Tuesday, 7 March 2017


Herr Liszt in 1849 at Weimar
Exciting news out of England today as David Trippet, Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Music at University of Cambridge announced a date for the 21st century premiere of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt’s nearly two centuries old ‘forgotten’ Italian opera. Titled Sardanapalo, the rare abandoned work is said to be based on the tale of “peace-loving monarch” Sardanapalus (the last Assyrian king) – it’s libretto influenced by Lord Byron’s 1821 tragic play Sardanapalus.

According to Trippet’s extensive research (spanning some two years, during which time the music scholar spent poring over the surviving fragmented manuscript), the opera's music was recorded by the composer in shorthand; the score only half complete. The nearly 170 year-old leaves never saw the light of day – at least not on the operatic stage: Liszt would apparently abandon the project mid-way through its completion in 1849, only for the music to ultimately find itself quietly relegated to the Goethe- und Schiller-Archiv' (Goethe and Schiller Archives) at Weimar in Germany. Why Liszt abandoned the work remains unclear, although there is mention of the opera by Franz in a private exchange with German composer (and future son-in-law) Richard Wagner in which Liszt claims the work would be ready for a Paris or London premiere in 1852. According to musicologist Kenneth Hamilton, Liszt may have been become disenchanted with the ‘dated’ subject matter of the libretto after reading a copy of Wagner’s essay "Oper und Drama" (Opera and Drama) in which the German composer focuses on the role of epic poetry as an essential element of what he considered to be ‘idealized, all encompassing music drama,’ or, "Gesamtkunstwerk."

Certainly, Wagner's vision was a progressive one, and Liszt was known to have been enamored by his German counterpart during this early stage in their friendship.[1]

From Trippet:
“The music that survives is breath-taking – a unique blend of Italianate lyricism and harmonic innovation. There is nothing else quite like it in the operatic world. It is suffused with Liszt’s characteristically mellifluous musical language, but was written at a time that he was first discovering Wagner’s operas…

The only source for this opera is a single manuscript containing 111 pages of music for piano and voices. It was always assumed to be impossible to piece together, but after examining the notation in detail, it became clear Liszt had notated all the cardinal elements for act 1. You have to think through the artistic decisions traceable in the manuscript and try to reconstruct the creative process, to see how Liszt’s mind went this way and that…

Fortunately, Liszt left just enough information to retrieve what was evidently the continuous musical conception he had at the time. We will never know exactly why he abandoned his work.”
A portion of the recently deciphered work is set to premiere in the form of a ten-minute scene from the opera at the renowned BBC Cardiff Singer of the World contest (final), which takes place this June in Wales. Armenian soprano Anush Hovhannisyan is slated to perform.

The scene, which the University is calling a “preview” will be preceded one month prior by an introductory documentary on the work. A critical edition of the music is planned for publication some time in 2018 by Hungarian publisher Editio Musica Budapest (Universal Music Publishing in the West). The schools’ Faculty of Music has generously offered a rare treat to those suffering from a renewed case of "Lisztomania"  - in the form of a musical teaser:

listen to Hovhannisyan perform an aria from the work below, accompanied by tenor Samuel Sakker and bass-baritone Arshak Kuzikyan:

To learn more about this exciting news, watch the ‘trailer’ below; and, to read a summary of the opera’s libretto, read the official press release by visiting the University of Cambridge website.

Did You Know?

There could be yet another reason for Liszt’s abrupt departure from completing his opera of 1849:

Richard Wagner held Herr Liszt by the proverbial tail during this period.
It would be a hectic time for the conductor and composer and for his newfound friendship in Herr Wagner. Having only met once before (nine years earlier, when Liszt was busy mesmerizing Europe as a virtuoso pianist - and when Wagner was virtually unknown to the musical sphere), the duo would reconnect in 1844 at a performance of Wagner’s Rienzi. So overcome with the “genius” of the megalomanic German composers’ mind, Liszt would readily take on the role of conductor for Wagner’s Tannhäuser (first for the opera’s Overture in 1848, and later for the complete production in February of 1849). Liszt had also recently earned the distinction of ‘Kapellmeister’ (“in extraordinary service” to boot) to the Weimar court during this period (he would serve under Grand Duke Karl Friedrich, and later, under his son Karl Alexander). All of this, while the master pianist attempted (in vain, as we have previously learned at Unraveling Musical Myths) to secure a private home life with Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein. The adulterous pair (the princess was still legally married when she shacked up with Liszt) would host many a student and honored guest at their villa during this period - the family home all but serving as a private salon with constant comings-and-goings. It was the intention of the couple, and of the ducal family, to place Weimar on the world's cultural map as the hub of progressive music. By all accounts, their collective goal seemed well on it's way to succeeding. Indeed, 37 year old Franz had his hands full.

"Steckbrief," (Warrant of arrest) for
Richard Wagner, issued 16 May 1849
at Dresden.[2]
It wasn’t all roses for Herr Liszt – even less for Wagner – during this period, however. Three months after conducting Tannhäuser, Liszt would take on the role of criminal harborer and would aid and abet the fleeing of a fugitive Wagner, who was presently sought under warrant by Officials in Saxony who had charged the composer with participating in the revolutionary furore of the Dresden insurrection (specifically, for ‘supporting’ those revolutionaries involved in the May Uprising of 1849). Together, the two composers would concoct a scheme to get Wagner safely out of Germany and into exile (for Zürich via Paris) – but not before symbolically 'sticking it to the man' first: in a brazen show of ego known only to the likes of Richard Wagner, the two would dally in Weimar to attend a rehearsal of Tannhäuser – with Liszt at the helm and Wagner in the audience!

Learn more about Wagner’s dramatic escape here at Unraveling Musical Myths:


*UPDATE: 27 NOVEMBER, 2018:  A date of launch for a CD recording of the world première performance of Sardanapalo has been announced on the Sardanapalo.org website. It will be released on 8 February, 2019 through the Audite label.


[1] There is much evidence of Liszt's adulation for Wagner preserved in the duo's surviving correspondence. For instance, following the production of Tannhauser at the Weimar Court Theatre (which Liszt conducted), a giddy Franz would inform Wagner in a letter: "[I] say it once and for all; from now on please count me among your most zealous and devoted admirers — from near or far you can rely on me and consider me at your service."

[2] Wagner’s “Steckbrief” reads, in English (loosely translated):


See below for details. Royal
Kapellmeister Richard Wagner, of this place,
is wanted for examination on account of his
substantial participation in the seditious
movement which took place here in the city,
but as yet he has not been found. The police are
therefore instructed to look out for him, and, if
he is found, to arrest him and communicate at
once with me.

Dresden, the 16th may, 1849.
Von Oppell,
Deputy town police.

Wagner is 37-38 years old, of middle
stature, has brown hair and wears


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