December 4, 2009

Sonetto 104 del Petrarca – Franz Liszt

Sonetto 104 del Petrarca – Franz Liszt

November brings with her many changes. The warmth of the sunshine has faded, leaving behind the rain. Sunny skies turn to grey. All around the drip drip drips of the rain falling outside envelops our house in gloom. And it’s not just the weather, it’s something else. Something’s changed, and the air of repressive silence hangs over our place. The neighbours keep to themselves, the birds hide away in their nests, and even the stray cats in the area have gone into their hiding.


November, a time of loss. Of dear ones departing this world and passing on, leaving behind a trail of grief and unanswered questions. Five years ago it was a close friend, and just when I thought I was beginning to let go and live, my dear Pepper passed away. Most might think, “ah, he’s just a dog”, but Pepper was always there for me in the 9 years of his life, knowing me more than anyone else. He always seemed to understand what I was telling him, and he would always respond in the way that would cheer me up.

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It is just so odd when someone close to you goes. Whether you stay at home and cry all day, run around town, wander aimlessly or even go back to practicing, you never feel like you are doing the right thing. Death is just plain weird. You can sit around and in your head imagine a world where a loved one doesn’t exist, but it doesn’t really hurt. It never does, until the reality of it is witnessed, and others around you confirm your worst fears. And then it sinks in. The pain that follows is odd, too. It hurts so badly to have lost that special someone, but at the same time, I held on to the pain not wanting it to end because I felt like it was all I had left.

Two years back I blogged about Liszt’s Liebestraume nr 3 and how it brought up many memories. I find that there is always something about Liszt and his music, that sneaks into my repertoire and leaves an extremely lasting and, i daresay, haunting impression on me. Just like the Liebestraume nr. 3, I associate this Sonnet with grief and loss, and the feeling of having loved and lost.

The text in Petrach’s Sonnet nr. 104 “Pace non trovo, e non ho da far guerra“ describes a soul whose state of mind is in simultaneous extremes “I fear, I hope, I burn, I freeze again; I fly to heaven, and lay on the ground, possess the whole world, yet hold nothing”.

WARFARE I cannot wage, yet know not peace;
I fear, I hope, I burn, I freeze again;
Mount to the skies, then bow to earth my face;
Grasp the whole world, yet nothing can obtain.
Pris’ner of one who deigns not to detain,
I am not made his own, nor giv’n release.
Love slays me not, nor yet will he unchain;
Nor life allot, nor stop my harm’s increase.

Sightless I see my fair; though mute, I mourn;
I scorn existence, yet I court its stay;
Detest myself, and for another burn;
By grief I’m nurtured; and, though tearful, gay;
Death I despise, and life alike I hate:
Such, lady, do you make my wretched state!


What beautiful paradoxes! This exquisitely lyrical composition is one of three piano settings of Petrach’s Sonnets.

Petrarch had honed a new poetic form of the sonnet. His father had been Dante’s friend, yet Petrarch avoided the subject of Dante. He was striking out in a new direction, setting the stage for Renaissance humanism. Yet his philosophy was powerfully grounded in St. Augustine – whose ideas shaped medieval theology. Perhaps that’s why the texts of Petrarch were so appealing to Liszt. Liszt’s life was full of contradictions as well, a simmering mixture of Mephistopheles and monk — sensual, generous, moralistic — all at once. The result of those contradictions was, well, contradicting music. Beautiful music which had sorrow, joy, life and death in it, all at once.
The Sonnet begins with a turbulent upward climb in accented chromatic statements until it reaches the peak of a chord, then it descends introspectively into a recitative-like statement of the main theme. The exquisite harmonies modulate between E major and G major, making use of the conventional tonality and juxtaposing in altered whole tone chords.

This recitative-like exposition is transformed into a passionate, romantic setting. New harmonies are introduced, the textures are fuller, and Liszt writes his molto appassionato with his characteristic flying embellishments, long sweeping bass line, and brilliantly flashing two-handed tremolo between high major thirds.

This impassioned section arrives at a sustained silence without any resolution. In a soft whisper, a tortured dissonance of a C minor diminished chord with a major seventh over a G pedal (!!) underscores the melody and resolves into a G major chord like a sigh. Liszt’s music surges forth even more passionately here, taking its cues from such lines as “Death I despise, and life alike I hate; Such, lady, do you make my wretched state!”. It becomes increasingly agitated, leading to progressively larger spontaneous flourishes that cascade downward. And then, silence.
The first part of the recitative-like theme is recapitulated, and this dissolves with a flowing, languorous coda. A C augmented chord breaks the peaceful mood just for a moment, as if to remind the listener that the balance of emotions and possibilities are still mixed, and it ends with a final E major resolution.

There, yet another piece on love, life and death. You’re still tormenting me, Liszt. It’s been five years. Let’s see how long this can last.


J: that day when you played Liebestraume nr 3 at my place, it touched me so deeply and left me on the brink of tears. It wasn’t the technical brilliance or the flamboyant passages, but the sheer simplicity and musicality of your playing, especially in the last two pages that left the profound impact on me. Its exactly like what Chopin said, “Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” Thank you for sharing your music.

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