Arvo Pärt

Spiegel in Spiegel has to the best-known of all the music by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b.1935). Composed in 1978, just before Pärt left Estonia for Berlin, it was originally written for single piano and violin, though many other versions exist, including for piano and ‘cello, or viola, clarinet, flute, and percussion. An example of minimalist music, it has a meditative and serene simplicity in both its structure and tonalities.

The piece has earned the status of “iconic”, largely due to the fact that it has been much used in film and television soundtracks, as well as in ballet and theatre productions; it is hard to credit now that Pärt’s music was relatively unknown in the west until the 1990s. The work’s recurring motifs – rising crotchet second-inversion broken chords in the right hand of the piano and sustained notes in the violin (or other instrument) which slowly ascend and descend – are instantly recognisable.

In the 1960s, although largely cut off from western contemporary classical music, Pärt experimented with serialism, collage, neo-classicism and aggressive dissonance, styles which cemented his modernist credentials, but set him at odds with the Estonian Soviet authorities. However, he was frustrated with the dry “children’s games” of the avant-garde, and, as a reaction to this and in an attempt to find his own compositional style, he went into a self-imposed creative exile, during which he explored the traditions, both musical and cultural, he was most drawn to: Gregorian chant, harmonic simplicity, and his Russian Orthodox faith. What emerged was a distinctive and unique compositional voice: the music of “little bells”, or “tintinnabuli”, heard for the first time in his piano miniature Für Alina. This piece set the seed from which his most famous music grew, including Spiegel im Spiegel, Fratres, Summa, and Tabula Rosa.

It is easy to dismiss Pärt’s music as simplistic, sentimental and clichéd “holy minimalism”, but the music’s power lies in both its absolute simplicity and the austere rigour applied to its construction. And here Pärt was harking back to his adventures in serialism, devising strict rules to control how the harmonic voices move within the music. As a result, his music sounds both ancient and avant-garde, while the new tonalities of the “little bells” and the simple harmonic progressions give the music a spare, profound and meditative expressivity.

The German title Spiegel im Spiegel means both “mirror in the mirror” as well as “mirrors in the mirror”, referring to the infinity of images produced by parallel plane mirrors. In the music, this mirroring is achieved through the fragments in the piano, which are endlessly repeated with small variations, as if reflected back and forth. These repeating fragments also invoke, in tintinnabuli style, the twilight first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 27 no. 2, the ‘Moonlight’, with its peaceful recurring triplets. The piano part also reaffirms the melody notes of the violin line with parallel thirds and octaves, and further voices unfold from the core note, A.  F major, the key in which the piece is written, remains the underlying and omnipresent tonality throughout.

The opening measures of Spiegel im Spiegel

The piano part carries the tintinnabular voice with its repeating broken chords and low, sustained Fs in the bass. The texture is coloured throughout by high, bell-like (tintinnabular) recurring sounds in the upper registers. The violin line is based on a slow ascending melodic line, beginning with a G-A two-note scale, which alternately ascends then descends to A by step. With each subsequent ascent and descent, a note is added to the line, a process which could go on indefinitely (the “mirror in mirror” again). It is this continuity and constant inversion of the violin line, combined with the piano, that creates the sense of perfect tranquility. There is no drama or ambiguity here because we know the music will always return to the “home” tonality of A. Rather, the emotional content comes from introspective atmosphere created by the simplicity and pure sonorities of the music.

The composer gives no dynamic or phrase markings: the violin part in particular is curiously blank, and one could play it in a completely “flat” way,  and it would still sound effective. However, the musician has a natural tendency to increase the dynamic level as the music rises. When I was rehearsing this piece with my violinist partner, the first time we had played it together, we both found ourselves adding some dynamic colour and shading to complement the rise and fall of the melodic line. I have also found a tendency, when practising the piano line, to give the tiniest “breath” before the restatement of the opening motif (which recurs, rather like a traditional rondo theme), to indicate that we are returning “home”. The music closes almost exactly as it begins, with the repeated motif in the piano and a sustained A in the violin. A gentle ritardando in the final bar is all that is needed to close this piece.

The notes themselves are not difficult, but it is important to set an appropriate tempo for the music (too slow and it could sound ponderous). Then the main task is to set the mood of reflection, with the notes falling like water dropping into water, and to play the notes “as beautifully as possible” (Tasmin Little, violinist). The music, in effect, plays itself: there is absolutely no need for over-interpretation, and one should simply step back, “have faith” in the music, and the composer’s ability to create a mesmeric tranquility.

The piece featured in an episode of Radio 4’s series ‘Soul Music’, in which people discuss the importance and impact of a certain piece of music on their lives. Listen to the programme here

by Keith Snell

Most pianists are surprised at the abundance and variety of repertoire for the left hand alone. I know I was. In the early years of my right hand injury, I never gave serious thought to a career as a “left hand only” pianist, because I was completely unaware of the vast amount of very fine left hand literature. I recall thinking that there was barely enough to put together one “just OK” solo recital, and the only two concerti I knew were the Ravel and Prokofiev. It hardly seemed enough to build a performing career. It was many years before I really started to investigate and discover a whole world of music that was available for me to play; that there is really enough music for me to play and enjoy for my lifetime!

Well, maybe it is OK that I did not know sooner: otherwise, I may not have had the opportunity to edit, write, and produce all the teaching material that I have. I wouldn’t trade that — I have been most fortunate. But, in 2004, I realized that a very important piece of my life was missing, that the creative process of practicing was essential for me. When I started practicing again, I felt like I had been in the desert and finally found water. My soul was being fed. And as I worked, I uncovered more and more… and more! wonderful music written for the left hand alone. I started playing left hand alone concerts in 2006. I love sharing this music, and it is so wonderful when people hear it for the first time and are amazed at how beautiful sounds, and how complete the musical experience feels. The best compliment I get is when someone says, after a concert, “I enjoyed that music so much, that I forgot you were playing with just one hand!” My particular interest in piano music for the left hand alone began with the onset of focal dystonia in my right hand; but my passion for left hand alone music grew from my need for self-expression through music.

You may wonder, “Why is there piano music for the left hand alone?” There are four basic reasons composers write music for the left hand alone:

Leopold Godowsky

1. Technical development: As we are all aware, the standard repertoire for the piano generally places greater demands on the right hand than the left. The need for strength, speed, and the ability to project a melody (especially with the weak fifth finger), are most often found in the writing for the right hand. However, every pianist at some point will encounter a passage for the left hand that will expose the unequal development between the hands. Certainly there are two-hand etudes, such as those by Czerny or Chopin, which emphasize the development of the left hand; but we also have a significant body of etudes for the left hand alone, designed for the same purpose. The most prolific composer, and one of the best composers of music for the left hand alone, was Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938). Of his fifty-three Studies on Chopin Etudes, twenty-two of them are for the left hand alone. He became fascinated, even obsessed with the idea of a greatly developed left hand. His theory was that if the left hand could be trained to do the work of two hands, then, when you added the right hand back in, the pianist could manage, or at least sound as though they were doing the work of three hands! The Godowsky Studies on Chopin Etudes are at the very top in difficulty, played generally by the greatest virtuosi. Mozskowski’s Op. 92 is a set of 12 Etudes for the Left Hand Alone, which are not as formidable as the Godowsky. There are ‘Schools for the Left Hand’ by Berens, Blanchet, Bonamici, Phillip, and Wittgenstein. Czerny’s Op 718 Left Hand Studies are played with both hands, but the etudes emphasize the development of technique in the left hand.

2. Injury: The truth is, most pianist will not play music for the left hand alone until the have to, usually because of injury – whether temporary or permanent. Many of the works written for the left hand alone were written for pianists with an injured right hand or arm. Some of the most well known and best music was written for Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961), who lost his right arm in WWI. The wealthy Wittgenstein family commissioned dozens of pieces — about forty works. Among those are some truly great concertos for the left hand alone: Ravel Concerto in D, Prokofiev Concerto No. 4, Britten Diversions, and Korngold Concerto in C-sharp. The Czeck pianist Ottakar Hollman suffered permanent injury to his right arm during WWI. Several of his fellow countrymen wrote music for him, including Janacek (Capriccio for Piano and Winds), Martinu (Divertimento for Piano and Chamber Orchestra), Tomasek (Sonata), and Schulhoff (Suite No. 3). British pianist Harriet Cohen suffered permanent injury when a glass shattered in her right hand, and the English composer Arnold Bax wrote a concerto for her. Dutch pianist Cor de Groot had a temporary injury that produced works from six different Dutch composers, as well as his own set of variations for piano and orchestra. Of course, present day pianists Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman have had music written for them as well. I have been fortunate to have works written for me: Verbs is a set of Twenty-four Preludes for piano left hand by the Irish American composer Kalthleen Ryan, and Canadian born English composer Beverley Flanagan wrote a four movement suite called Without a Trace. American composer Andrew Norman has been commissioned to write a Piano Quintet for string quartet and piano left hand for me and the San Francisco based Ives Quartet.

3. Virtuosic display: We certainly have many two hand “concert” etudes intended for the demonstration of technical prowess; and what could be more impressive that an etude which shows mastery of the left hand? Especially since the left is generally considered the lesser of the two! Many of the virtuoso pieces for the left hand alone were written by two handed pianists, who wanted the opportunity for LH display. Bartok (“Etude” — which he included on his Berlin debut), Godowsky (Studies on Chopin Etudes), Leschetitzsky (an opera paraphrase on the sextet from ‘Lucia di Lamermoor’ by Donezetti). A century earlier Alexander Dreyschock and Adolfo Fumagali also wrote “show-stoppers” for the left hand alone which they always included as featured works in their otherwise two-handed recitals.

4. Compositional challenge; The first three categories of left hand piano music are from the viewpoint of the pianist. Now, we will think about left hand music from the view of the composer. It is a distinct compositional challenge, for which the composer must be motivated. It seems to me that most music for the left hand alone usually falls into two or more of the above categories. For example, a composer may undertake to write for the left hand alone because the challenge is of interest, but they may be writing for an injured pianist. Or, a pianist/composer may start by writing an etude for left hand technical development, and end up with an excellent concert piece of virtuoso display. There are particular challenges in writing for the left hand alone. First, is the challenge of working around being in two places at the same time, i.e. bass and treble, or melody w/accompaniment. (However, there is also left hand music which moves in single notes, or single line texture.) To utilize the rich textures possible with the piano, composers look for ways to use a great deal of pedal and frequent lateral movements of the left hand, to blend melody and bass. The most skilled left hand writers, such as Godowsky, Scriabin, or Ravel, find ingenious ways to integrate the melody and accompaniment in a seamless and natural sounding way. One of the very finest examples of all is the Etude in A-flat by Felix Blumenfeld. The least effective writing for the left hand, I think, is when a composer thinks in too much in a “two handed” way, requiring the breaking of chords and constant use of grace notes from bass to treble

Left Hand Pianists in History

Czech pianist Alexander Dreyschock (1818-1869) is the first pianist known to perform with his left hand alone. He was a fanatical practicer, keenly obsessed with developing the technique of his left hand. Dreyschock was particularly know for his skill with 3rds, 6ths, octaves. He played the left hand part of the Chopin Etude Op. 10 no. 12 entirely in octaves! From all reports, his technique was astounding, and equal to that of Thalberg and Liszt. The first known concert which included a piece for the left hand alone is in 1843, at Dreyschock’s first concert in Paris, when he included his own Variations for the Left Hand Op. 22. His very successful concert tours took him throughout Europe, and the Variations for left hand alone became a successful “gimmick” for him. At a concert in Brussels, the audience reacted so strongly to the left hand piece, that he had to play it a second time. In Copenhagen, the same piece caused such a sensation that the King of Denmark gave him a box of cigars wrapped in 100-thaler bank notes. Eduard Marxsen (teacher of Brahms) wrote Three Left Hand Impromptus with a subtitle ‘Hommage a Dreyschock’. Leschetizky’s paraphrase of the sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor is dedicated to Dreyschock.

In 1862, Dreyschock became a staff member at the newly-founded St. Petersburg Conservatory, at Anton Rubinstein’s invitation. He was appointed Court Pianist to the Tsar, as well as Director of the Imperial School of Music for the Operatic Stage. He maintained this double post for six years, but his health suffered from the Russian climate. He moved to Italy in 1868 and died of tuberculosis in 1869.

Italian pianist Adolfo Fumagali (1828-1856), was ten years younger than Dreyschock. There were four Fumagali brothers, and they were all professional pianists, and published composers. Adolfo was the most successful. Although he looked rather frail, he had a phenomenal technique and strong fingers that astonished everyone. He was respected and loved by both the critics and the public, but did not become a truly unique sensation until 1855 when he began performing his work for left hand, Fantasy on Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable – a 27 page blockbuster for LH alone. It brought down the house! He also had great success with his left hand version of ‘Casta Diva’ from Bellini’s ‘Norma’. But it was the Fantasy which really made his name. With many wonderful reviews, a repertoire of successful “salon” pieces, and a half dozen left-hand opera paraphrases, Fumagali was on the verge of a hugely successful European career. However, he contracted cholera at the age of 28 and died. Italy lost its most celebrated pianist of the day.

Fumagalli’s output is quite extensive, though almost all of it is extremely difficult to obtain today. Theodore Edel writes about him: “Although he was perhaps not a very inspired or ingenious composer, his works for left hand alone stand nonetheless as an important testament of the progress in technique and virtuosity of the period, especially of single-handed works.”

The Hungarian pianist Géza Zichy (1849 – 1924) was the world’s first professional one-armed pianist. He lost his right arm in a hunting accident at the age of fifteen. After the hunting accident, he became determined to be independent and learn to do as much as possible with one hand — to dress, eat, even peel an apple and clip his own fingernails. His determination to be a pianist seems to have begun after losing his right arm. “I did not ponder over theories of one-hand playing; I knew nothing about how it could be done, but I did it.”

At 26, in 1875, Zichy impressed Franz Liszt with his arrangement and performance of the Schubert Erlkonig. Liszt encouraged him to publish as set of Etudes, for which Lizst wrote a preface. By 1880, Zichy had about 15 pieces of his own devising, and he began his concert career in earnest. Dreyschock and Fumagali had really made their careers by playing left hand alone works; but they were two handed pianists, and that was only part of their performances. Zichy was the first to make an entire recital of just left hand. Liszt wrote in a letter to a friend: “Geza Zichy created a sensation at a recent concert (the first time he has favored Budapest with his extraordinary virtuosity). The hall was packed and his success complete.” Later, Liszt also wrote: “Geza Zichy’s reputation is not just parochial Hungarian. He is an astounding artist of the left hand, which is so remarkably dexterous to the point that the greatest pianists would be hard put to match him.”

Since Zichy was quite a wealthy man, he gave every penny earned from concerts to charity. Despite his great wealth, he did not commission composers to write for him. This seem so unfortunate, especially considering his close friendship with Liszt, but also for the fact that he was a rather unremarkable composer. His left hand piano music, although plentiful, is among the least played of the repertory. It is interesting to note that he wrote the very first concerto for the left hand alone. Besides an active concert schedule, Zichy served forty-three years as director of Hungary’s National Conservatory.

In 1915, Zichy gave a concert to one-armed men crippled in the first year of World War One. The purpose of the concert, and the lecture which followed, was to be inspirational: Zichy wanted to lift these men from their despair, and show them that it was possible to feel whole again. He also wrote The Book of the One Armed, in which he gave advice on how to learn skills to live independently. The book included exercises, 40 photos, and explanations, so that the reader could learn to use his one hand – and two feet – in ways he would not likely have devised. During the First World War, it went through five printings.

The Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961) had a most fascinating and courageous career as a one-armed pianist. He was called for service in the Second World War, was wounded, and had his right arm amputated. With a remarkably tenacious personality, he became determined to pursue a career as a one-armed pianist. Wittgenstein became the second one armed pianist in history, after Zichy. An interesting difference between Zichy and Wittgenstein is that Zichy was an amateur when he lost his arm, but Wittgenstein was already an aspiring professional. Before the war, as a two-handed pianist, Wittgenstein had studied with Leschetizsky, and made his Vienna recital debut at the age of 26, in 1913. Then in the following year, made his debut as concerto soloist.

The Wittgenstein family was extraordinarily wealthy. At an estimated £4 billion at the start of the war, it may have been the largest private fortune in Europe. As a result of their prominence, the Wittgenstein home hosted the cultural elite. As a child, Wittgenstein sat at elegant dinner parties with Brahms and Clara Schumann. The first performance of the Brahms clarinet sonatas was in the Wittgenstein living room. Casals, Bruno Walter, and Mahler, were all guests in the Wittegenstein home. Paintings by Klimt hung on the walls, and there were Bach and Mozart manuscripts on the piano.

Despite loosing his right arm, he refused to give up. His teacher, Leschetizsky was dead, but Wittgenstein practiced seven hours a day, keeping his teacher’s principles before him — especially the loose wrist. He wrote: “It was like climbing a mountain. If you can’t get up one way, you try another.” He was clearly determined to be a pianist, but he had to find repertoire. Wittgenstein knew Zichy in passing, and was inspired by him as a performer; but found his music trivial and did not play it. He admired the Bach/Brahms Chaconne, the etudes of Saint-Saens and Reger, and the Scriabin Op 9 Prelude and Nocturne. Sifting through the hundreds of German salon pieces, he found the excellent music of Alexis Hollander for left hand. He was of course also taken with the great music of Godowsky for left hand. To this repertoire he added his own transcriptions of opera, lieder, and two-hand piano works, arranged for one hand.

Wittgenstein used his substantial financial resources to commission original works. He returned to the concert stage in 1916 performing a Kozertstuck by his composition teacher, Josef Labor. The list of commissions reads like a who’s who of 1920’s music, but most of these are not composers we are familiar with today. However, there are a few distinctions, such as Ravel, Britten, Strauss, Korngold, Hindemith, and Prokofiev. The premieres of concertos by these prominent composers were “star” events; and Wittgenstein played with great orchestras, and prominent conductors such as Bruno Walter, Pierre Monteux, Furtwangler, Koussevitzky, and Ormandy.

Wittgenstein received about 40 works in all — the most for any single musician in history. He paid enormous fees to his composers, but they had to put up with his many complaints and difficult personality. Wittgenstein had a pugnacious spirit and relished a good battle with colleagues. He was also quite possessive with works he commissioned, and insisted on exclusive lifetime performing rights for all the pieces written for him. “You don’t build a house just so that someone else can live in it. I commissioned and paid for the works, the whole idea was mine […]. But those works to which I still have the exclusive performance rights are to remain mine as long as I still perform in public; that’s only right and fair. Once I am dead or no longer give concerts, then the works will be available to everyone because I have no wish for them to gather dust in libraries to the detriment of the composer.” However, he did not play every piece he had commissioned. He told Prokofiev that that he “could not yet understand the 4th Piano Concerto, but would play it when he did.” However, he never reached that point! He rejected outright Hindemith’s Piano Music with Orchestra Op. 29. He hid the score in his study, and it was not discovered until after his widow’s death in 2002 (by which time Hindemith himself had been dead for 39 years).

Wittgenstein was not permitted to perform in public concerts under the Nazi regime. He departed for the United States in 1938, and became an American citizen in 1946. Wittgenstein spent the rest of his life in the United States, where he did a good deal of teaching as well as playing. He died in New York City in 1961.

Rachmaninoff composed his Opus 33 Études-Tableaux between August and September of 1911, the year after he completed his Opus 32 Preludes, and while the Opus 33 shares some stylistic points with the Preludes, the pieces are very unlike them.

The pieces are intended as “picture studies”, evocations in music of visual stimuli, though Rachmaninoff was never specific about what inspired each piece; he preferred to leave such interpretations to listener and performer, suggesting they should “paint for themselves what it most suggests”, rather as Debussy does in his Études, and Préludes (whose titles appeared at the end of the piece in Debussy’s original score). And like the piano Études of Scriabin, Debussy and Messiaen, Rachmaninoff used these pieces to explore and exploit a wide variety of themes, textures and sonorities, the possibilities of the modern piano, and how music for it should be written. They are also related to Chopin’s Études Opp 10 and 25, for they make technical demands on the pianist, while also offering characterful, beautiful and varied writing for the instrument. (It is no accident that Rachmaninoff greatly admired Chopin, especially his ability to write exquisite piano miniatures.)

Performing all eight Études-Tableaux together could be considered to run counter to the composer’s original intentions: he published only six in his lifetime. Numbers three and five were published posthumously, though are often inserted amongst the six etudes in modern editions. Number four was transferred to the Opus 39 set. The works make various demands on the pianist: syncopations, alternating hands, changing time signatures, awkward extensions, brisk tempos, expressive melodies, large hand leaps and massive chords. Many require strength, precision, endurance, rhythmic control, and dynamic and tonal balance. They push the boundaries of the Étude even further than Chopin or Liszt did, and are virtuosic in the extreme, with passionate character and vivid rhythmic vitality.

I hadn’t really explored these pieces until I heard the No. 2 of the Opus 33, in C Major, played as an encore by Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes in a recent recital on the Southbank. He played it with a Chopinesque tenderness, yet it was unmistakably Russian, the arpeggios in open fifths of the first bar, which form a recurring motif and accompaniment throughout, lending a slightly folksy feel to this work, and putting us in touch, as Rachmaninoff does with a great deal of his music, with the vastness of his native land.

The LTCL repertoire list asks for “two contrasting Études-Tableaux‘ from either Opus 33 or Opus 39, so I selected the No. 2 and No. 7 (sometimes listed in editions as No. 4) from the Opus 33. The No. 2 is a beautiful nocturne, a soaring melody over an arpeggiated accompaniment. The study elements of this piece are achieving a balance between the hands, and coping with some awkward extensions in the arpeggios. By contrast, the No. 7 in E flat, a brilliant and triumphant march, opens with a bright, brassy fanfare, and wild alternating chords, and bells at its close. It’s full of wit and humour, redolent of the Prelude in E, Opus 32, No. 3, and, to me, suggests an aristocratic rider, liveried in gold and scarlet, on a lively, prancing horse. Rachmaninoff himself actually nicknamed it “Scene at the Fair” when discussing it with Respighi (who orchestrated the Études-Tableaux‘). Its principal difficulty lies in the middle section where huge leaps and chords of 10ths make playing it up to tempo tricky. I’ve found practising it slowly and quietly protects the hands, and ensures accuracy when pushing the tempo up.

As for a recording, look no further that British pianist John Lill, who has recorded both Opuses. He gives a big, bright, full sound when required, and retains a strong sense of line and the dramatic impact of these pieces throughout, yet he never over-interprets.

Here is Sviatoslav Richter in the Opus 33, No. 4 (which I am also planning to learn)

And Hélène Grimaud in the No. 2 and No. 1

The following works will all form part of my LTCL Diploma programme, one way or another. My intention is to learn more repertoire than I need for the exam (a recital lasting c40 minutes).

Bach – Concerto in D Minor after Marcello BWV 974

Debussy – Images Book 1: Hommage à Rameau

Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K511

Liszt – ‘Sonetto 104 del Petrarca’ from Années de pèlerinage, 2eme année: Italie

Rachmaninov – Études-Tableaux, Opus 33, No. 2 in C and No. 7 in E flat

Messiaen – Prelude No. 2: Chant d’extase dans paysage triste

Hear the pieces via Spotify


More on music Diplomas:

Trinity Guildhall Diplomas

Associated Board Diplomas

London College of Music Diplomas


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. 

Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage Suisse (published 1855) are not fictional imaginings conjured up at home but his responses, in music, to the alpine landscape and landmarks of Switzerland, which he visited with Marie d’Agoult during the period 1835-1839. While owing a great deal to the romantic poetry of Goethe and Byron (in particular Childe Harold), these are also musical ‘postcards’, and the landscape and places they describe can still be viewed and visited today.

Having just enjoyed another holiday in the French Alps, quite close to the places of Liszt’s peregrinations, it is easy to see how the landscape inspired him. Driving down the autoroute south of Dijon, the first intimation one has of a change in the landscape, from the dull, flat agricultural land of the French interior only occasionally relieved by sugar-beet processing plants and statuesque wind turbines, are the Jura mountains, but these are mere trifles compared to the soaring grandeur of the Alps, whose snowy peaks rise up around Geneva and its lake. One really begins to appreciate their awesomeness when one leaves the motorway to begin a 30 minute ascent up twisting mountain roads to one of the many villages and ski stations that nestle in the high valleys. With spring now underway, there are cowslips and other wild flowers in bloom, and streams, augmented by the melting snow, gush noisily down the slopes, rushing headlong to sea level.

The peaks and high slopes are still snow-covered and on a sunny day the snow glints and glistens like crystal. The sky is intensely blue, the sun, in the thinner mountain air, hot on one’s skin. After a few days in this glorious landscape, one feels refreshed and healthy, released from the smog and noise of the city. Franz and Marie probably felt the same.

Looking towards Mont Blanc, from Mont Chèry, France

The alpine landscape of today isn’t so different from the landscape Liszt encountered in the mid-nineteenth century. Approaching Switzerland from the east, he probably enjoyed the great peaks of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. Travel would have been far more difficult then, with few proper roads through the mountains, but local guides could be hired to take one on walking tours, and there were plenty of refuges and hostels for weary travellers to rest in at the end of a day spent hiking.

In ‘Pastoral’ Liszt evokes lush mountain pastures, wild flowers, birdsong and fauna, and the pleasure of being in such a landscape; while ‘Au Bord du Source’ describes a mountain stream, playfully carving its course towards the sea. ‘Au Lac de Wallenstadt’ vividly captures the image of a beautiful mountain lake, a light breeze ruffling its clear surface.

‘Orage’ describes the rapidly changing weather of the Alps: I’ve sat and watched a storm brewing in the opposite valley, dark clouds rolling in, the heavy sky scored with shards of lightning, and Liszt brilliantly captures the storm with unsettling chromatic scales in octaves, massive left-hand chords and cadenza-like passages.

‘Vallee d’Obermann’ is a more pensive and philosophical piece, and the place itself does not exist. Rather, the music is based on a romantic literary construct. Built on a simple descending figure, which is recapitulated many times throughout the piece, the music is both imposing and wistful, with its impressive double octaves, evoking the grandeur of the landscape, and graceful melodic lines.

‘Eclogue’ returns to the pastoral mood of the earlier pieces. Short and gentle, it evokes the joy of the dawning of a new day. In ‘Le mal du pays’ the homesickness of the traveller is evoked, tinged with depression and yearning, and a poignant farewell to country. Its ending, in the lower register, brings no relief from the melancholy mood. In the final piece of the suite, ‘Les cloches de Genève’, (‘The Bells of Geneva’) the music is less evocative of the sound of bells, but its mood, underlined by one of Liszt’s more romantic melodies, suggests joy and love, providing an antidote to the dark mood of the previous piece.

British pianist Peter Donohoe describes these pieces as ‘very personal and visual… highly emotional for composer, performer and audience’, and a good performance (such as Donohoe’s at the Southbank in February – review here) can be intense, romantic and highly concentrated. The works from the second year (Italy) are, by contrast, more concerned with literary and artistic impulses (a painting by Raphael, a sculpture by Michelangelo, the poetry of Petrarch) but are no less interesting and absorbing, to listen to and to play.

For a good recording of the complete Années de Pèerinage, look no further than Lazar Berman, though I also like Wilhelm Kempf, particularly in the three Petrarch Sonnets.