The principal surviving manuscript of the whole work—itself a copyist’s fair copy—bears many signs of revision, and Liszt may have tinkered with it off and on. At some point he changed the first word of the title to Prolégomènes
(as if to say: preliminary observations about Dante), rewrote the coda, and altered many passages in chiefly minor details. A later version rewrites the whole piece extensively, and pastes over large sections or pastes discarded pages together, but this ‘third’ version is easily distinguished as being largely in Liszt’s hand, and being the obvious immediate precursor to the final text, and the final title is already employed for it. For our present purposes, the ‘second’ version includes all of the intermediate layers of fully worked-out revisions, even if they were achieved by degrees originally. Après une lecture du Dante—Fantasia quasi Sonata
is the title which clearly belongs to the extensive one-movement revision of the piece. Only at this stage is there any implication that there might be something specific in Dante that is referred to, although most speculation on the subject, beyond the general observation that Liszt describes the atmosphere of Inferno
to a nicety, is idle. This is a version which more nearly resembles the final one, and the final alterations may well have been made at the proof stage—the third version seems to have been the engraver’s manuscript for the fourth and final version—and the audible differences from the final text are sometimes quite striking, especially at the recapitulation of the grand melody which does duty for a ‘second subject’, and at a passage of eight bars of outrageous difficulty in the peroration—which Liszt struck out for the published version.
from notes by Leslie Howard © 1998