When pianists think about the composer Franz Liszt and songs, they think about the Petrarch sonnets, the three songs that Liszt composed and also set into 3 piano pieces and are included as part of his Années de pèlerinage, Book 2, “Italie” (S.161, nos 4, 5 and 6, based on Petrarch’s sonnets 47, 104, and 123). These are beautiful pieces – we included it our “Songful harmonies” concert in the UK in 2018 – and reflect Liszt’s wide-ranging knowledge of and love for poetry, Italian, German, French, and English.
If you think and look even more deeply, Liszt’s compositions reflect a deeper meaning of “songs” …. They reflect his dreams or his inner thoughts and emotions.
In many of his piano works, he is documenting and expressing his dreams, innermost thoughts and longings. The “programme” is the story of his inner search as much as the “voyage” into new lands. While he was inspired by the landscape he saw as he travelled, he was documenting the impressions and emotions created or stirred by specific sights or works of art.
In Vallée d’Obermann, number 6 in Book 1, “Suisse” of Années and included in our “Songs and sonnets of travellers” concert, Liszt used the literary hero as his vehicle (or pretext) for that inner search, when he sought to capture the hero’s melancholic qualities with the principal musical theme being a descending scale figure that goes through numerous harmonic and chromatic transformations that parallel the hero’s emotional turmoil. The turmoil is presaged in the two quotes inscribed in the music score that preface the music, the first in French (in English translation here) and the second in English, from Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:
“What do I wish? What am I? What shall I ask of nature? I feel; I exist only to waste myself in unconquerable longings…Inexpressible sensibility, the charm and the torment of our futile years; vast consciousness of a nature that is everywhere incomprehensible and overwhelming; universal passion, indifference, the higher wisdom, abandonment to pleasure— I have felt and experienced them all.”
“Could I embody and unbosom now
That which is most within me,—could I wreak
My thoughts upon expression, and thus throw
Soul—heart—mind—passions—feelings–strong or weak—
All that I would have sought, and all I seek,
Bear, know, feel—and yet breathe—into one word,
And that one word were Lightning, I would speak;
But as it is, I live and die unheard,
With a most voiceless thought, sheathing it as a sword.”
Liszt’s use of the word “pilgrimage” for these pieces itself reinforces these sentiments, as it refers to Goethe’s famous novel of self-realisation, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship; Liszt clearly places these compositions in line with the Romantic literature of his time, writing an introduction to the entire work that:
“having recently travelled to many new countries, through different settings and places consecrated by history and poetry; having felt that the phenomena of nature and their attendant sights did not pass before my eyes as pointless images but stirred deep emotions in my soul, and that between us a vague but immediate relationship had established itself, an undefined but real rapport, an inexplicable but undeniable communication, I have tried to portray in music a few of my strongest sensations and most lively impressions.“
In this, it is worth pondering if Liszt is a little like the Aboriginal people, for whom songs and dreams are very much connected, and all songs are stories while all stories are about travels!
In fact, it is this inspiration that almost got us to call this concert “songs and songes”, the French word for dreams being songes.