io vidi delle cose belle / Che porta il ciel, per un pertugio tondo, / E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.'

In 1847 Liszt met Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, the Polish heiress who was to dominate his life in their Weimar years. It was now that he turned again to Dante, making his first sketches for a proposed symphony, eventually completed in 1856 and arranged for two pianos by 1859. The Dante Symphony had its first under-rehearsed and disastrous performance in Dresden in 1857, but won gradual acceptance, not least in Budapest. The two-piano version remained part of Liszt's own repertoire, whether played in Paris at the house of Gustave Doré with Saint-Saëns or in Vienna with a former pupil. Liszt's original intention had been to provide music that might accompany illustrations by Buonaventura Genelli, projected onto a screen by means of the newly invented diorama. This novel idea was rejected, as was the plan to write three movements, Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, and the idea of creating a wind machine for the first of these movements. Instead of Paradiso the second movement ends with a Magnificat, sung by boys' or women's voices, setting only the opening words: 'Magnificat anima mea Dominum / Et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo,' followed by 'Hosanna, Halleluja'. His intention had been to end the symphony softly, but, to Wagner's indignant disapproval, a triumphant ending was added, at the insistence of Princess Carolyne. The whole work was later dedicated to Wagner, whom he described, as the equal of Dante.

The symphony opens with an ominous theme, a setting of the words written over the gates of Hell, from the beginning of Canto III of the Inferno: 'Per me si va nella città dolente, / Per me si va nell'eterno dolore, / Per me si va tra la perduta gente …' ('Through me is the way to the city of grief / Through me is the way to eternal sorrow / Through me is the way among those who are lost …'). This is followed by the final words of the inscription: 'Lasciate ogni speranza, voi che entrate!'. The movement continues in ternary form, its central episode representing the fate of Paolo and Francesca, with her words: 'Nessun maggior dolore, / Che ricordarsi del tempo felice / Nella miseria' ('There is no greater sorrow than to remember a happy time in misery'), included in the score. 'Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate' is heard again, and a passage that, we are told, is intended as 'a blasphemous mocking laughter', as the fires of Hell resume. The ominous words appear again in the score as the movement comes to an end.

Purgatorio, the 'secondo regno / Dove l'umano spirito si purga, / E di salire al ciel diventa degno' ('the second realm / Where the human spirit is purged, / And becomes worthy to rise to Heaven') is in a mood of tranquil hope, its thematic material tending to rise, rather than, as before, to sink to the depths. A fugue is introduced, marked lamentoso, followed by the groans of repentance, marked gemendo and dolente ed appassionato. Brief quasi-recitatives and chorale-like textures lead the way, as the poet returns: 'Io ritornai dalla santissim' onda / Rifatto sì, come piante novelle / Rinnovellate di novella fronda, / Puro e disposto a salire alle stelle' ('I returned from the most holy waters, / Refreshed, like new plants / Renewed with new foliage, / Pure and ready to rise up to the stars'). This is followed by the final ethereal Magnificat and its culminating Hallelujah.

Keith Anderson


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