Tasso (1854)

By Fred Kirshnit, Le Concertographe

Written for the concert The Romantic Soul: Lord Byron in Music, performed on Feb 9, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“…we are crowded in our solitudes…”
Lord Byron, The Lament of Tasso

Although now considered apocryphal, the legend of the Renaissance mathematician and poet pining for the ultimately unrequited love of Leonora d’Este was the inspiration for several significant works of romanticism. What is more historically incontrovertible is also more intensely Byronic. Not only did Tasso’s first love reject him to marry Machiavelli, but his frequent lapses into and out of insanity made him the ideally misunderstood artistic antihero. Writing a commission for the centenary presentation of Goethe’s Torquato Tasso, Franz Liszt seized upon the relationship between the tragic life and the apotheosized afterlife of this tortured virtuoso, feeling a personally deep kinship with the genius that suffers greatly at the hands of society but ultimately is memorialized as a saint of sensuality. Surpassing Byron himself in scope, Liszt christened his work Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo, equating posterity’s hagiographic judgment to be as vital as the lyricist’s very real human adversities.

The piece itself is extremely important in the history of music. Originally conceived as incidental to a play, it seeks on one level only to expand on the emotional content of its source material. However, by the time of its 1854 revision, the composer realized that he had created an entirely new genre, the symphonic poem, a bridge between merely descriptive program music and perceived “higher” forms of art. Influenced by the theories of aesthetician Adolph Bernhard Marx, whose oratorio Moses he mounted at Weimer, Liszt consciously strove to link his tone poetry to literature and painting in order to elevate his own art form to its proper place in the pantheon of modern thought (certainly before Beethoven, intellectuals regarded music as but a handmaiden). Further, this experimentation in sonic portraiture free from the bonds of sonata form (a term, coincidentally, coined by Marx) led to the expanded landscapes of Smetana and Dvořák, Strauss and Schoenberg, Grieg and Sibelius. Striving, along with Wagner and Berlioz, to create an integrated music of the future, Liszt, the glowingly leonine pianist, gazes superciliously down at conventional form and communicates instead sounds overheard through the ether of the immortals.

The music is divided into three sections. The lament contains just the hint of the Middle Eastern, a nod to the poet’s masterpiece Gerusalemme liberata, and passionately describes Tasso’s earthbound tortures. The lovely central segment, meant to convey the relatively placid time spent at the Ferrara court, is a graceful minuet and the truest example of this composer’s love of all things Italian. The final deification looks forward to Liszt’s own conversion from sinner to aspirant. In fact, at the end of his life, the man now as committed to religion as he had once been to poetry and installed once again at the Villa d’Este, revisited the old story and composed Le triomphe funebre du Tasse which, when compared to tonight’s original, expresses the entire journey of this complex man in microcosm: the unbridled emotion of corporeal youth is supplanted by a far more overwhelming love for the creator.