Cadenzas in Liszt’s ‘Sonetto 104 del Petrarca’

A cadenza is “an improvised or written-out ornamental passage……usually in a “free” rhythmic style and often allow for virtuosic display” (source: Wikipedia).

The piano music of Romantic composers Fryderyk Chopin and Franz Liszt is littered with cadenzas and fiorituras (flowery or florid embellishments and ornaments), and understanding the purpose of these ornaments, and how to play them effectively is crucial to a proper study of their music.

The Liszt Sonetto 104 del Petrarca, which forms the biggest showpiece of my LTCL programme, has a fair sprinkling of cadenzas and fiorituras. On first sight, some of them look horrendous: for example, a long bar of thick black demi-semiquavers, a trill in thirds, marked crescendo e rinforzando. In fact, this is probably the easiest of all the ornaments in the work. To play it well, one simply requires a light hand and forearm, and a flexible wrist. Given the subject matter of the sonnet by Petrarch which inspired this music (the lover who complains of the contrasting emotions his lady has wrought in him), I think this trill suggests the agitated flutterings of the lover’s heart. Allow the trill to build in intensity (rinforzando) and don’t hammer the crescendo before allowing the dynamic level to die back into a ritenuto, which leads into the next bar.


The first cadenza comes on page 3 (Dover Edition of complete Années de pèlerinage), at the first real climax of the main melody. As well as offering decoration, its main purpose is as a bridging section between the ff climax and a rinforz. cadence. Marked accelerando, with a crescendo, it needs to sound dramatic and light/fleet-fingered. Don’t be tempted (as I have been in the past) to begin the crescendo too soon.


In terms of learning this cadenza, and the others in the work, the best approach is to first analyse it to see how it is constructed. This one is based on an arpeggiated diminished seventh chord pattern which repeats up the register. As for playing it, it is better to break it down into smaller more manageable groupings. I suggest groups of 8s. Learn the groupings and memorise them, and practice them at a faster tempo than you intend to play them within the music, so that when you play the cadenza within the context of the music, you can allow it to relax slightly, which will give greater dramatic impact.

The cadenza at the start of page 4 is based on a c-sharp minor arpeggio in its ascent. I did an exercise with my teacher in which the hand closes up and becomes very soft to allow the thumb to pass underneath more quickly, again resulting in a more fleet-fingered and light sound. Meanwhile, the descending chromatic scale in thirds on the third line simply needs to be memorised. I have yet to find a “quick fix” for this – repetitive practice is the only way to crack this one, in my experience!


On page 5, after a huge and passionate climax, the music retreats into a dolce-dolente (“sweet and doleful”) section. Although no dynamic marking is given, the direction una corda suggests pianissimo and I aim for a “far away”, almost whispered sound through here. The cadenza in this section (for which I keep the left-hand pedal engaged) is a delicate, ethereal descent into a smorzando cadence, which leads to four bars of great calmness. It is not an easy cadence to play – the chords necessitate a “patting” movement with the fingers (while keeping the wrist still), to sound both notes of each chord equally and, more importantly, to ensure both notes of come down together. As for the cadenza on page 3, practice this in small sections (and like the earlier cadenza, it is built on a repeating pattern), ramp up the tempo out of your comfort zone, and then drop it into the music and let it unwind as it descends.


The final cadence on page 5 is straightforward enough if you follow the division of notes between the hands as given in the score, and the fingering scheme. Again, it’s based on a repeating pattern. Liszt doesn’t give a pedal marking here, and I think it is a matter of personal taste whether one adds a tiny amount of pedal, just to blur the edges fractionally, or leaves it dry. Personally, I don’t pedal it, and I lift the pedal off gradually through the preceding, ascending diminished seventh arpeggio.


In my humble opinion, both as a pianist and listener, fiorituras and cadenzas should never sound forced. In Chopin, especially in his most intimate miniatures such as the Nocturnes, the ornamentation should float, almost weightless, above the melodic line, and should sound almost improvisatory, and not strictly metrical. I do not believe Chopin, or even Liszt, intended such decorations to be purely for the purpose of virtuosic display. Indeed, they are integral to the music: they act as bridging passages, to increase emotional impact in the music, to create drama and climaxes, and to embellish the main melodic line.


On fioriture in Chopin by Frank Merrick

A general post I wrote on the Sonetto 104

1 Comment

  1. “Demi-semiquaver” – a much more musical term than our boring “thirty-second notes”!

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