Liszt: Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo

performed by the Gewandhausorchester under the late Kurt Masur

Tasso loved and suffered at Ferrara, he was avenged at Rome, and even today lives in the popular songs of Venice. These three moments are inseparable from his immortal fame. To reproduce them in music, we first conjured up the great shade as he wanders through the lagoons of Venice even today; then his countenance appeared to us, lofty and melancholy, as he gazes at the festivities at Ferrara, where he created his masterworks ; and finally we followed him to Rome, the Eternal City, which crowned him with fame and thus pays him tribute both as martyr and as poet.

Welcome back.

I figure since we talked about Liszt as the father of the symphonic poem, and since he wrote thirteen of them, it’s only proper to give him a bit more attention as we start this series, so here’s another of his early contributions to the genre. (Cover image for this article is ‘Tasso in the Hospital of St Anne Ferrara’ by Eugène Delacroix, found here.)

Actually, what you’ll find as we work through this series for the next few months is that, generally speaking, those composers who were inclined or had the guts to write one symphonic/tone poem often wrote more than a few; it seemed to be a perfect fit for many composers who had extramusical ideas, or programmes or thoughts to express outside the structure of a symphony, so many of the composers we’ll be addressing in this series contributed many symphonic works to the genre, and almost every week, we’ll be presenting multiple works from a composer, usually of their early output, but this does include some of the most famous tone poems in the repertoire.

Somewhat surprisingly, today’s piece is also not a staple of the concert repertoire, but I’m not really sure why. As we discussed, yesterday’s piece was charming at times, and had its high points and rich climaxes, but was just a bit too drawn out with a complicated program and development too opaque to understand, effectively losing its audience, I feel.

In contrast with that, today’s symphonic poem is much more accessible. It’s shorter (by about ten minutes), and has a much simpler structure, also (again) based on Goethe’s play Torquato Tasso about the Italian poet of the same name, but focuses on a different portion of the story, apparently. While Goethe’s play spends most of its time addressing the period that Tasso spent in the Court of Ferrara, Liszt was more interested, apparently, in the more introspective aspect, his “inner conflicts and the seven years he spent in St. Anna’s Hospital, an insane asylum. It was actually the suffering and eventually triumphant Tasso that inspired Liszt’s imagination,” says the Wikipedia article on the piece. The quote at the top of the article is also from that article, the composer himself discussing the layout of the work.

The piece was originally written as a concert overture to the play itself (hey, Mendy!) divided into two sections, the ‘lament’ and ‘triumph’ of the title. The largest change made to the final version, aside from some details of orchestration, was to add a “middle section in the vein of a minuet,” with this complicated two-part design, independent pieces played by strings and woodwinds that apparently work together… Wikipedia has some interesting comments on that here, so go read those.

Ultimately, though, the piece is easily as charming as and far more accessible than yesterday’s first effort. Again, I’m not entirely sure why this piece remains neglected.

It opens with a lament, melancholy, rich unison strings in C minor, and the mood is generally melancholy, stirring, touching, working developing, up to a beautiful clarinet solo. The tied triplet figure that opens the work, if you haven’t noticed, is a particularly important figure throughout the entire piece. After the clarinet solo, the orchestra returns, sounding even more lachrymose, really very effective writing by Liszt, lots of color and emotion.

A solo cello begins to sing out from the mourning orchestra, which might be the first hint that things are beginning to change, because there’s just the slightest brightening of moods, and it is after a triumphant-ish passage that the cello eventually introduces the central minuet theme, a remarkably charming passage, and I cannot fathom why it has not become as famous a melody as any other in classical music.

It’s clearly the same melody we’ve just heard being played so tragically, or based on it at least, but with a key change and solo cello over pizzicato strings, it’s delightful. This is our minuet. There’s some back-and-forth between cello and bassoon before the orchestra really kicks in with what I assume is that dual form talked about earlier, playing sort-of-kind-of independently of each other a bit later.

Anyway, Keith Thomas Johns’ thesis I linked to yesterday also has some very in-depth discussion of this work, on page 51 per its table of contents. The interesting thing he mentions is that a sort of recapitulation of the opening lament is added after the minuet during the same period of revision, and Johns stipulates that this addition was to maintain the juxtaposition of lament and triumph that makes the work so effective. The minuet would have broken that up, but without it, it would have only been two jarringly different moods. This transition is smoother.

The triumph, possibly fittingly, begins with cellos, really toward the end of the piece, much less than the last half, but the piece does begin to feel like a series of variations, even though we have covered lots of emotional ground. Don’t forget, either, that this work is based on a work of literature, so it has its main character and its program.

But frankly, I don’t care much about that. It’s powerful and grand and charming, and tons easier to grasp than yesterday’s work, even if we do end up rehashing similar material here for 20 minutes. I find this work far more agreeable and pleasant than yesterday’s, if for no other reason than its more manageable length, but its also outstandingly endearing melodies (in the minuet!) make it a really enjoyable listen.

The end (the last few minutes, with the snare drum and trumpet) remind me of the really climactic moments of the Kill Bill series, that of final triumph and success and grandeur, I don’t know why. Anyway, this is a truly wonderful work, I feel, and I’m not so sure why it hasn’t been as well received as the work we’ll discuss tomorrow, the real (apparent) gem of Liszt’s symphonic poems. See you then!


One thought on “Liszt: Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo

  1. Indeed, the idyllic minuet is interrupted, more by madness than lament. I intepreted it as Tasso suffered from epilepsy, and this seems to be correct (it is mentioned in a book “The Falling Sickness”).

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