Why did Liszt never finish the opera Sardanapalo?

In the beginning of our conversation, this renowned History of Music Professor talks about an opera performance in my home city with sparkling eyes and like a little boy standing in front of a huge Christmas tree. Although David Trippett has already given many interviews about the reconstruction of Sardanapalo, an unfinished Liszt opera that scholars held to be unperformable in the past, this might be the first that starts with such a beautiful appreciation of Budapest…

Why do you find this performance so important?

It is a true milestone for this music to be premiered in Budapest, at such a prestigious concert hall on the banks of the Danube, on Liszt’s birthday, and at the climax of the Liszt Fest. We can call this a kind of homecoming. Even though Liszt settled in Weimar in the late 1840s, he fell into a ‘trifurcated life’, living in Weimar, later also in Rome, but he never turned his back on Pest. He moved between these three centres quite freely. For me, his cultural identity is spread between them, particularly the cities of Pest (later Budapest) and Weimar. I find it a very astute gesture for the Liszt Fest to invite the Staatskapelle Weimar, because it brings together these two great Liszt cities. Budapest has such a rich musical culture, with the distinguished heritage of the Liszt Academy, the archives full of materials, the scholars and archivists who curate Liszt’s legacy, so to perform Sardanapalo here in this city is indeed of special importance.

Why did Liszt want to write an Italian opera in the first place?

He decided to compose an opera in the early 1840s. In the beginning he didn’t care whether it would be in Italian or French. In fact, he jokingly wrote in a letter: the first act should be in Italian, the second in French, and the third in German, to make a true European opera. Liszt was a great cosmopolitan, of course. Then he settled on Italian, but at this point he couldn’t have known that the problem with his project would be the libretto. He could read some Italian, took pleasure from reading Dante’s Divina Commedia in the original, and had an Italian secretary. But he wasn’t a native speaker and was never fluent, so he couldn’t easily judge the quality of a libretto text. He therefore split up the tasks regarding the libretto: he paid a French playwright, Félicien Mallefille, to produce a scenario in French, which a second writer would then versify in Italian.

This became was very problematic. First, Mallefille’s scenario arrived a whole year late. Liszt became frustrated, and eventually fired him. Twelve very important months were lost because of Mallefille’s delay (telling Marie d’Agoult: ‘I am absolutely itching to compose … il nostro Sardanapalo’) – no surprise that Liszt sent him „to the devil”. Then, his friend Princess Christina Belgiojoso found an Italian playwright living in exile in Paris. This writer produced a full scenario and versified Act I, which Liszt received on New Year’s Day 1847. He was delighted with it, and would eventually set it to music. But since he didn’t fully approve of Acts II and III when they arrived in 1848, he proposed some changes. We don’t know what happened after that. The playwright probably became embroiled in the First War of Italian Independence (1848-49) and may even have been killed. He definitely fell out of contact. Belgiojoso herself, the only contact, was highly preoccupied with the revolution at that time. It was a difficult situation for these people to communicate anyway, sending letters across Europe, and another important detail is that the Italian playwright was living under house arrest for political activity against the House of Habsburg. Belgiojoso didn’t even share his name, only calling him „my nightingale”. Liszt probably never knew his identity. In the end he may have abandoned this project because he never received the corrected libretto for Acts II and III.

In your academic article, you mentioned that Liszt did not want to write opera because he felt his friend Wagner to be “the” opera writer of the time.

Yes, that was undoubtedly part of it, alongside Wagner’s writings about opera and the questions about the future of Italian opera. However, it is true that Liszt believed in the modernisation of Italian opera. He wanted to create a new genre, calling it ‘musical drama’, long before the term was applied to Wagner. Liszt felt it was possible to update the traditions of solita forma found in Donizetti etc. – he planned to do this by using declamatory melody, by presenting three-dimensional character portraits, and by focussing on their psychological interiority, and so on. These means of modernisation were important to him, he wrote several essays on the topic, and – it seems – that’s what he tried in Sardanapalo: to demonstrate a future-orientated Italian opera that was categorically different from those of Donizetti and Bellini. Incidentally, Liszt admired Rossini greatly, especially Otello, for its portrait of characters. He once said that Rossini did for opera what Napoleon did to French society: modernised it, updated it. So Liszt felt he needed to do the same, even two decades after Rossini’s retirement in 1829.

During this whole process, was Liszt in Weimar?

Yes, he lived and worked primarily in Weimar. One of the clear messages that we get from his letters is that he wanted this opera to become proof of his ability as a composer. He wanted to change his public identity, to transition from a transcendental virtuoso – inventor of the solo piano recital, an unprecedented celebrity performer of his age, hero-worshipped by some – to a serious composer. He writes explicitly: composing an opera is the only way to enter the ‘musical guild’. You have to prove yourself in the genre of opera in order to be accepted. That’s why he looked at no fewer than twelve different subjects between 1841-45 before he eventually settled on the story of the last king of Assyria.

By the way, that story was highly topical in the 1840s. There was a French and then a British expedition to what is now Mosul in Northern Iraq, and the British explorers discovered the ancient city of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian empire. Suddenly this became a hot topic in Europe. Artefacts were plundered and taken to the British Museum and the Louvre, which further fuelled the fascination for the majesty and brutality of ancient Assyrian culture. Liszt’s opera sat in the middle of this: in 1849-1850 he composed the music for Act I, at exactly the same time as these artefacts were being taken and displayed, with several best-selling books published on the subject.

The figure of Sardanapalo is fictional but modelled upon Ashurbanipal II, the last king of Assyria. Lord Byron wrote his play Sardanapalus in 1821. Alongside Rossini, Byron was a figure Liszt greatly admired. He writes of ‘a burning, whimsical desire to meet him in a world in which we shall at last be strong and free’. He went to Britain in 1840 to visit Lord Byron’s former home, and in Venice he even met a gondolier who claimed to have guided Lord Byron around, telling Liszt about this memory. This was something like an obsession: Liszt, hero to many, also had his own heroes.

Due to the popularity of the historical subject, I’m sure that had Liszt completed the opera, it would have attracted great interest.

But he never finished this, nor any other opera later. Why did he change his mind about what makes a good composer?

One brief point of information: he did compose an opera when he was about fourteen – Don Sanche. It is an ambiguous subject for scholars because the manuscript was lost. Was it was all composed by Liszt or did he receive support by his musical tutor? We can’t prove it without the primary source. But your question – why didn’t he continue with another opera? – is important.

The first reason is that he felt that time was hostile to opera, largely because of the requirements of the libretto. All earlier operas, from the time of Gluck and Metastasio onwards, had rhyming, metrical text, which the genre maintained. But new requirements were added, he felt: you had to have interesting situations, carefully defined characters, something realistic, compelling, exciting, credible… so many requirements. Therefore, an excellent libretto was essential before starting the composition process. Liszt found this greatly inhibiting.

Another reason is that when planning his Italian opera, one of Liszt’s main motivations was to bring together great literature (Byron) with great music, and to prove that you could express poetic ideas through music. Of course, this is precisely the goal of symphonic poetry, a new genre that Liszt eventually created in the late 1840s, that is, at precisely the same time when he was still aiming to compose Sardanapalo. Symphonic poetry also draws on great literature, think of Hamlet, Mazeppa, or Orpheus, and it expresses the reaction of the reader to this literature through the music. Liszt was in control of everything in that genre: the reading of literature, the composition of the music, and that meant he could make progress. He couldn’t make progress when he had no control over the libretto, and had to fight irresponsible partners, while not knowing whether or not his librettist was a truly gifted wordsmith.

This interview proves that the research process never ends, there is always new information to take into account. Has this Act I changed since the premiere in 2018 due to new research findings?

There are still unanswered research questions. Such as the identity of the librettist, or where the texts for Acts II and III exist, in which archive, in whose private papers. Researchers may very well continue to explore this. Also, we will have a new score for Budapest. Since the world premiere in 2018 took place before the critical edition was published, little corrections have been made in the main score since then. And this is what we’re going to hear in Budapest: the fully corrected, final score. It will also have an impact on how the singers sing it, the orchestration, the accompanimental rhythm. I’m very curious to hear it in this version.

Soon I’m travelling to Budapest, to help with the rehearsal process, to see the premiere, and to give a few public talks. I’m so excited about this wonderful city, to see Müpa, the Liszt Academy, the recently renovated Opera House. Dear local music lovers – I’m looking forward to meeting you there!