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

Le Corsaire at the Proms

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Let’s celebrate the end of the week with Hector Berlioz’s Le Corsaire Overture. The high voltage performance below, featuring Sir Mark Elder conducting the Manchester (UK)-based Hallé Orchestra, is from this past summer’s BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall.

You can take the significance of this overture’s name with a grain of salt. Written in 1844, it was first performed under the title, La tour de Nice. Then it was renamed Le corsair rouge after James Fenimore Cooper’s 1827 novel, The Red Rover and again renamed The Corsair after Lord Byron’s poem. Berlioz also published articles and provocative music criticism in the newspaper, journal Le Corsaire.

Le Corsaire starts off with a bang, instantly grabbing our attention with a swoosh of virtuosity. Like so much of Berlioz’s opium-influenced music, there’s something slightly schizophrenic and deranged about this overture. It keeps us off balance, harnessing the power of the unexpected. Rhythmically, it seems on the edge of spinning out of control, with notes frequently appearing on the “wrong” beats. Notice the strange, parallel harmony (1:31) and sudden interjections (3:58).

Berlioz expanded the orchestra (trombones and tuba, for example) and mixed instruments in bold and innovative new ways. In the passage beginning at 4:47, listen to the way the melody is passed between instruments. Also pay attention to the obsessive repeated rhythm in the strings (later picked up by the chirping woodwinds) and the unpredictable bass interjections. There’s a sudden new dimension to the sound as the cellos double the violins at 5:00, but like everything else in this overture, the new sound emerges and then, suddenly, it’s gone, like an opium-inspired vision.

It’s all resolved with an earth-shatteringly powerful exclamation point. Elder brings out the trumpets for this final chord. You’ll see them raise their bells for added volume.