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

The Eighteenth Variation

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)

Last week we heard a sample of music inspired by Niccolò Paganini’s solo violin Caprice No. 24, which included Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43. Let’s return to the Rachmaninov and “drop the needle” at one of its most memorable moments, the Eighteenth Variation.

This stunningly beautiful melody seems far removed from Paganini’s original bouncy theme in A minor, but it actually develops from the motivic seed of Paganini’s first five notes (the top line in the example below). Rachmaninov begins by inverting the motive, or turning it upside down (the bottom line). Next, it’s transformed from A minor to D-flat major…a completely different emotional world. Pianist Stephen Hough demonstrates this evolution here.

The restless and expansive melody moves away from home, continuing to reach higher, until it arrives at a surprise climactic chord which forces a resolution. Listen to the harmonic tension and occasional dissonance in the lines under the melody. A lot of the Eighteenth Variation’s drama is created by these voices.

This performance is from Valentina Lisitsa’s 2012 recording with the London Symphony and conductor Michael Francis. Also listen to a classic recording of Arthur Rubinstein accompanied by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony.

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Variation 18)

 

Paganini’s Catchy Tune

Niccolò Paganini
Niccolò Paganini

It’s a simple and catchy melody…so memorable and ripe for development that, for over 200 years, composers haven’t been able to stop using it as the inspiration for an unending stream of variations. Set in A minor, the theme of Niccolò Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 bounces between tonic and dominant (scale degrees I and V), before entering a downward sequence which brings the melody home. A series of variations follow, which almost push the violin, and the violinist, to their limit. 

With Paganini, the age of the dazzling virtuoso rock star was born. Soloists such as Paganini and Franz Liszt became larger-than-life heroes, mesmerizing audiences in Europe’s new public concert halls. Written between 1805 and 1809, Paganini’s 24 Caprices are a series of short, unaccompanied virtuoso miniatures. Each caprice features a unique technical challenge, from flying ricochet bowing, to left hand pizzicato, to fingered octaves and multiple stops. Caprice No. 24 is the collection’s electrifying finale.

Let’s start by listening to the catchy theme and variations which have inspired so many composers. Notice how many far-reaching variations spring from Paganini’s theme and the distinct atmosphere created by each variation. Consider the uniquely fun spirit surrounding a musical theme and variations. It’s as if the composer is saying, “Look what I can do!” Each musical adventure seems to eclipse the last, while, like jazz, it’s all based on the same blueprint or musical DNA.

Here is Caprice No. 24 played by Ilya Kaler:

Liszt’s Grandes études de Paganini

While Paganini expanded the technical capabilities of the violin, Franz Liszt set out to revolutionize piano technique. In 1838 he published a collection of “studies” based on Paganini Caprices. Beyond the obvious virtuoso fireworks, the music exhibits a striking harmonic inventiveness. Listen to the almost demonic fifth variation (1:55), which would sound at home in a contemporary film soundtrack.

Here is Etude No. 6 performed by Jerome Rose:

Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Paganini

In 1863 Johannes Brahms wrote his own Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 35. Like Liszt, Brahms intended these variations to be “studies,” focusing on a variety of aspects of piano technique. He presented them in two books.

One of Brahms’ favorite compositional techniques is to shift our perception of the downbeat, causing us to become momentarily “lost”. Listen carefully and you’ll hear fairly shocking examples of this rhythmic complexity (3:31). Brahms also begins to move away from Paganini’s established harmonic blueprint into increasingly adventurous territory (4:55, 7:28, 8:47, 15:11, 20:09). The original motives are fragmented, turned upside down and re-harmonized. Suddenly new and strikingly different melodies and harmonies emerge.

Brahms achieves an amazing sense of drama in this piece. At times, it’s easy to hear distinct characters coming to life in the voices. Listen for conversations which take place between these voices, low and high.

Here is Andrea Bonatta:

Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

The most famous piece inspired by Caprice No. 24 is Sergei Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, written in 1934. Rachmaninov was the piano soloist at the premiere in Baltimore in November, 1934. The Philadelphia Orchestra was conducted by Leopold Stokowski. You can hear Rachmaninov’s 1934 recording here.

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a musical romp, incorporating all of the fun and virtuosity associated with a theme and variations, but also evoking a wide range of expression. The piece exudes a spirit of humor, from the simultaneously ferocious and comic opening bars, to the sly musical wink at the end. Rachmaninov throws us off guard, first presenting the first variation, a bare bones outline of the theme with the melody stripped away, and then Paganini’s original theme in the violins. In Variation VII the Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”) chant from the medieval Mass of the Dead emerges (3:29). Composers from Berlioz and Mahler to George Crumb have quoted the Dies Irae, but it seems to have had special significance for Rachmaninov, who returned to it in several compositions.

The famous 18th variation (15:05), which inverts the original theme and transposes it to D-flat major, is one of the piece’s most significant moments. As a musical event, it is set up by the two preceding variations, which gradually take us into a tunnel of darkness and anticipation. Listen carefully to the tension and drama in the inner voices, under the 18 variation’s melody line.

Here is a recording with Nikolai Lugansky and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra:

Coda

There are many other pieces inspired by Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. Violinists from Eugene Ysaye to Nathan Milstein have put their own stamp on the music. In addition, listen to variations by Witold Lutoslawski, Benny GoodmanAndrew Lloyd Webber and a recent jazzy composition by Fazil Say.

La Folia

Suzuki violin students learn Arcangelo Corelli’s La Folia in Book 6. La Folia was a popular chord progression which many Renaissance and Baroque composers used as the foundation for variations and improvisation. It originated in the dance music of Portugal. Corelli’s ability to develop new music from this existing harmony might remind you of the way jazz musicians freely borrow today. It’s easy to see why composers found La Folia an endless source of musical inspiration. Listen to the drama of these eight chords as they move from minor to major (flat iii chord) and back.

Here is Henryk Szeryng performing La Folia by Corelli (1653-1713):

For another excellent performance, listen to this recording by Nathan Milstein.

Now, let’s compare what we just heard to this exhilarating and virtuosic version with authentic Baroque instruments. As you listen, consider the unique mood of each variation. Listen to the musical conversation between voices and the intricate way the parts fit together. Notice that the instruments are tuned slightly lower than what we’re used to in modern performances. Corelli expanded the technical possibilities of the violin and his music often revels in flashiness akin to a daredevil circus act. Audiences must have been awestruck by the first performances of this music:

If you’re interested in hearing how other composers approached La Folia, listen to these excerpts by Vivaldi, Scarlatti and Handel. Also enjoy Oscar Shumsky’s golden toned recording of Fritz Kreisler’s La Folia (part 1 and part 2). In contrast to the other versions, Kreisler’s harmonies are unabashedly Romantic. Sergei Rachmaninov wrote his own Variations on a Theme of Corelli for piano. Finally, check out this rock video by the Dueling Fiddlers.

La Folia is an example of an ostinato, or repeated bass line. To learn more about this type of music, visit my previous posts, The Art of the Ostinato and The Chaconne Across 300 YearsShare your thoughts in the thread below. Tell us what you heard in the music. Do you have a personal favorite among all the versions we heard?