Rethinking the Influence of Italian Poetry and Music on Liszt the Petrarca Sonnet Benedetto Sia 'L Giorno

By Dalmonte, Rossana | Studia Musicologica, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Rethinking the Influence of Italian Poetry and Music on Liszt the Petrarca Sonnet Benedetto Sia 'L Giorno


Dalmonte, Rossana, Studia Musicologica


1. The Problem of Language

Liszt's first direct knowledge of Italian art and music during his journey 1837- 1839 has been investigated in every detail by his biographers, on the basis of what Liszt himself wrote about such matters in the Revue et Gazette musicale de Paris and L'Artiste. The Lettres d'un Bachelier offer a clear idea, which aspects of Italy affected Liszt at first glance,1 but do not give any explanation about the reasons for the tour. Anna Harwell Celenza provides an interesting insight into this matter in a recent essay: "Liszt was escaping more than mere gossip when he left Paris. He was on a quest to discover his creative essence, a new artistic identity ... ."2

Considering the Italian journey more as a quest for identity than an elopement, biographers have assumed that the couple Liszt and Marie d'Agoult visited the old art towns as if they were open-air museums, and that they had actually read Italian love poetry, in particular Dante and Petrarch, but this second assumption is based on very poor evidence. I would now like to begin my analysis of one of the three Petrarch Sonnets (Benedetto sia 'l giorno) by asking the same question as I did for Dante some years ago.3

When exactly did Liszt begin to master the Italian language so that he could read ancient works of poetry such as the Divina Commedia or the Petrarch sonnets? The question is particularly intriguing for Petrarch, because a sonnet must be read and understood in all of its details, unlike Dante's Commedia, whose episodes can be resumed or translated in order to give to the reader a general idea of the work.

Liszt may have read Petrarch's poetry in French, in the translation by Ferdinand Comte de Gramond, published in Paris in 1842 by Paul Masgana; this was, how- ever, a prosaic translation, in which only the initial Content could allow one to imagine the original work. The same can be said about another French translation by Anatole Comte de Montesquieu (1843). In any case both translations men- tioned were published some years after Liszt's first Italian journey.4

At the time investigated here, Liszt may have read the German translations by August Wilhelm Schlegel (Blumensträusse der italienischen, spanischen und portugiesischen Poesie, 1804, a very influential book for the whole century), or the translation by Friederich Förster (1819), that was re-published till 1926.5 In any case, Liszt set to music three difficult sonnets in their original language pos- sibly before 1846. How could he do so?

This problem does not seem to have troubled biographers. First Lina Ramann,6 followed more recently by Alan Walker7 and Maurizio Giani8 among others, affirms that during the Swiss-Italian journey Liszt read Petrarch with Marie d'Agoult. Since he actually composed music on Italian poetry, they assume that he understood Italian perfectly. And since he was travelling with his lover, he must have read love-poetry with her. But the evidence for these facts in the cor- respondence is very poor. Some quotations (possibly not complete, but signifi- cant enough, in my opinion) can support this point: "Vous rappelez-vous de ce vers de Pétrarque: 'Chi po' dir com'egli arde, è in picciol foco'?"9 - wrote Liszt to the Countess on 21 or 22 May 1833.

This is, however, not a direct quotation: Liszt had found this line in an Essay by Montaigne, as he states in the same letter. Marie did not answer the question. In another letter Liszt tells Marie that he is reading Vittorio Alfieri's Mémoires translated into French by Antoine de la Tour. He was shocked by the line "celui qui comprends est vaincu par celui qui veut," and he asks Marie if she knows the original line in Italian.10 She answers after five days: "I do not know this line by Petrarch whom I always disliked as Lord Byron did."11

These two quotations do not permit the surmise that Liszt knew Petrarch so well as to be able to set three of his sonnets to music. And even if I agree with the lists of works by Eckhardt-Mueller and by Howard-Short, which assume the collection to have been written in the mid-1840s, the problem of the language still remains, even though during the years that have elapsed since his first Italian journey Liszt could surely have gained a better knowledge of the Italian language and of the old metrical system. …

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