Franz Liszt’s Petrarch’s Sonnets: the influence of the vocal versions on the second piano version

Os Sonetos de Petrarca de Franz Liszt: a influência das versões vocais na segunda versão do piano

Olivera, P. Fiorini, C.

UNICAMP - Universidade Estadual de Campinas
UNICAMP - Universidade Estadual de Campinas

Retirado de:
RESUMO: Os Sonetos de Petrarch de Liszt são algumas de suas peças importantes para piano solo. Como muitos de seus trabalhos, eles têm mais de uma versão publicada: a primeira para tenor e piano (1846), duas para piano solo (1846, 1858) e uma para barítono e piano (1883). Para conseguir um resultado positivo e sólido na execução de sua segunda versão para piano, é importante estudar suas obras vocais e compará-las com a versão para piano. Através dessa comparação, o caráter e a expressão do texto podem ser melhor compreendidos e bem transmitidos pela música.
PALAVRAS-CHAVE: Liszt, Petrarch, Soneto, Piano, Vocal.
ABSTRACT: Liszt’s Petrarch’s Sonnets are some of his important pieces for piano solo. As many of his works, they have more than one published version: first one for tenor and piano (1846), two for piano solo (1846, 1858) and one for baritone and piano (1883). In order to accomplish a supportive and solid result in performing his second piano version, it is important to study his vocal works and compare them with the piano version. Through this comparison the text’s character and expression can be better understood and well transmitted by music.
KEYWORDS: Liszt, Petrarch, Sonnet, Piano, Vocal.

1. Introduction

Franz Liszt (Raiding, current Doborján, near Soprony, 10/22/1811 – Bayreuth, 07/31/1886), a Hungarian composer and pianist of the nineteenth century became an important personage in the history of music. He showed his wide and mature vision of art through his works.
The composer was very engaged with the various sorts of art and lived in a social moment that propitiated interchange between artists and art genres. During this period, the “program music”, which is music based on extra-musicals concepts as stories, paintings and poems, became more supported and common. Many of Liszt’s pieces present this extra-musical influence in a subtle way, suggesting emotions, but not regarding music as a direct mean of describing objects. This kind of composition became popular during the nineteenth century not only because of the interdependence of arts genres increase but also because of a deeper search on art expression.  The literature had great influence on Liszt’s work, which is inspired by works of significant writers such as Publio Virgilio (70-19 b.C.), Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869), Johann Goethe (1749-1832), Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850) and Victor Hugo (1802-1885).
Among Liszt’s works with extra-musical influence one worth noting is the second book of his Années de pèlerinage. This book is a set of Italian art and culture-based pieces that was composed during the time Liszt was living in Italy with the countess D’Agoult (1837-1839). In this album are found the three Petrarch’s Sonnets. These three pieces are important pieces that were written during the three periods of his life. [1] As many of his works, the Petrarch’s Sonnets have more than one published version. They were originally composed for tenor and piano (1846). Later two piano solo versions (1846, 1858) and a baritone and piano version (1883) were written.
The pieces are based on three poems of Francesco Petrarch’s Canzoniere, which is one of his most important works, including 366 poems in Italian: 317 sonnets, 29 songs, 9 sestinas, 7 ballads, and 4 madrigals. In his book, Petrarch portrays his platonic love for Laura, a married woman with whom he did not show to have any kind of relationship. The Canzoniere is divided in two parts: “Laura’s life” and “Laura’s death”. The three sonnets that were set to music by Liszt (47, 104 and 123) are found in the first half of the book. Although the book had been inspired by Laura, there are also poems to friends and other poems with civil and moral principles, as Italia mia – a political poem that shows Italy as it was at that time: inhabited by suffering people.
Petrarch revealed himself as a predecessor of the romantic period, mostly because of his platonic love for a married woman, which was a very common subject used by writers during the nineteenth century. His lover was idealized and unachievable, sometimes compared to a saint. Another characteristic of the romantic period is the melancholic and intimate feelings of this work. Besides that, Petrarch is considered a great Italian nationalistic, which also fits in the romantic ideals.


2. Petrarch´s Sonnets 47, 104 and 123

The most known and played version of these pieces is the second piano solo version, which was published in 1858 in his second Années de pèlerinage book, and will be the subject discussed in this article. For a better comprehension of these musical pieces it is essential that one has already read Petrarch’s texts, because they reveal the character and expression that Liszt wanted to transmit. In spite of not having been published with the original part edition of 1858, the texts were later included in a new publication. [2] Liszt usually wrote the texts in the part of his piano transcriptions of songs. [3]
The three works present similar structure: they are monothematic and have cyclical form. All three have an introduction and one theme with two subjects that are developed during the pieces (except for Sonnet 123, in which only the first subject is repeated). They also have a transition and a Coda, which contain musical motives from the introduction, the first subject, or from both.
Considering that they are transcriptions of original song versions, and that they were written in a nocturne style, the melodic line must have greater importance. The Italian bel canto and the human voice properties should be imitated by the piano, to accomplish the legato and flexibility that are possible to the human voice. Liszt himself stated that the speed of a performance should be much less important than its fluidity, and the musical line should be maintained with careful regulation of the weight of the accents within and between bars. [4] To accomplish good results performing these pieces it is necessary to develop a refined sound control on the piano. The melodies should be emphasized and the accompaniment should adorn them. Longer melodic intervals ought to be prepared with more expressiveness. The touch should be soft and full of resonance, and accents that could break the phrase conduction should be avoided.


3. Petrarch´s Sonnet 47

In this sonnet Petrarch praises his love, his tears and suffering for Laura. There are no contradictory feelings or perturbation; he only suspires for his beloved.
In this way, Liszt did not write too many changes in tempo or dynamic; the piece is mostly in p. It is important to keep the serenity transmitted by the sonnet when playing the piece. Nevertheless all musical expression is intense in this work; both pp and f.
Except for the Coda, there are only two sections in f, which present more harmonic progression and are preceded by a crescendo (mm.28-35 and mm.44-52). These sections are related to the second and third strophes in the tenor and piano version, which demonstrate the lament and suffering of the poet.
Considering that the whole piece is full of chords, it is necessary to avoid beating each measure time, but to conduct the phrase in legato. It is recommended to detach the superior notes of the right hand, which has the melodic line, and also emphasize the bass notes, that are the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic basis, as can be seen through Example 1.


Example 1 – Petrarch’s Sonnet 47, mm.1-5.



During the first theme exposition (mm.12-35) there is an indication of dolce to the accompaniment, with an expressive melody, sempre mosso con intimo sentimento, which should provide placidity.
From measure 28 on, the harmony is altered, starting the modulation to G Major, with an apassionato and tre corde crescendo (m.31), which should be gradual until measure 35, still in an intense way. In this section, in the tenor and piano version, Liszt inserts the phrases that express suffering: “and the bow, and the shafts with which I was pierced, and the wounds that run to the depths of my heart”. The word “wounds” (piaghe) is repeated twice, in the tenor chromatic notes. The comparison between the two versions is shown in Examples 2 and 3. It is necessary to continue in f until measure 35, without missing the musical intensity, reaching the p only in measure 36.  



Example 2 – Petrarch’s Sonnet 47, tenor and piano version, mm.28-32.



Example 3 – Petrarch’s Sonnet 47, second piano version, mm.32-35.

The piece returns to the theme with the initial sonority, which does not remain much, because another crescendo molto section begins.
In the second presentation of the second subject (mm.53-59) the notation recitando on the two lower staves should be followed, with freedom (ad libitum – m.53). The notes on the upper staves are supposed to sound as an echo, and the crescendo should be done only in the last measure (m.57), without obscuring the long melodic notes, so that the phrasing is maintained. In this part, in the tenor and piano version there is the repetition of the last verse of the third strophe: “and the sighs, and the tears, and the passion”. The pain is rhetorically expressed by the composer with a descending smorzando (dying) chromatic scale for the singer (mm.58-59), with the word lagrime (tear). The chromatic scale is written after a sixth interval and a high sustained note of the tenor – which expresses tension. This section is corresponded to measures 55 to 59 in the second piano version and the comparison can be seen by Examples 4 and 5. For these reasons it is important to enforce the crescendo, the melodic intervals and the superior notes to express the poet’s pain. This last verse of the third strophe (“and the sighs, and the tears, and the passion”) is sung by the baritone in the second presentation of the first subject (mm.61-67), and is sung in a minor tonality, also characterizing the text rhetorically.
Example 4 – Petrarch’s Sonnet 47, tenor and piano version, mm.53-61.


Example 5 – Petrarch’s Sonnet 47, second piano version, mm.53-60.


The second piano version cadenza (m.59), as seen in Example 5, is related to the tenor’s chromatic descending scale, shown in Example 4, and must be executed with delicacy and lightness.  
The second subject (mm.69-84) in the final section corresponds to the part of the song versions in which the poet tells he has other care in Earth except for Laura. This part, in the two vocal versions, presents great drama, with the dynamic in crescendo and supported high notes, which must be sought by the piano.
The introductory figures of the beginning of the Coda should be played with more energy and more intensive dynamic than in the first time, attaining the indication con somma passione (m.85).
The last recitative part (m.89) should be more dramatic and valorized until the B-double-flat, which corresponds to the F-flat of the tenor version, with the last verse of the sonnet: “that are only of her, that no one else has part of”.
The descending left hand’s notes (mm.91-93) with a rallentando and diminuendo demonstrate the path to the end of the piece, while the right hand goes on with the first subject melody until the last D-flat Major chord, in a slow arpeggio.



4. Petrarch’s Sonnet 104

In his sonnet 104 Petrarch describes the ambiguity of his feelings; he shows the anguish agitation that his love for Laura causes. He hates himself and loves someone else. In this poem Petrarch uses contradictory and opposite ideas, as can be seen when he says he sees without eyes or when he is laughing weep.
Liszt transmits this dichotomy in his music through abrupt character and dynamic changes in the piece. Besides that, there are some virtuous cadenze in f, which do not occur with the other pieces that have only one cadenza in pp (Petrarch´s Sonnet 47) or ppp (Petrarch´s Sonnet 123).
The piece is mostly in f, reaching ff in some parts. There is p only in measure 45 and in two other parts the melody is in f and the accompaniment in p and pp (m.21 and m.53).
The introduction (mm.1-6) shows a drastic character change, from Agitato assai (m.1) to Adagio (m.5). The right hand’s syncopation at the beginning of the piece should be well emphasized, while the bass marks the first bars beats, in order to evidence the syncopation. 
The agitation feelings are harmonically shown by diminished and dominant function chords with no resolution. Rhythmically, the left hand’s motive occurrences becomes more often: it initiates with one time at each measure (mm.1-2) and then two times at a measure, as is shown in Example 6.


Example 6 – Petrarch’s Sonnet 104, mm.1-5.


This section culminates in an Adagio (m.5) that should be played with freedom, in a recitative style, giving importance to the melodic intervals.
The first subject (m.7) has a molto expressivo indication. The beginning present repeated notes, which suggests insistence and intensification of the musical discourse. According to Wilson (1977), Liszt created many themes with repeated notes in his second Années de pèlerinage and specifically in the Petrarch’s Sonnets this use corresponds to the declamatory and vocal nature of the pieces. [5] After the repeated notes there is and octave interval, which can be more expressive if the piano imitates the human voice. The melody should flow freely, since there are ritenuto and fermata indications in the middle of the phrases, while the arpeggios separated by pauses support the melody. These arpeggiated chords should collaborate with the phrasing and a crescendo until the superior note, which is the melody, will help this conduction. In this section, shown in Example 7, there are significant augmented chords (m.8 and m.12) that have dominant function.

Example 7 – Petrarch’s Sonnet 104, mm.6-12.


In the second presentation of the theme the melody has the phrase lead again, once it initiates firstly and the accompaniment begins one eight note later. The dynamic supports this idea by indicating the melody in f and the accompaniment in p. This theme exposition has a more passionate way (cantabile con passione). The Example 8 shows the beginning of this section.



Example 8 – Petrarch’s Sonnet 104, mm.21-23.


The dynamic is intensified in measure 33, until the ff of measure 35, where is written the first cadenza of the piece, in accelerando – another agitation characteristic.
After this cadenza there is a crescendo molto until the third theme appearance, in ff, with an increased texture, and the indication of molto appassionato, where other two cadenze are written (mm.40 and mm.44). This section (mm.38-45) – third theme exposition – corresponds to the third strophe of the poem in the tenor and piano version, that also has a notable crescendo. The descending chromatic thirds is related to measure 68 of the tenor and piano version, when he repeats the word “beg” (cheggio). This supplicant nature is supposed to be transmitted also by the piano solo version. The comparison between the two versions is seen in Examples 9 and 10.



Example 9 – Petrarch’s Sonnet 104, tenor and piano version, mm.66-68.


Example 10 – Petrarch’s Sonnet 104, second piano version, m.44.

In the third appearance of the second subject (m.58) there is a crescendo until the last cadenza, composed by chords (m.63).
The last section of the piece, again in f, must be played a little bit slower (un poco più lento), and the melody should conduct the phrase, while the arpeggios support it – like the first presentation of the theme.
At last, the Coda has the accompaniment with eight notes in arpeggios while the melody shows theme motives for three times, each time a third interval upper than the last one.  The third one has more motion, because of the melody’s triplets (that were eight notes before), as shown in Example 11. In each repetition of the theme motives it is important to intensify the musical idea, until the descendant thirds (m.74), in smorzando (dying). In this part the sonnet’s author writes “and I am in this state, lady, because of you”; it is vital to transmit this resolution character, because the whole author’s conflict exists because of Laura.





Example 11 – Petrarch’s Sonnet 104, mm.67-79.


The augmented chord of measure 78 should be prominent, because it makes the cadence to tonic (E Major). The arpeggio of the augmented chord should be done with a crescendo effect, as indicated by the composer, and the decrescendo occurs naturally, with the decrease of the piano cords’ vibration. After this diminuendo the last chord is suggested to be played calmly, ending the piece.


5. Petrarch’s Sonnet 123

In this poem Laura is compared to an angel, revealing herself gentle and tender; she is also powerful, once her words are capable of moving hills and quieting rivers. The tenderness and celestial peace are transmitted through a contemplative character in this sonnet.
Liszt transfers this serenity to the music by timing (Lento placido) and expression (Dolcissimo, dolcemente) indications, and by the dynamics that are mostly in p, and reach the ppp (m.37 and m.58). There are few agitato parts and the dynamics achieve the ff, but all should be done considering the placid and serene mood of the text.
The placidness indicated by the composer can be transmitted throughout the accompaniment in triplets, which should not make any rubato, but maintain the timing and serenity.
Since measure 5 there is a crescendo and the melody is developed with chromaticism until the end of the introduction.
When the theme is initiated there is an indication of pp to the left hand and of cantando to the right hand. These indications evidences one more time the voice-leading of the melody.
In measure 24 there is a repetition of the final notes of melody that refers to the repetition that the piano makes of the tenor and baritone lines, as can be seen in Examples 12, 13 and 14. This is the repetition of the words “shadows” and “smoke” of first strophe’s last verse: “and what I see seems dream, shadows, smoke”. It is important to play rhetorically as a fog or shadow, in pp



Example 12 – Petrarch’s Sonnet 123, tenor and piano version, mm.19-24.


Example 13 – Petrarch’s Sonnet 123, baritone and piano version, mm.14-19.


Example 14 – Petrarch’s Sonnet 123, second piano version, mm.22-24.

Unlike the other pieces, in this structure there is a transition between the first and second subjects.  The two first verses of the second strophe in the vocal versions are sung during this transition in a minor tonality, and they refer to Laura’s tears. This transition has the first subject’s figures, but it needs to be distinguished for its minor nature.
The second subject presents the indication of agitato e rallentando, and it is sung during the two last verses of the second strophe in the vocal versions. The note G-flat that is sustained in the second piano version corresponds to the word sospirando (sigh) in the vocal versions, and it is important to emphasize this note, by taking more time to prepare the sixth interval that precedes it. After that there is a chromatic descending scale (m.31 and m.33) only in the second piano version, and it is also a rhetorical element of the sighing. During the next measures (mm.35-38) the texture and dynamic are intensified, expressing Laura’s powerful words that can move hills and quiet rivers.
Then there is a drastic character and dynamic modification, with the indications of ppp, una corda pedal and Più lento. The first part (mm.41-44) is found as an interlude of the piano in the tenor version, and the next part (mm.45-48) is sung by the tenor. In the second piano version the melody of this second part is written in the tenor voice’s tessitura, and should be detached and declaimed by the piano, in order to transmit the human’s voice’s characteristics, as in the score’s indication – il canto expressivo ed accentuato. The two versions can be compared by the Examples 15 and 16.

Example 15 – Petrarch’s Sonnet 123, tenor and piano version, mm.40-43.


Example 16 – Petrarch’s Sonnet 123, second piano version, mm.44-47.


The next section has a poco a poco accelerando, agitato and crescendo indication with first subject and introduction’s figures. This section is related to the last two verses of the third strophe in the tenor and piano version, which express the author’s suffering and weep. Therefore it should contain more motion, until the ff (m.58). There is a rallentando until the diminished chord in measure 59, still in f and preparing for the last theme appearance in dolcissimo armonioso and with una corda pedal.
Then there is a section with more freedom, through arpeggios, chromatic scales and trills that lead to the ppp cadenza (m.67), which happens after the musical part related to the tenor’s phrase “that did not see one leaf moving on the branches” in the tenor and piano version. This cadenza, not found in the vocal versions, expresses rhetorically the sky’s serenity and harmony. In the baritone and piano version the singer transmits this verse in a recitative style, without the piano accompaniment.
The Coda’s figures that are related to the introduction show the tenor’s last verse, and should be played with serenity – “with such sweetness were the air and wind stem”. The dynamic ppp is more dolce and p than the introduction – the una corda pedal indicated in measure 60 will help to diminish the dynamic.
The final part has figures of the first subject, dolce and perdendo, until the end, in ppp, illustrating the static ending of the poem.


6. Conclusions

Through historical research the importance of literature in Liszt’s life and work is unquestionable, once the composer used texts of important writers as inspiration for his musical pieces.
The comparison between the second piano version and the vocal versions offers a better comprehension of the character and expression of Petrarch’s sonnets in Liszt´s pieces. Thus, with the understanding of the direct relation between each musical section and the text – as shown through the vocal versions – the interpretation of the second piano version becomes more conscious.
Through this comparison the importance of the voice-leading melody was perceived in a way to suit the voice’s legato and lyricism. In addition, the composer’s seek for a better musical expression was also evident.




[1] Alan Walker, an important Liszt’s researcher and writer, divides the composer work into three parts: “The virtuoso years” (1811-1847), “The Weimar years” (1848-1861) and “The Final Years” (1862-1886).
[2] Urtext G. Henle Verlag, edited by Ernst Herttrich.
[3] HAMILTON, K. (Ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Liszt. NY: Cambridge University Press, 2005. p.204.
[4] Idem, p.190.
[5] WILSON, K. S. A Historical Study and Stylistic Analysis of Franz Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage. 1977.  p.106. Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.



Bibliographic references

HAMILTON, K. (Ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Liszt. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 282 p.
WILSON, K. S. A Historical Study and Stylistic Analysis of Franz Liszt´s Années de pèlerinage. 1977. 313 p. Musicology Doctoral Thesis, University of North Carolina, 313 p.


LISZT, F. Années de Pèlerinage Complete. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1998. 1 score (280 p.). Piano.
LISZT, F. Années de Pelerinage: Deuxième Année – Italie. G. Henle Verlag. 1 score (59 p.). Piano.
LISZT, F. Tre sonetti di Petrarca. 1a versão, Classical Vocal Reprints. 1 score (21 p.). Tenor e piano.
LISZT, F. Tre sonetti di Petrarca. 2a versão, Classical Vocal Reprints. 1 scores (16 p.). Barítono e piano.

Reference According to APA Style, 5th edition:
Olivera, P. Fiorini, C. ; (2010) Franz Liszt’s Petrarch’s Sonnets: the influence of the vocal versions on the second piano version. Convergências - Revista de Investigação e Ensino das Artes , VOL III (6) Retrieved from journal URL: