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

Liszt’s Faust Symphony

Eugene Delacroix's painting, "Faust and Mephistopheles"
“Faust and Mephistopheles” by Eugene Delacroix

Forget Elvis. Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was the world’s first rock star. As a virtuoso pianist, Liszt toured Europe performing flashy and dazzling compositions such as the famous Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Following in the footsteps of Niccolò Paganini, Liszt helped to usher in the age of the romantic superstar concert artist. An atmosphere of almost supernatural ecstasy surrounded Liszt’s concerts. The hysteria of his fans, which included reports of women fainting and collecting locks of his hair, was known as Lisztomania. In 2008 the Alternative rock band Phoenix released this song and music video with references to Liszt’s rock star magnetism.

Even more significant and enduring was Franz Liszt’s contribution as one of the most innovative composers of the nineteenth century. His influence can be heard in Wagner, Mahler and beyond. He stretched tonality, creating atmospheric music which still sounds shocking and new.

Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt in 1858

Inspired by Goethe’s Faust drama, Franz Liszt wrote A Faust Symphony in Three Character Sketches in 1854. Hector Berlioz had just composed La Damnation de Faust which he dedicated to Liszt. Liszt returned the favor by dedicating his symphony to Berlioz. While Berlioz offered an operatic re-telling of the drama, Liszt’s music is a psychological exploration of the characters of Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles. Liszt developed a compositional technique known as thematic transformation in which a musical idea develops throughout the composition by undergoing various changes. Wagner used this technique in his operas, assigning each character a leitmotif. Thematic transformation also occurs throughout John Williams’s Star Wars film scores.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Faust[/typography]

Let’s start off by listening to the first movement of the Faust Symphony. Consider how the music evokes the character of Faust, from his gloomy daydreams, to his insatiable thirst for knowledge, to his immense appetite for the pleasures of life. At times, the music may seem schizophrenic, alternating between intense excitement and quiet melancholy. Pay attention to the haunting opening motive which uses all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. What atmosphere does this opening music create? Notice how this motive returns in various guises throughout the movement (6:13, 10:40, 15:59 and 25:58 for example).

Here is a really exciting 1960 studio recording by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic:

  1. Faust 0:00
  2. Gretchen 27:29
  3. Mephistopheles 48:19
  4. Final Chorus 1:04:12

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Did the opening motive make you feel lost, as if you were wandering through a slightly unsettling dream? The symphony is in C minor, but this motive’s chromaticism makes it impossible to get a sense of any key. It anticipates the twentieth century twelve tone music of Schoenberg, Berg and others. Maybe you also heard echoes of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (0:30-0:37) or Mahler’s symphonies (the stopped horns at 13:22), or a Bernard Herrmann film score (17:06).

In the first analysis of the Faust Symphony (from 1862), Richard Pohl suggests that the motives of first movement relate to “Passion, Pride, Longing, Triumph and Love.” (See the Introduction to the Dover score).

For me there are many aspects of this seldom heard piece which I find exciting: the ferocious string passages, the sudden and transformative modulation to C major at 20:13, Liszt’s use of relatively new additions to the orchestra such as harp, trombones and tuba. There are soaring, heroic moments like 11:44 (and 24:38 in the recapitulation) where trombones add a completely new dimension to the sound. At 25:06 the prominent use of trombones also evokes the instrument’s supernatural connotations. In the final bars of the movement there is something ominous about the descending and ascending chromatic line (25:58).

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Gretchen[/typography]

The second movement, in A-flat major, captures the innocence of Gretchen. Gradually Faust’s themes from the first movement creep in (beginning at 36:07) and eventually merge into a love duet.  In the introduction of the Dover edition of the score, Dr. Alan Walker writes:

[quote]The gentle simplicity of both Gretchen themes belies the fact that they will later become transformed into the “Redemption” motifs in the choral setting of the “Chorus Mysticus” [the final movement].[/quote]

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”] Mephistopheles[/typography]

Mephistopheles, or Satan, represents “the spirit of negation”, destruction rather than creation. In the third movement Liszt does not give Mephistopheles his own motives. Instead we hear Faust’s motives from the first movement mocked, caricatured and ultimately torn apart. Only the innocent Gretchen can withstand Mephistopheles’s power. Her themes remain intact (56:38), as we heard them in the second movement.

At the end of the third movement, notice the stunning falling chromatic harmonic sequence (beginning after 1:02:07). In the final measures Liszt again uses the solemn supernatural color of the trombones (1:03:25).

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Final Chorus[/typography]

Three years after completing the first three movements, Liszt added the climactic Final Chorus for male chorus. In the final measures, the entrance of the organ creates a new, expanded and transcendent sound world. This anticipates Mahler’s use of organ in the Second and Eighth Symphonies. The text is taken from Goethe’s Faust:

[quote]Everything transitory
is only an allegory;
what could not be achieved
here comes to pass;
what no one could describe,
is here accomplished;
the Eternal Feminine
draws us aloft.[/quote]