Three Sonnets of Petrarch

Pace non trovo
Benedetto sia'l giorno
I' vidi in terra angelici costumi

  • Composed between 1838-42; first published in Vienna by Haslinger in 1846
    • Liszt actually transcribed a solo piano version and published it before the vocal one
    • A revised piano transcription was published in 1858 as a part of Années II
    • Transposed (for baritone) and simplified in 1861, this version was later published in 1883
      • The 1883 version has oft been singled out as an example of how Liszt's rewriting could decrease, rather than increase, the quality of the piece
  • Based on the sonnets 47, 104 and 123 of Petrarch (1304-1374)… see below for translations
  • Liszt's vocal music as a whole has been neglected by researchers (Umstead 2-4)
    • Liszt is traditionally seen as a representative of the German, and perhaps New German, school of composition (for various reasons - see Umstead 14-17), with the result that his purely instrumental works are the main sources of study
      • This traditional view, in addition to poisoning the minds of undergraduates, negatively impacts scholarly study and reception of Liszt's non-German music (18-19)
      • In fact, when Liszt's songs are at all discussed, scholars focus mostly on Liszt's lieder
        • Alan Walker finds in Liszt the "missing link" between Schumann and Mahler (Walker, Reflections on Liszt 150)
      • Certain scholars, such as Ben Arnold, actually try to fit the Sonnets into the Germanic school (Umstead 25-26)!
  • Liszt might have been influenced by the Italian style of composition many times throughout his life: with his father during his first world tour, during his lessons with Paer, watching opera in Paris, in addition to obviously traveling with Marie d'Agoult
  • Over the course of his life (and even in Weimar) Liszt constantly wrote bel canto works (see Umstead 43-44 for a full table)… however most were not vocal pieces
  • The texts of the sonnets describe Petrarch's love for a woman named Laura;
    • This Laura might have been a real person (Laura de Noves), or might possibly be a fictional character
      • According to Petrarch Laura was a married woman; the poetry reflects this unattainable aspect of his love
    • Commentators have noted that Petrarch's poetry, unlike the sylized poems of courtly love, is an original stylistic synthesis of intense, personal, and oftentimes conflicting emotions (Ray 49)
  • Musical features of Liszt's sonnets
    • In general the text of the poetry inspires the music
    • These works represent an entirely different, bel canto, aspect to Liszt's compositional style
      • Umstead defines bel canto (after looking through a number of dictionaries) as "Music that requires 1) a display of virtuosity; 2) a large vocal range, and particularly for higher voices; 3) a lyric, legato, melodically-based line (rather than a more declamatory, text-driven, Germanic style); 4) regular phrase structure with a climax occurring in the third unit of a larger group of phrases; 5) written in the style of Italian opera composers from the late 18th and early 19th centuries
        • Liszt writes 2 appropriate cadenzas (Pace non trovo m.189 and Benedetto sia'l giorno m.83-90)
        • In general the first version of the Sonnets has a very high tessitura (and a range of two octaves and a minor 2nd)
    • Both the repetition of words (a feature not found in the poetry) and placing important words on very high notes heighten the dramatic sense
    • Emphasis on the "beauty of sound" and "brilliance of performance" (Ray 44)
    • Melodic lines feature numerous nonharmonic tones
    • Occasional coloristic, almost word-painting effects (such as a descending chromatic line on the word "lagrime" in m.57-59 of Benedetto)
    • Presence of more expressive and challening ossia lines for particularly talented singers
    • An almost "orchestral" piano accompaniment part, particularly in Pace non trovo (Ray 51)
  • Musical form of the Sonnets
    • Pace non trovo - recitative & aria
    • Benedetto sia'l giorno & I vidi in terra angelici costumi - alternating recitative and arioso sections
  • 1846 score for the Sonnets
  • A fascinating (though perhaps not quite relevant) quote from our friend Klára Hamburger: “In point of fact, Liszt wrote program music throughout his life irrespective of whether he was specifically ‘portraying’ a chosen subject in his music. This applies to his whole life’s work, which cannot be divided up and categorized artificially with respect to programmatic composition. It applies as much to his sacred as to his secular music, to his instrumental as to his vocal settings, to the numerous genres in which he composed, and to the various phases of his stylistic development.” (Umstead 13, originally from "Program and the Hungarian Idiom in the Sacred Music of Liszt")

The Sonnets, courtesy of Project Gutenberg

Sonnet 47

Blest be the day, and blest the month, the year,
The spring, the hour, the very moment blest,
The lovely scene, the spot, where first oppress'd
I sunk, of two bright eyes the prisoner:
And blest the first soft pang, to me most dear,
Which thrill'd my heart, when Love became its guest;
And blest the bow, the shafts which pierced my breast,
And even the wounds, which bosom'd thence I bear.
Blest too the strains which, pour'd through glade and grove,
Have made the woodlands echo with her name;
The sighs, the tears, the languishment, the love:
And blest those sonnets, sources of my fame;
And blest that thought—Oh! never to remove!
Which turns to her alone, from her alone which came.


Sonnet 104

I fynde no peace and all my warre is done,
I feare and hope, I bourne and freese lyke yse;
I flye above the wynde, yet cannot ryse;
And nought I have, yet all the worlde I season,
That looseth, nor lacketh, holdes me in pryson,
And holdes me not, yet can I escape no wyse.
Nor lets me leeve, nor die at my devyce,
And yet of death it giveth none occasion.
Without eye I see, and without tongue I playne;
I desyre to perishe, yet aske I health;
I love another, and yet I hate my self;
I feede in sorrow and laughe in all my payne,
Lykewyse pleaseth me both death and lyf,
And my delight is cawser of my greif.


For a more modern, simultaneous translation, see here.

Sonnet 123

On earth reveal'd the beauties of the skies,
Angelic features, it was mine to hail;
Features, which wake my mingled joy and wail,
While all besides like dreams or shadows flies.
And fill'd with tears I saw those two bright eyes,
Which oft have turn'd the sun with envy pale;
And from those lips I heard—oh! such a tale,
As might awake brute Nature's sympathies!
Wit, pity, excellence, and grief, and love
With blended plaint so sweet a concert made,
As ne'er was given to mortal ear to prove:
And heaven itself such mute attention paid,
That not a breath disturb'd the listening grove—
Even æther's wildest gales the tuneful charm obey'd.