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Liszt Ferenc: Sardanapalo, Act 1 (Fragment)
New Liszt Edition, Series IX. Vol.2.
In 1845 Franz Liszt embarked on a project to compose an Italian opera based on Lord Byron’s tragedy, Sardanapalus (1821). It was central to his ambition to attain status as a major European composer, with premieres variously planned for Milan, Vienna, Paris and London. But he abandoned it half way through, and the music he completed has lain silently for 170 years.
Liszt’s difficulty in obtaining a libretto meant that composition only began in April 1850. He completed virtually all the music for Act 1 in an annotated piano-vocal score of 111 pages, contained within his N4 music ‘sketch book’. The unnamed librettist was an Italian poet and political prisoner, seemingly living under house arrest, and a close acquaintance of Cristina Belgiojoso. His libretto survives as underlay in the N4 sketchbook and has been critically reconstructed and translated.
Sardanapalo is Liszt’s only mature opera. While he consistently referred to it in French, as Sardanapale, the published title of the Italian opera would almost certainly have used the Italian name, hence this forms the title of the first edition. There are three solo roles and a chorus of concubines. The manuscript was previously thought to be fragmentary and partially illegible, but it was finally deciphered to international acclaim in March 2017. Liszt’s score offers a richly melodic style, with elements from Bellini and Verdi alongside glimmers of Wagner and the symphonic poems ahead: a unique mixture of Italianate pastiche and mid-century harmonic innovation. It remains quintessentially Lisztian.
The opera sets Byron’s tragedy about war and peace in ancient Assyria: the last King, effeminate in his tastes, is drawn to wine, concubines and feasts more than politics and war; his subjects find him dishonourable (a ‘man queen’) and military rebels seek to overthrow him, but are pardoned, for the King rejects the ‘deceit of glory’ built on others’ suffering; this leads only to a larger uprising, the Euphrates floods its banks, destroying the castle’s main defensive wall, and defeat is inevitable; the King sends his family away and orders that he be burned alive with his lover, amid scents and spices in a grand inferno. As Byron put it: ‘not a mere pillar formed of cloud and flame, but a light to lessen ages.’ For his part, Liszt told a friend that his finale ‘will even aim to set fire to the entire audience!’
This critical edition includes a detailed study on the genesis of Liszt’s Sardanapalo in English, German, and Hungarian, the libretto in the original Italian as well as in English, German, and Hungarian translation, several facsimile pages of Liszt’s manuscript, and a detailed Critical Report.