Originally conceived as songs for tenor, the piano versions of these pieces, which Liszt included in his second, Italian, year of his Années de Pélérinage, all retain a strong sense of the sung melodic line. All three are based on Sonnets, or Canzone, by the Italian Renaissance poet Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374). They are meditations on love, specifically the poet’s passionate love for Laura de Noves. In the first, Benedetto sia ‘l giorno (Blessed be the day…., Canzone LXI, sometimes erroneously noted as Sonnet 104), he prays for divine blessing on the joys and sufferings of love. The second, Pace non trovo(I find no peace….. Canzone CXXXIV; sometimes erroneously noted as Sonnet 47) is more agitated. 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’. The third, I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi (I Beheld on Earth Angelic Grace…., Canzone CLVI; sometimes incorrectly listed as Sonnet 123), is an ardent love poem in which the poet describes the perfect beauty and purity of his love and its effect on all of Heaven and Nature.
In Liszt’s piano transcriptions, his extreme sensitivity to Petrarch’s original text allows him to beautifully capture the atmosphere and sentiment of Petrarch’s words, but 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 123’ was my first serious foray into Liszt’s music (apart from half-hearted dabbles with the ‘Consolations’): within the first few bars – measures of ethereal, floating triplets – I was hooked. I am now learning the ‘Sonetto 47’.
Although the song versions were originally conceived for a high tenor voice, Liszt later adapted them for baritone. I find Thomas Quasthoff gives a fine reading of all three Sonneti. Here he is in the Sonetto 47, and here is tenor John Aler in the same work:
I’ve listened to several recordings of the Années during my study, and find Wilhelm Kempff’s readings of the Tre Sonetti hard to beat. Lazar Berman’s recording is also very fine, and Christine Stevenson’s new release of Italie (plus the ‘water’ pieces from Years 1 and 3) is notable for her very thoughtful and insightful approach, which perfectly highlights the dramatic structure of the pieces. Further information here.
Were you at the Proms last night? Even if you weren’t, you probably know by now that the concert, given by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, with Zubin Mehta and Gil Shaham, was interrupted by pro-Palestinian protesters who barracked and sang, thus forcing Radio Three to abandon its broadcast of the concert. It is not the first time a concert given by Israeli musicians has been interrupted by protest – and it won’t be the last either. Although more rigorous security checks were in place ahead of the concert, these did not prevent protesters invading the hall: they had booked their tickets way in advance. Hints that there would be trouble at this concert were made ahead of event, via Twitter (where I heard about it) and various other social media and news channels, and petitions had been made to the BBC, suggesting the concert be cancelled.
Reading various reactions, including a hefty handful of tweets and links from Norman Lebrecht, I felt an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu. Last March I attended a lunchtime concert at the Wigmore Hall, given by the Jerusalem Quartet, four young Jewish string players who reside in Jerusalem. There was a rag-tag group of noisy protesters outside the hall when I arrived, being fielded calmly by John Gilhooly, the hall’s Director. Stupidly, perhaps, I thought little of it, because I never believed the “sacred shoebox” of the Wigmore Hall could be invaded by protest, anger and violence. I was wrong. At least six protesters were dotted around the hall (they had also purchased their tickets in advance), and each made their best effort to interrupt the performance, knowing that it was being broadcast on Radio Three. One protester, a perfectly respectable-looking middle aged woman, was sitting next to me. She stood and heckled loudly, and was immediately attacked (this is the only word I can think to use) by a gentleman sitting in front of me. He dragged the woman by the hair across my lap and roundly demanded that she shut up so that we could enjoy the concert. But of course we couldn’t: by now the Mozart quartet was spoiled, for all of us, and certain members of the audience, angry that their lunchtime music had been disturbed, were now heckling the hecklers. Eventually all the protesters were removed, and we tried to settle down to try and enjoy the rest of the performance. But the dynamic within the hall had changed because a space which had, until then, been sacrosanct, a place of refuge and comfort to escape the exigencies of everyday life, politics, war, celebrity gossip, had been invaded by anger and protest. I suspect that the concert-goers at the Proms last night felt very much the same. One thing is certain: the protesters have not particularly helped their cause by invading the Proms in way that they did.
The UK is, supposedly, a free country. To me that means we have the right to protest, to express our views freely. It should also mean that certain places, such as the Wigmore Hall, are permitted to remain separate from the important issues of the day. It is naive to deny that there is no relationship between the arts and politics, but that does not excuse the invasion of art spaces and venues by those who chose to deny the rest of us our freedom, our human right, to enjoy music or art, no matter who is performing it, or who created it. Places like the Wigmore Hall should be refuges, places where no one can reach you, and the Wigmore guards that privacy most assiduously. It is this preciously guarded freedom which the protesters last night, and last March, set out to destroy. Incidentally, the members of the Jerusalem Quartet, who behaved with great dignity and calmness during their interrupted recital, spoke to the audience and the protesters simply to state “we are musicians, not soldiers”.
I am not sufficiently conversant with the politics of the Arab-Israeli situation to comment here: what I do know is that such issues should be kept out of the way of music. Leave music alone, please. The Wigmore Hall is my “church”, and the wonderful music I hear there regularly transports me to another, better world: it is one of the few places left where we can escape governmental politics and protest.
For a fuller account of last night’s concert, read this review from the Arts Desk. Some video clips of the concert, and plenty of comments, are on Norman Lebrecht’s blog.
Some years ago, before I resumed playing the piano seriously and started taking lessons again, I would open a score, look at the forest of notes and think “I’ll never be able to play that!”. I’d visit my friend Michael, who owns a beautiful Steinway B (purchased when he retired, instead of the clichéd sports car), see Schumann’s Kreisleriana open on the music rack, and my heart would sink. “I’ll never be able to play that!”.
There are certain pieces which represent the high Himalayan peaks of the piano repertoire: the Rach 3, Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, Balakirev’s Islamey, Chopin’s two sets of Etudes, to name but a few. Pieces which have become the preserve of the virtuoso pianist to showcase technical prowess and extreme pianism. We probably have Franz Liszt – he of the famously difficult Transcendental Etudes – to thank for the elevation of the pianist from salon ivory-tinkler, providing a pleasing accompaniment to drinks, supper and chat, to onstage superstar whose pianistic pyrotechnics caused ladies to faint and piano strings to break
About 18 months into my study with my current teacher, I heard Chopin’s Etude in C sharp minor, no. 7 from the Opus 25, on Radio Three’s Breakfast show, and was instantly entranced by its melancholic tone, the singing left hand cello-like melody (this Etude is nicknamed “the cello”), the floating chords in the right hand, in which the simplest secondary melody is embedded. I downloaded the score from Pianostreet and started to learn it. Eventually I performed it at a concert at my teacher’s house last year, and also on a 1920s Bluthner owned by Sir Alfred Beit, at Russborough in County Wicklow. “I can play a Chopin Etude” I told myself, when my confidence needed a boost. I felt I had at last entered that exclusive Himalayan club.
My teacher then suggested another Etude, this time the E major from the Opus 10, a piece I had always wanted to be able to play. This is one of the most famous of Chopin’s Etudes (along with the ‘Winter Wind’, the ‘Revolutionary’, the ‘Black Key’, the ‘Aeolian Harp’ and the ‘Butterfly’), which adds an extra degree of difficulty in the learning process. As my teacher said, “It’s so famous, and you want to play it well”. Aside from the dread sixths in the middle section (which, once analysed, unpicked, and put back together again, are not so fearsome – there is a pattern, yes, really!), it’s not as hard as it looks. Oh, all right, it is pretty difficult – allowing the right hand melody to sing above the accompaniment and achieving balance between the hands being the chief issues of this piece – but it is certainly not insurmountable, and my teacher would not have suggested I learn it if she did not think I could cope with it. This massive boost to my confidence has enabled me to go on to learn one of Chopin’s Ballades (the first, in G minor), some pieces by Liszt from the Années, and one of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards. Waiting patiently in my score library is Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie Opus 61, one or more of the Scherzi, more Liszt, Hindemith, more Messiaen…. Now, when I open a score, I do not immediately react negatively: “I’ll never be able to play that!” has been replaced with “OK, where do I start?”.
Analaysing the score, going through it with a pencil, looking for patterns and sequences, listening to other people playing it, and general familiarity with what the printed page looks like before you all assist in learning. There is also a physical-versus-mental aspect: convince yourself on first sight of a new piece that you can’t play it, and you probably won’t. But sit down and sight read through it, get your fingers round the notes, enjoy the architecture and melody of the piece, spend time with the music, inhabit it, and quite soon it will become familiar; eventually it will be like an old friend (which is how I feel about the Messiaen now, despite finding it utterly terrifying for the first few months of learning it!).
There are other practical considerations, of course. Some music is physically very difficult or tiring to play, although I dispute the claim that you need big hands to play Liszt or Rachmaninov. You don’t; just a strategy for getting around the music efficiently and comfortably. Some pieces do not lie comfortably under the hand; others are simply exhausting to play and sometimes one is practising only to improve stamina.
Young students often lack the confidence to pick up music on their own, without a teacher’s help to guide them through the score. When I start a student on a new piece, we go through it together. I ask the student to highlight any signs or terms they don’t understand, to mark patterns and sequences, and to generally take the music apart and separate it into manageable chunks. Thus, a page of score which at first appeared daunting can be quickly simplified, making the learning process easier. Of course, many young students want to be able to play the piece straight through, preferably loud and fast (!), and find the crucial detailed study dull and arduous. But working in this way reaps huge rewards: I find I can learn – and retain – music much more quickly now, and “tricks” learnt from, say, a Chopin Etude, can be applied to other music. The “dread sixths” passage of the Opus 10, No. 3 enabled me to devise a simple strategy for a similar section in Liszt’s Sonetto 123 del Petrarca. A case of “Well, hello! I’ve seen this before!”.
The piano repertoire is vast, hugely varied, and wonderful: don’t discount certain pieces because you think you’ll never be able to play them – but remember: sometimes the simplest pieces are the hardest!
I was browsing the sheet music in Blandford Forum’s Oxfam bookshop at the weekend. Tucked behind a vocal score was a slim volume of early piano music which brought a rush of involuntary memory (the so-called “Proustian Rush”), and which took me right back to Mrs Scott’s pink and mauve piano room in Sutton Coldfield, circa 1973. Mrs Scott was my first piano teacher, an elegant, and, to me, very elderly, white-haired lady, whose husband would silently bring her cups of tea in a bone china teacup and saucer while she was teaching. When I was a little girl, I would be dropped off at her house by car, or would walk there with my mother, but when I was older (around 10 or 11), I would cycle to her house, my music flung in the basket on the front of my bike. Sometimes my cat would follow me and as I pedalled along the road, he would dart across gardens. Fearing he would get so far and then be lost, I often had to take the cat home, lock him in the house and then pedal at high speed to get to my lesson on time. Mrs Scott was never terribly impressed if my lateness was caused by my pet!
The music which released this rush of memory was Felix Swinstead’s The Way Ahead. The volume was identical to the one I had, with the typeface suggesting a road, the long, lonely road of study, perhaps. The book contained pieces with trite titles such as ‘A Tender Flower’, ‘The Water Mill’ or ‘March Wind’. He also compiled and edited a number of other volumes which I probably had as a child – for example, Step by Step to the Classics and Work and Play.
Swinstead (1880-1959) was a pupil of renowned teacher Tobias Matthay, and is primarily remembered (just!) as a composer of educational music, though he did compose other music. His entire working life was spent at the Royal Academy of Music, from scholarship entry to full professorship and eventually retirement. He was also an examiner for the Associated Board, and his pieces still appear regularly in ABRSM exam repertoire lists as well as study books and albums of music for young players. ‘A Tender Flower’ is in the current ABRSM Grade 1 syllabus, though my Grade 1 students have tended to select Pauline Hall’s rather more racy ‘Tarantella’ as their list B piece!
Radio Three’s Breakfast programme is also cashing in on the ‘Proustian Rush’ by inviting listeners to contribute music which has a particular resonance for them: “…..a piece that evokes strong memories of childhood, or reminds you of long lost friends, or perhaps a piece you associate with a particular time in your life”. We all have pieces like this, tucked away in the recesses of our memory, which, on hearing, can take us to back to a certain place or point in our lives. Here is just a handful of my choices (links open in Spotify), though I am not sharing the actual memories!
As a postscript to this, I also came across the score of Cesar Franck’s Prelude, Chorale & Fugue in the same Oxfam bookshop. I opened it, read some of it and decided it was too advanced for me, and returned the score to the shelf. The next afternoon, I heard the piece performed in its entirety at an ‘at home’ recital given by the student of a friend of mine. A rather neat coincidence. (Incidentally, the student, who is working towards his Masters at the University of Cape Town, played the piece with huge conviction and impressive bravado.) Here is Richter playing the Chorale.
For further information on Radio Three’s Your Call feature click here.
I thought it would be worthwhile posting other reviews of Marc-André Hamelin’s stunning all-Liszt recital at the Proms on 24th August. The general consensus is that it was a superb evening: it certainly continues to resonate with me as I have discussed it with friends and colleagues, and listened to the concert again, via the BBC iPlayer.
I would also like to thank those people who have contacted me following the concert to comment on my review. Such positive feedback is always very welcome, and I am delighted that people enjoy my writing.
The Cross-Eyed Pianist is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours every month to research, write, and maintain.
If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of the site