Liszt Manuscripts: A Bicentenary Presentation

Franz Liszt: Tre Sonetti di Petrarca


Letter to Pierre Érard

Letter to Blandine and

Cosima (1855)

Contin. (2-4)

Contin. (5-6)

Tre sonetti di Petrarca

Sonetto 47

Sonetto 123
Editorial & References

Commentary: Lodewijk Muns

In Liszt’s oeuvre of songs, the majority is on German texts. His first surviving original song however happens to be on an Italian text, Angiolin dal biondo crin (1839), written by a poet friend, Marchese Cesare Boccella, in admiration of the blond locks of four year old Blandine, first-born of Liszt and Marie d’Agoult. It was during his wandering years with Marie d’ Agoult that Liszt got acquainted with the poetry of Francesco Petrarca (or Petrarch, 1304-1374). Most of the 366 poems in his songbook or Canzoniere are sonnets on the subject of his love for the unattainable Laura.

The Tre sonetti were composed sometime in the years 1843-45. A sketchbook of 1843-44 contains no less than 171 melodies for the three Petrarch sonnets[1] – a sign that right from the start his involvement with this poetry was a quest, rather than a sudden flash of inspiration. In a letter to Marie d’Agoult written in Dáká, Hungary, on 18 October 1846, he refers to their publication:


Petrarca, by Andrea
del Castagno (ca. 1450)


Among my forthcoming publications, if you have time, you might have a look (after dinner) at the 3 Petrarch Sonnets (Benedetto, etc., Pace non trovo, and I vidi in terra) for voice, and also very freely transcribed for piano, in the manner of Nocturnes! I think they have come out exceptionally well, and are more perfect in form than anything I have published until now.

It is characteristic of the hectic productivity of these years that he continues this letter showing a very different side of his musicianship:

During my stay in Hungary, I have collected a lot of fragments with which one could recompose the musical epics of this strange country, of which I am becoming the rhapsodist. [...] Phew! That’s quite enough of me, isn’t it![2]

The characterization as ‘nocturnes’ is significant; with Chopin’s nocturnes (most of them written in the 1830’s) they share a certain debt to belcanto melody, which however in these Sonnets is more dramatic and declamatory than anything in Chopin’s nocturnes. Well before this letter was written, on March 6, 1846, Liszt had played the sonnets in a concert in Vienna, one in a marathon series.[3]

Versions and revisions

The Tre sonetti exist in four complete versions: two vocal, and two for piano solo. These four sets have been published in the Musikalische Werke (MW).

voice and piano:
First version, comp. 1843–45? (LW N14 = S270/1 = R578a, MW vii/1)
This set was published by Haslinger in Vienna in 1846, shortly after the piano version. The vocal part is for tenor. All songs are in the key of A-flat; the order is Sonetto 104, 47, 123).
Second version, 1864-82? (LW N14 = S270/2 = R578b, MW vii/3)
This thorough revision was published only in 1883 by Schott in Mainz under the title Tre Sonetti del Petrarca (deutsche Übersetzung von P. Cornelius) per Voce con accompagnamento di Pianoforte. The title page bore an illustration designed by Princess Carolyne Wittgenstein, featuring a laurel branch and the words Ed il suo lauro cresceva col suo amor per Laura.[4]

In this version, the order is: Sonetto 47 (for baritone or mezzo soprano, D-flat); Sonetto 104 (for baritone, in E); Sonetto 123 (for baritone or mezzo soprano, in F).
piano solo:

First version, comp. 1843–45? (LW A55/A102 = S158 = R10b, MW ii/5)
Its publication by Haslinger in 1846 preceded that of the vocal version.[5]

Second version (LW A55/102 = S161 = R10b, MWii/6, NLE i/7)
Published by Schott in Mainz, 1858, as part of the Années de pèlerinage, deuxième année.

The two manuscripts presented here contain Sonnets 47 and 123 in the second vocal version.[6] This revision of 1864 shows a pronounced departure from the idiom of the ‘virtuoso years’. There is a general tendency toward greater simplicity; the dramatic and sentimental expression is restrained, and the accompaniment is reduced to basic patterns. Liszt explicitly referred to the style of his earlier songs as “mostly bloatedly sentimental, and often with an overloaded accompaniment.”[7]

It is often felt that in this transformation too much may have been lost.[8] The second vocal version appeared with a delay of almost twenty years, and Liszt had doubts whether his “much more subtle” interpretation of the poetry would be understood by interpreters:

[...] to express the feeling which I have tried to breathe into the musical notation of these sonnets, would call for a poetic singer, in love by an ideal love … rarae aves in terris.[9]

When the revision appeared in print he wrote in very similar words to Princess Carolyne Wittgenstein:

I’ve tried to give the canto of these sonnets a finishing touch – and to make it as crystalline, transparent and adequate to the poetry as I could. If they come into the hands of some amoroso tenor who is not vulgar, but gifted with a certain ideal of the heart – maybe they will meet with some success. I hardly count on it, knowing how rare a sense of the ideal is – particularly among tenors, who are keen on theatrical acclaim. Far and apart noble exceptions may be found – above all Adolphe Nourrit and Schnorr. Both have died in the effort, still rather young![10]

Sonetto 47, Benedetto sia ‘l giorno »

Sonetto 123, I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi »

[1] Mueller, The Lieder of Liszt, p. 170.
[2] Liszt and d’Agoult, Correspondance, p. 1148-1149; this author’s transl.
[3] Programs in Liszt and d’Agoult, p. 1130-1132
[4] La Mara, Franz Liszt’s Briefe, vol. 7, p. 353; cf. vol. 4, p. 38.
[5] The NG listing (LW) is confusing by including the sonnets in both versions under A55 (Années de pèlerinage) and A102 (Tre sonetti).
[6] See the inventarory of the NMI Liszt Collection for provenance.
[7] Undated letter, probably early 1850’s, and probably adressed to the older composer Josef Dessauer (La Mara, vol. 2, p. 403); this author’s transl. Cf. Arnold, p. 415; Hennemann, p. 193
[8] Cf. Arnold, p. 416-420; Hennemann, p. 199.
[9] Letter to Giuseppe Ferrazzi, May 1880; La Mara, vol. 8, p. 368; this author’s transl. Cf. Arnold, p. 416; Hennemann, p. 200
[10] Letter dated 15-8-1882; La Mara, vol. 7, p. 353, 354; this author’s transl. Nourrit committed suicide when his health and voice declined; Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld was the first interpreter of Wagner’s Tristan, a role which reputedly killed him.