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)