Liszt’s Sonetto 104 del Petrarca

The ‘Sonetto 123 del Petrarca’, from the second, Italian, Années de Pèlerinage, was my first serious foray into Liszt’s music, and formed part of my ATCL Diploma programme. While waiting for the Diploma results at the beginning of this year, too superstitious to start looking at LTCL repertoire, I dabbled with the ‘Sonetto 47’ (I will return to it and learn it properly at later date). Now I’m working on the middle, and most popular work of the triptych, the ‘Sonetto 104’.

Laura de Noves

The three ‘Petrarch Sonnets’ are often performed together, separately from the rest of the Italian Années. They are inspired by the poetry of Italian Renaissance poet Francesco Petrarca, and are all concerned with love, in one form or another, which links them, yet each is a meditation on love in itself, specifically the poet’s love for Laura de Noves. Originally conceived as songs for piano and high tenor voice, Liszt later recast them as solo piano works. His extreme sensitivity to Petrarch’s original text allows him to beautifully capture the atmosphere and sentiment of Petrarch’s words, though they do not take their cues directly from the text (a comparison with the scores of the original song versions is useful when studying these works). Rather, they reflect Liszt’s own response to the poetry in the same way as earlier pieces in the Italian Années, ‘Spozalizio’ and ‘Il penseroso’, convey the composer’s response to a painting and a sculpture by Raphael and Michelangelo respectively.

The ‘Sonetto 104’ is perhaps the most passionate, agitated and dramatic of the three, based on the Sonnet Pace non trovo (‘I find no peace…..’ Canzone CXXXIV; sometimes erroneously noted as Sonnet 47). In it, the poet ponders the confused state love has put him in. Enthralled to his lady, he feels imprisoned yet free, he burns with love, yet feels he is made of ice: in modern psychological parlance, a true state of ‘limerence’ (a life-altering and passionate love or infatuation for someone, often unrequited). Reading the original text, one has a sense of the protagonist caught in an emotional ‘trap’ of his own making: while wallowing in the contrasting and sometimes painful emotions, he is also enjoying them. Liszt achieves these rapid changes of mood – the ‘highs and lows’ of romantic (and possibly physical) love – with the use of contrasting sections, dramatic, often unexpected, harmonic shifts, declamations, ‘meaningful’ fermatas, and cadenza-like passages. There are moments of calm contemplation, shot through with soaring climaxes and intense agitation, the surprising harmonies emphasising the protagonist’s confused state of mind. The piece ends calmly, with a restatement of the recitative-like opening motif with a languorous coda and some uncertain harmonies before a prayer-like final cadence.

When studying this piece, it is worth having both the original text by Petrarch and a copy of the libretto to hand for reference (available to download from IMSLP). The beautifully expressive melodic line, from the song versions, is retained in all three ‘Sonetti’.

Recordings: I like Thomas Quasthoff in the song versions, and Wilhelm Kempff and Christine Stevenson in the Années de Pèlerinage. Lazar Berman’s recording of the complete Annees is very fine too. You can hear my version of the ‘Sonetto 123’ via my SoundCloud.

Francesco Petrarca CANZONE CXXXIV

Pace non trovo

Pace non trovo, e non ho da far guerra,

E temo, e spero, ed ardo, e son un ghiaccio:

E volo sopra ‘l cielo, e giaccio in terra;

E nulla stringo, e tutto ‘l mondo abbraccio.

Tal m’ha in priggion, che non m’apre, né serra,

Né per suo mi ritien, né scioglie il laccio,

E non m’uccide Amor, e non mi sferra;

Né mi vuol vivo, né mi trahe d’impaccio.

Veggio senz’occhi; e non ho lingua e grido;

E bramo di perir, e cheggio aita;

Ed ho in odio me stesso, ed amo altrui:

Pascomi di dolor; piangendo rido;

Egualmente mi spiace morte e vita.

In questo stato son, Donna, per Voi.

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. 

2 thoughts on “Liszt’s Sonetto 104 del Petrarca”

  1. After learning Sonetto 123, I too am casting longing glances at Sonetto 104🙂
    How do you handle the tenths in the first 4 measures? I’m just not able to reach them without breaking them, which makes for a less than impressive intro ;(

    1. I break the 10ths – it’s the only way to do them, unless you have Lisztian hands! It’s clear from recordings I’ve listened to that other pianists do this too & I’m sure my teacher would approve (haven’t played this piece for her yet). A touch of pedal helps but I try to keep the intro quite dry. Otherwise the rest of the piece is not nearly as scary as it may appear🙂

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