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Critical Reconstruction of Liszt’s Opera, Sardanapalo, Has Been Published

Liszt started composing Sardanapalo (based on Lord Byron’s tragedy, Sardanapalus) in 1845. This Italian opera was to help Liszt attain great status as a European composer, but he abandoned the project halfway through. After 170 years of lying dormant, the score was critically reconstructed by David Trippett (University of Cambridge) following its rediscovery.
A page of Liszt's draft to Sardanapalo. Klassik Stiftung Weimar, GSA 60 / N4

Liszt could only begin composing in early 1850, as he had a lot of trouble with obtaining a libretto. The unnamed librettist was an Italian poet and refugee living in Paris under the protection of Cristina Belgiojoso. His libretto survives as underlay in the N4 sketchbook and has been critically reconstructed by Marco Beghelli (University of Bologna), with assistance from Francesca Vella (University of Cambridge) and David Rosen (Cornell University).

Liszt composed nearly all of the music for Act 1 in the form of an annotated piano-vocal score in the N4 sketchbook. The manuscript was always thought to be fragmentary and partially illegible, but it was finally deciphered to international fanfare in March 2017.

Sardanapalo is Liszt’s only mature opera. It features three solo roles and a chorus of concubines. Liszt’s music offers an intensely melodic style, with elements from Bellini and Meyerbeer alongside glimmers of Wagner.

Lord ByronThe opera sets Byron’s tragedy about war and peace in ancient Assyria: the last King, effeminate in his tastes, is drawn to wine, concubines and feasts more than politics and war; his subjects find him dishonourable (a ‘man queen’) and military rebels seek to overthrow him, but are pardoned, for the King rejects the ‘deceit of glory’ built on others’ suffering; this leads only to a larger uprising, the Euphrates floods its banks, destroying the castle’s main defensive wall, and defeat is inevitable; the King sends his family away and orders that he be burned alive with his lover, amid scents and spices in a grand inferno. As Byron put it: ‘not a mere pillar formed of cloud and flame, but a light to lessen ages.’ For his part, Liszt told a friend that his finale ‘will even aim to set fire to the entire audience!’

A research documentary about the critical reconstruction is here, and further background information on the project is available here.

The piano-vocal score of Sardanapalo is published by Editio Musica Budapest, and the orchestral material is available on hire from Universal Music Publishing Editio Musica Budapest.

Sardanapalo: World Premiere Trailer
Abandoned Liszt Opera Brought to Life
The Full Research Story by David Trippett
"Like Beethoven’s aborted opera Macbeth or Mendelssohn’s Lorelei, Liszt’s endeavours have garnered scholarly interest principally for reasons of curiosity and melancholy. Why were they abandoned? What have we lost? The situation has lent Liszt’s foray into Franco-Italian opera a split status: either a curious missed opportunity or a puzzling, apparently false step by an aspiring composer soon to find firmer ground in the progressive agenda of instrumental programme music." (full article here)
           (pictured: David Trippett)