Schott Music

Skip to Main Content »


Work of the Week – Franz Liszt: Sardanapalo

Franz Liszt’s legacy as a composer is dominated by his virtuosic piano works and evocative symphonic poems. By contrast, the composer’s theatrical pieces remain relatively unknown despite a wealth of evidence, in the form of fragments and compositional sketches intended for his assistant Joachim Raff, that suggest opera was never far from his mind. The most developed of these are Liszt’s sketches for his opera Sardanapalo, which have been painstakingly reconstructed by musicologist, David Trippet. On 9 April 2019, Trippett’s reconstruction will be performed in concert in Novi Sad, Serbia.

At the beginning of the 1840s, Franz Liszt began to approach the idea of creating an opera. The composer consulted works by Goethe, Dumas, and Dante before eventually settling on Byron’s 1821 tragedy, Sardanapalus. By 1850 he had begun work on the first act with a libretto created by an anonymous Italian writer. Unfortunately, the text for the remainder of the opera proved problematic and remained largely unfinished.

The subject of Liszt’s opera centers on the Eponymous King Sardanapalo who would be the last king of Assyria. A king who enjoyed the love of his mistress, Mirra, much more than his duties, he is nevertheless convinced to go to war by his advisor, the statesman, Beleso. Ultimately the war is lost in the later incomplete acts, and in his defeat, Sardanapalo kills himself and Mirra by burning them both using spices and perfumes.

Franz Liszt: Sardanapalo – Impressing, reconstructed opera fragment

Liszt’s sketches for the first act consist of near complete voice parts and an accompanying particella which has allowed David Trippett to produce his completion in a way which closely resembles the composer’s original intention.

These gaps and the various forms of shorthand are not really that surprising when you consider he was writing this manuscript for his eyes only, i.e. he knew what he meant, and his musical memory was phenomenal; he only needed to notate what he felt wasn’t obvious. Unpicking this compositional process, and reverse-engineering the moments of creative decision making, if you like, has been utterly fascinating. – David Trippett

The upcoming performance of Sardanapalo will be performed by the orchestra of the Serbian National Theatre under the direction of Gianluca Marcianò. The work received its world premiere in August 2018, with the Staatskapelle Weimar the orchestra once conducted by the composer, alongside conductor, Kirill Karabits, soprano Joyce El-Khoury, tenor Airam Hernández and baritone Oleksandr Pushniak.


Photo: Eugène Delacroix – The Death of Sardanapalus (1827/1828)