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D'APRES UNE LECTURE DU DANTE

(Fantasia quasi Sonata)


Liszt's first sketch of the Fantasia is dated September 1839, but the concept of writing a
work based on Dante was already in his mind around February 1839, when he wrote in his
journal:
If I feel the needful life and strength in me, I will attempt a symphonic work based
on Dante, then another on Faust, say in three years. Meanwhile, I will make three
sketches - the Triumph of Death, after Orcagna, the Comedy of Death, after
Holbein, and a Dantesque fragment. 1

He did not start working on the Dante Symphony until 1855, but he did in fact made the
sketch of the Dantesque fragment during the same year. The piece, in its first stage, was
performed in Vienna two months later, in November, and it was revised in the early Weimar years
(around 1847), when the fragment became a Fantasia quasi Sonata. Liszt revised also Totentanz
(based on the "Triumph of Death" fresco at Pisa) and other pieces of the Italian Anne during
those years. It seems as if the theme of death had a symbolic importance in works of these years.
The first sketches of the Dante Symphony were written also in 1847, but its musical material has
no relationship to the Fantasia Dante. It is commonly accepted that the Fantasia was inspired on
the reading of the Divine Comedy written by Dante, but Wolfgang Dmling says that the piece is
actually inspired by Victor Hugo's short poem of 1836, "Apres une lecture du Dante." 2
Fantasia was a special improvisatory form very extended during the early nineteenth
century, and, in fact, any pianist worthy of his fingers was supposed to be able to improvise. Liszt
wrote several major fantaisie works in the mid-1830s: Grand Fantaisie Symphonique for piano
and orchestra (1834); Fantaisie Romantique (1835); Deux Fantasies puor le Piano (1835);
1 Newman, Ernest, The Man Liszt (New York: C.Scribner's Sons, 1935), p.83
2 Domling, Franz Liszt und Seine Zeit (Regensburg: Laaber-Verlag, 1985), p.129

Grande Fantaisie sur la Niobe de Pacini (1835); Rondeau Fantastique (1836); Grande Fantaisie
Dramatique (1836), and other pieces of equally improvisatory nature that do not contain the
word "fantaisie" in the title. But the title of this work is Fantasia quasi Sonata. It is probably
borrowed from Beethoven's Sonata quasi una Fantasia (Moonlight Sonata), and it does
follow the structure of the sonata form, or at least it shares some of the main characteristics with
it.
Dante Fantasy is structured in three principal parts, which could be considered as
Exposition - Development - Recapitulation of a large sonata movement. These three parts would
probably correspond to the three parts of Dante's Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso.

Exposition - Inferno
The piece starts with an introduction based on a tritone ("diabolus in musica" as Alan
Walker names it 3, which one can imagine as a musical expression of the pessimism Dante feels
when, at the gate of Hell, he reads: "All hope abandon, ye who enter in!". The tritone tension will
finally be resolved at the very end of the piece, where E b will be lowered to D (mm.370-end).
There is a second motive that is later used in various transitional sections: the triplets over the
seventh diminished arpeggio in mm.25-28. It will act as a perfect nexus between main parts and it
will be the textural center of the climax of the development, as we will see. The two main themes
that follow appear throughout the piece under contrasting costumes, in a compositional technique
that Walker calls "transformation of themes". These themes (the first one appearing at m.30 and
the second at m.103) are not themselves varied, but rather their harmonic, contextual
surroundings, together with their rhythmical nature and tempi are altered. The A section, after
being shortly announced on mm.30-34, appears in m.35 as a descending chromatic line in octaves,
3 Walker, Alan, Liszt (London, Faber & Faber, 1971), pp.42-45

nervously described by a sort of "drum-roll" pianistic writing. This "tortured chromaticism"4 is


meant to create an atmosphere of pain resulting of punishment. There is a Transition built on the
triplets motive of the introduction between mm.77-102 that leads to the second theme, a choral
theme in F# major accompanied by virtuoso double octaves. The exposition closes with the
reappearance of the tritone of the beginning, giving it a rounded closed shape.

Development - Purgatorio
The development may be divided in three parts. The first one (mm.124-56) starts with the
A theme used as an improvised introduction to the second appearance of the choral theme, and it
is closed again by the first theme, creating an ABA shape, at least motivically speaking. The next
section (mm.157-80) is a motivic transformation of the A theme, which turns from a chromatic
descending scale into a diatonic descending scale (m.167). The third and last section is the most
episodic one and, thus, the more developing one. It starts with a dominant ninth chord resolved
chromatically from Vb9 of F# to an F minor in second inversion with the added sixth.5 A tremolo
on the right hand accompanies various statements of the triplets motive from m.189 to 198, where
the A theme appears in the left hand, serving as preparation to the virtuoso octaves passage of
mm.209-49, where a motive, built from the tritone (transformed into perfect fourths and fifths)
and the triplet motives is treated in an episodic way (mm.209-24). This is followed by a
progression of chords by whole step (mm.225-31) over one and a half octaves, from D major to
4 Walker, Alan, Ibidem
5 It could also be considered as a vii half diminished chord in third inversion of Eb major. This is an ambiguous
harmony that represents the central inflection point of the piece. Liszt has been using the technique of changing the color of a
certain pitch by changing its quality within the chord it belongs to. For instance, E #, as degree 5 in A# minor, becomes degree 3
in C# 7 (mm.123-24), that is, a pitch that belongs to a clear harmony becomes part of a different harmony which is also clear.
However, in this case, E#(or F, in m.181) is degree 3 of the dominant ninth over C #, a very dissonant chord, and suddenly it
becomes degree 1 of an F minor harmony (or any other interpretation of it), which is not clear at all, in second inversion and
with an added sixth. So much tension in such a short period of time makes this passage a clue moment that opens the door to
the long quasi symphonic development that starts in the following measures.

Ab major triads, describing the same tritone of the initial motive of the piece. Once we are in A b, a
new version of the tritone motive is given, but the intervals are perfect this time (mm.233-34).
This moment is the peak of the Fantasia, because it is here where the initial dissonance A-Eb is
somehow resolved by lowering A to Ab. In my opinion, the perfect interval symbolizes the Good,
the Righteousness, and it has its first appearance in m.185, although hidden by the dissonant
harmony that surrounds it. But here it appears by itself, like at the very beginning, as if it had been
purified after going through the Purgatorio. It is perhaps product of casualty, or maybe not, but
this crucial moment occurs approximately at a point in the piece that coincides with its golden
section (m.237 of 377 total). As it would happen after the peak of a storm, it takes some time to
calm down from such a big climax, and that is what occurs after the con strepito in m.235. An
episodic passage with octaves is followed by the choral B theme in a vagrant succession of keys
(mm.250-69) ending in Bb major. Two bars of triplets as a transition lead us to the last section of
the development, in A major (just a half step down from the previous key), which is a sort of
retransition to the Recapitulation, built on A theme.

Recapitulation - Paradiso
In the Dante Symphony Liszt desisted, probably following Wagners advise, from setting
Heaven into music, perhaps on the basis that it is not possible to describe the beauty of Paradise
with any human way of expression. In fact the Paradise attempted in the Fantasia is somehow
disappointing. The beginning of it is, however, quite adequate in its magical, elevated character,
with those tremolo harmonies in the upper register accompanying the choral theme, this time in D
major (mm.306-17). But, after a short preparation based on the triplets motive, the same theme
appears in , breaking the magic of the moment and leading into a continuous crescendo and
accelerando until the Presto in m.343, which is taken from the lyric transformation of the A theme

of m.167, and it is followed by the Coda, with the A theme in D major. At the very end, after a
chords progression by whole tones, there is the last statement of the tritone motive, this time
converted into a perfect fifth A-D (remember the symbolism involved in that, treated before).

The whole Recapitulation after the magical tremolos could seem to be a virtuoso
demonstration written to show the skills of the performer rather than a description of the
Paradise, where theres supposed to be eternal peace, serenity and happiness. It may be easy to
describe peace, and also serenity or happiness, but, how can one put music to eternity? Perhaps
we are being naif when we consider this piece a complete description of the three parts of the
Comedy. It would be also possible that Liszt had in his mind just a musical setting of the Inferno
and the Purgatorio, and that the final conversion of the tritone into a perfect interval is just the
symbol of the gates of Heaven, as opposed to the opening tritone as the symbol of the gate of
Hell. In this case, what happens in the Paradise would have been left out, as it was in the Dante
Symphony.

To complete the description of this masterpiece I thought it would be useful to attach an


extract from a project written by Justin Hamill, from Columbia University, about the tortures
described by Dante during his trip to the Inferno.

Franz Liszt:
Dapres une lecture de Dante
Fantasia Quasi Sonata

Final project for

Analysis of 19th Century Piano Literature

Carlos Amat