Franz Liszt: Dante Sonata

Franz Liszt, a spiritual man, was constantly drawn to the idea of creating music inspired by a collection of other art forms. Highly influenced by literature, as he was by visual art and architecture, namely that of the Italian Renaissance, Liszt had used his inspiration to dredge himself out of “what had become a stifling mode of life” (Winklhofer, 27). These assorted artistic appreciations that he had harbored gave way to a creative stimulation that took form in the conception of a collection of original works. Formerly known as a travelling piano virtuoso he was highly praised for his skill and acumen when performing the works of other great composers, however, had yet to flex his own compositional muscle. This shift in his career was a bold step that began some of his greatest sonata composition. His Dante Sonata is one of his first works written for piano and is the product of many years of improvisation and composition. Originally, the piece was to be part of a cohesive series grander than any endeavor he was known for. In his own words on his newfound inspiration Liszt said:

If I feel within me the strength and life, I will attempt a symphonic composition based on Dante, then another on Faust – within three years – meanwhile I will make three sketches: the Triumph of Death (Orcagna), The Comedy of Death (Holbein), and a Fragment dantesque. – (Winklhofer, 27)

Over the course of roughly 10 years Liszt was enraptured with the work of the famed Italian poet, yet managed to include sources from elsewhere and had allowed his impression of the work to evolve along the way. One of his favored interpretations of Dante’s Divine Comedy was that of a poem by Victor Hugo, whose title – Aprés une lecture de Dante – Liszt had borrowed for the original title of his aforementioned sonata, originally known as: Aprés une lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata. The extant literature on the matter seems to favor Liszt’s piece “not so much a direct response to Dante…as an experience of Dante filtered through the mind of Hugo” (Taylor, 51).

Due to Liszt’s itinerant nature when piecing together Dante Sonata, a thematic analysis can, at times, be problematic. What is more significant to an analysis of this work is to understand the evolution of Liszt’s character alongside the development of the music. His engagement with Dante was inspiring to no end and it instilled in him similar philosophical notions of transformation as it coincides with the “midpoint” in life’s biblically allotted span. At 35, Liszt’s comparisons to Dante were all the more relevant due to the parallel in their ages. Dante’s divine awakening had occurred at this age just as Liszt’s metamorphosis from piano virtuoso to artistic genius was occurring (Trippett, 53). Though this is merely an allusion made by Liszt is does point to the precepts that he enacted in his work following.

No matter the true source material of his final product, Liszt’s sonata brimmed with an enlightened energy of love. Dante had become somewhat of a cult figure in the France of Liszt’s artistic maturation. Colleagues of his such as the poet Alphonse de Lamartine, philosopher Hugues Felicité Robert de Lammenais, of course Victor Hugo, and his close friend – with whom he had shared his sentimental trip with Marie d’Agoult upon which they mutually discovered an affinity for Divine Comedy – the novelist George Sand looked to Dante as a poet who embodied Romantic ideals to a tee. The imagery of Dante excited Liszt and had given clarity to his own romantic affair with d’Agoult. In an article he wrote in the fall of 1837, he compared Dante’s rendering of Beatrice to his own concept of “woman sublime”:

I must confess that I have always been terribly disturbed by one thing in that immense, incomparable poem, and that is the fact that the poet has conceived Beatrice, not as the ideal of love, but at the ideal of learning. I do not like to see a scholarly theologian’s spirit inhabiting that beautiful, transfigured body, explaining dogma, refuting heresy, and expounding on the mysteries. It is certainly not because of her reasoning and her powers of demonstration that a woman reigns over a man’s heart. It is certainly not for her to prove God to him, but to give him a sense of God through love and thus lead him to heavenly matters. It is in her emotions, not in her knowledge, that her power lies. A loving woman is sublime; she is man’s true guardian angel. A pedantic woman is a contradiction in terms, a dissonance; she does not occupy her proper place in the hierarchy of beings. – (Gibbs & Gooley, 10-11)

This excerpt proves his admiration for not only an ideal muse, but specifically his ideal muse: d’Agoult. It was through her that he felt a sense of divine through love.

It is most pertinent to stage an analysis of Liszt’s Dante Sonata on the precept of an awareness of the Dantean vision of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. It becomes a direct channeling of his understanding of the transcendent quality of the afterlife and what, as his chosen subject, an experience of it means to him. It is “an experience compounded of the sensuous and the intellectual, the situational and the visionary, the expressed and the implied, the real and the ideal.” Dante Sonata is not only a cohesion of Liszt’s contact with the divine, but it is also his attempt to describe it through a union of the arts; a union of artistic inspirations and the love that he has felt through them and through himself (Taylor, 53).

The piece is divided into two main parts: Hell and Heaven. The piece makes novel use of the sonata form, but does not stick to it so stringently. Liszt was clearly open to a route with an interpretation all his own, colored by his own feeling. Certainly, as a Fantasia quasi sonata the piece would be expected to have some general form of a classical sonata: an Exposition, which introduces the main theme material in a tonic, then subordinate and auxiliary themes – usually in a dominant or sometimes subdominant key; a Development section, in which these themes are used in different ways and in diverse keys; a Recapitulation, in which the Expository themes recur in usually the tonic key; and a Coda, generally a finalized statement derived from the principal, main theme (Yeagley, 27). Dante Sonata’s form is not as clear-cut as the usual sonata form is. Instead, the tri-tone Introduction seems to effortlessly fade into the D minor tonality of the Exposition’s beginning. Also, uncharacteristic of a sonata, this piece employs various chromatic mediant relations at each structural point. What is most common to sonata form are tonic-dominant or sub-dominant relations. The Dante Sonata transforms the color, mood, harmonic position and tempo of its themes, rather than breaking them down into smaller elements and developing them (Yeagley, 28).

From the very beginning there is an extensive use of chromatic elements that elaborate the basic tonal structure. This is done to such an extent that it is frequently obscured at the surface. This shrouding effect, especially the extent to which it is created by a saturation of tritone motives, creates a sense of mystery, consistent with the programmatic agenda of this work (Marc, 69). There is an extended chromatic descent and it adds to this curious melody. At times Liszt’s compositional form teeters between a descent and an ascent. In the very first line the tritone motive gives way to what can almost be described as a resolution, were it not for it suddenly dropping off into silence. Liszt returns to this introductory theme very many times, yet allows the subtlety of feeling to pervade the spaces in between. He plays around with tonality to a great extent. He creates a “harmonic ‘revolving door’ effect,” in which he sets out in one tonality only to progress through a series of tonalities in a continuous manner, until he arrives back at the original tonality responsible for starting off the section (Yeagley, 43).

There are rhythmic patterns that repeat throughout the piece. Liszt utilizes a dotted rhythmic pattern, which applies grace notes to his initial notes, as if there is an echo to each chord being struck, only with a noticeably lower pitch. He had apparently chosen this notation “for the intensified drama afforded by the ‘interpretable’ grace note” (Marc, 73). This effectively broadens the sonic descent into Hell. This aspect of his work displays Liszt’s experimentation with rhythmic displacement of ideas. Essentially, what occur are uneven groups of measures that are created by the dislocation of a downbeat. A gesture’s length is incongruous with a measure, but it repeats until, finally, it coincides with a downbeat. The incongruity and eventual coincidence creates a scintillation that repeats. What Liszt has done is strung together a series of separate rhythmical patterns that are all hidden and occur amongst each other simultaneously (Yeagley 43-6).

Rather than being a scene for scene depiction of the Divine Comedy the sonata seems to be more of “a series of vivid “atmospheric” impressions which, juxtaposed, create a compelling musical process, or journey” (Yeagley, 49-50). As a companion to Dante’s work, Liszt’s piece certainly allows another side of the work to shine through, albeit a more personalized one. Liszt’s opening tri-tone descent closely resembles a descent into Hell and as the music broods over and over again it seems to ruminate on the horrors contained there. Tonal progressions that circle back around to their origins gradually build up and up and up. Whereas the initial descent is done in the key of D minor, a key common for relating to death, the music works up into euphoric chorale in F-sharp major, which acts as a counterpart to original tri-tone. Out of the descent into despair comes an ascent into the divine. Liszt’s work, however deviated from tradition, seems to flow directly through him. The work sounds – as it is – substantially improvisational. Dante Sonata was first partially manifested as the Fragment dantesque, which was to be part and parcel of the three sketches he had so genuinely hoped to accomplish and add to his developing oeuvre as a composer. Dante’s tritone motive links all of the sonata’s major themes and gives the journey from the pits of Hell to the upper rungs of Heaven a coherent voice that has repetition throughout. Perhaps, it is the voice of Dante as translated through Liszt, or perhaps it is Liszt himself, imagining his own journey through the afterlife towards the divine.

Whatever the case may be, Liszt’s sonata is a well-struck attempt at expanding the possibilities for musical narration. Long had it been his wish to create a music that allowed a synthesis with poetry and literature. Dante Sonata was the stepping-stone to the symphonic poem, which became an entirely new genre of orchestral program music. Although, it was never his intention to renounce the basic forms of his predecessors, but rather to open up new pathways that had yet to be taken in compositional methodology. What he sought to do was to transform music into a type of speech by altering tones and characters. Liszt himself stated:

In so-called Classical music the return and thematic development of themes are determined by rules regarded as irrefutable, even though it was only those composers’ individual imagination which determined their compositional organization and that particular formal order which some are now trying to set up as a hard and fast rule. In program music, motivic return, alteration, change, and modulation are determined through the relationship of the motives to a poetic idea. No longer does one theme lead to another….All purely musical considerations, while by no means ignored, are subordinate to the plot of the given subject. – (Altenburg, 58)

It is in this way that Liszt’s concept of symphonic language is realized as a way of communicating the inner process of his emotional engagement and internalization of the content. In Dante Sonata, it is his own “divine awakening” that he communicates through a musical descent and ascent.

Representing both Hell and Heaven as they exist in the mental construct of man is undoubtedly a difficult task. Dante Sonata does enact some formal qualities that do speak very clearly to the dueling qualities of both, however, it is not so apparent from a first listening. Yet, what is communicated so well, from that first descending tri-tone to the final ascendant chords, is that there is a dark and intimidating atmosphere, which eventually gives way to a divine and triumphant plane. Liszt’s duality cannot possibly be lost on any intent listener. As a programmatic journey, the piece does drift at times into deep ruminations of sorrow that suddenly erupt into boldness and resolve. It does seem undecided and somewhat unwieldy to be represented through music alone. However, Liszt proves his worth with his perfection of the symphonic poem and his subsequent success with both the Dante Symphony and the Faust Symphony.

To understand the roles of religion and spirituality in the creative life of Franz Liszt help to emphasize his creative tendencies. It is certainly revealing to discover that Liszt’s Dante Sonata only began to take shape once his affair with Marie d’Agoult was cemented and in full effect. Though his engagement with Dante had supposedly already begun, he had not quite fully realized the transcendent state of love and how it instilled in him an experience of divinity.


Altenburg, Detlef. “Franz Liszt and the Legacy of the Classical Era.” 19th-Century Music 18.1 (1994): 46-63. JSTOR. Web.

Gibbs, Christopher Howard., and Dana A. Gooley. Franz Liszt and His World. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006. Print.

Marc, Aida. “Analysis of Expressive Elements in the “Dante” Sonata.” Diss. University of Alabama, 2010. University of Alabama. Web.

Taylor, Ronald. Franz Liszt: The Man and the Musician. London: Grafton, 1986. Print.

Trippett, David. “Aprés Une Lecture De Liszt: Virtuosity and Werktreue in the “Dante” Sonata.” 19th-Century Music 32.1 (2008): 52-93. JSTOR. Web.

Winklhofer, Sharon. “Liszt, Marie D'Agoult, and the “Dante” Sonata.” 19th-Century Music 1.1 (1977): 15-32. JSTOR. Web.

Yeagley, David Anthony. Franz Liszt's Dante Sonata: The Origins, the Criticism, a Selective Musical Analysis, and Commentary. Diss. The University of Arizona, 1994. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1994. Web.

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