The Bells of Strasburg: Liszt’s Forgotten Cantata

cathedrale strasbourg

In Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1851 poem, The Golden Legend, a storm rages as Lucifer and a host of demonic spirits (Powers of the Air) try to tear down the cross from the spire of Strasburg Cathedral. Ultimately, Lucifer is defeated by the ringing of the Gothic cathedral’s bells, which summon saints and guardian angels.

This dramatic poem was the inspiration for Franz Liszt’s 1874 cantata, The Bells of Strasburg Cathedral. The work for baritone soloist and mixed chorus was dedicated to Longfellow, whom Liszt had met six years earlier. It’s set in two sections: an opening prelude, Excelsior (in reference to another Longfellow poem) and The Bells which opens with Lucifer’s furious invocation, “Hasten! Hasten! O ye Spirits!”

The Bells of Strasburg has remained remarkably obscure. It requires large forces and doesn’t fit neatly into the category of opera or sacred music. As in the Faust Symphony, Liszt pushes the harmonic envelope. Wagner heard The Bells just before he started work on the opera Parsifal. His reaction to Liszt’s cantata was luke warm, but elements of The Bells found their way into Parsifal. Listen to the Prelude to Parsifal and then compare its opening with the ascending opening line of The Bells of Strasburg Cathedral:

In the 1880s, Arthur Sullivan wrote his own Longfellow-inspired cantata, The Golden Legend. Listen to an excerpt here.

The Bells of Geneva and Rome

Following my recent Christmas Eve bell post, I started thinking about music influenced by the sound of bell ringing. Rachmaninov’s choral Symphony, The Bellsbased on Edgar Allan Poe’s poem and the powerful C-sharp minor preludeThe Bells of Moscow come to mind.

Franz Liszt wrote at least two pieces for piano which suggest bells. Liszt’s atmospheric Ave Maria is nicknamed “The Bells of Rome.” The opening of this piece emerges with a Schubert-like purity.

Here is a performance by Stephen Hough:

Here is the nocturne, The Bells of Geneva, from the first of a set of three Suites for Solo Piano by Liszt. The performance is by Lazar Berman. A caption form Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is included in the score:

I live not in myself, but I become / Portion of that around me

In Terra Pax

Take a break from the holiday hubbub and spend a few minutes listening to In Terra Pax (“And on earth, peace”), the beautiful Christmas cantata by English composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). You might be reminded of the lush, layered string writing of Ralph Vaughan Williams. There are also moments in the piece which may have influenced John Rutter. Get a detailed introduction of the piece here and here.

Written in 1954, this was one of Finzi’s last pieces. The opening motive was inspired by English church bells:

Part 1:

Part 2:

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Finzi sets part of Robert Bridges’s poem, Noel: Christmas Eve 1913:

[quote]A frosty Christmas Eve when the stars were shining
Fared I forth alone where westward falls the hill,
And from many a village in the water’d valley
Distant music reach’d me peals of bells aringing:
The constellated sounds ran sprinkling on earth’s floor
As the dark vault above with stars was spangled o’er.
Then sped my thoughts to keep that first Christmas of all
When the shepherds watching by their folds ere the dawn
Heard music in the fields and marveling could not tell
Whether it were angels or the bright stars singing.
Now blessed be the tow’rs that crown England so fair
That stand up strong in prayer unto God for our souls
Blessed be their founders (said I) an’ our country folk
Who are ringing for Christ in the belfries to-night
With arms lifted to clutch the rattling ropes that race
Into the dark above and the mad romping din.
But to me heard afar it was starry music
Angels’ song, comforting as the comfort of Christ
When he spake tenderly to his sorrowful flock:
The old words came to me by the riches of time
Mellow’d and transfigured as I stood on the hill
Heark’ning in the aspect of th’ eternal silence.[/quote]

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Elegy for Violin and Piano, Op. 22[/typography] 

As a bonus, here is Daniel Hope playing Finzi’s Elegy for Violin and Piano: