Franz Liszt

The Bells of the Strasbourg Cathedral, S.6

1. Preludio (Excelsior)
2. The Bells

One of Liszt’s most in­gen­ious and com­pelling works is also one his least known. The Bells of the Strasbourg Cathe­dral is based on two poems by American Henry Wad­sworth Longfellow. The first is Excelsior!, about a young man carrying a banner with the word “Excelsior!” through the Alps; after valiant struggles he freezes to death.
    The second poem was “The Spire of the Stras­burg Cathedral,” Part II of “The Golden Legend,” from Longfellow’s epic Christus: A Mystery. Longfellow based “The Spire” on a Medieval tale that recounts Lucifer’s attempt to destroy the famous belltower of the Cathedral of Our Lady in Strasbourg, France.
    The poem is a melodrama with three main characters: Lucifer, sung by the baritone soloist, who besieges first the cathedral’s bells, then the crypt and altars; the Powers of the Air, sung by the sopranos, altos, and tenors; and, finally, the bells themselves, sung by the basses. Liszt tagged on a short Latin hymn at the end of Longfellow’s poem, which is sung by the full choir and meant to portray the victorious angels. Each time the consecrated bells sing, Lucifer, humiliated and prostrate, is forced to withdraw
    Longfellow knew of Liszt’s music as early as 1840, hearing various of his piano works in the salons of New England friends. Longfellow made his final voyage to Europe in 1868, by which time he was something of a national hero. Many of Long­fellow's poems formed the chief poetic diet of thousands of A­meri­cans and he was renowned as a distinguished scholar and re­mark­able linguist. Indeed, he made the first English trans­lation of Dan­te’s Divine Co­medy in America. time the con­se­cra­ted bells sing, Lucifer is forced to with­draw—humiliated and pros­trate.
    George Peter Alexander Healy, a widely known A­mer­ican painter living in Rome, had made a portrait of Liszt; Longfellow saw and admired it and asked his friend Healey if a meeting with Liszt might be arranged. Healy complied by inviting Liszt to dinner; Healy and Longfellow also visited Liszt in his monastic quarters in the monastery of the Madonna del Rosario on the outskirts of Rome. An elaborate dinner party was arranged, which was attended by some of Rome’s most notable personalities.


    As was often his custom, Liszt played the piano for the guests to great acclaim. Liszt eventually took Long­fellow to meet his longtime companion Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein at her dwelling near the Santa Francesca Ro­mana. It was Carolyne, in fact, who first suggested to Liszt that he set the Pro­logue to The Golden Legend. She presented Liszt with a German translation of The Bells on Christ­mas day 1873. After continued prodding by Carolyne, Liszt finished the prelude (based on Excelsior!) and The Bells in January 1874 while spending the winter in Buda­pest. It was sub­se­quently published by Liszt’s longtime publisher, J. Schu­berth & Co. in Leipzig. The manuscript, which is in the hand of a copyist and contains emendations by Liszt, is held in the Liszt Museum in Weimar.

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Example 1. Latin hymn “Te deum” showing the three notes that Liszt used for the thematic material in “Excelsior!” and “The Bells.” It is also the melody that the bells sing to vanquish Lucifer.

A master of thematic transformation, Liszt frequently took a fragment of plainchant and from the short motive would de­rive an entire work. Liszt chose four notes (Ex. 1) from the Latin hymn “Te deum” as the basis of both the “Excelsior!”and “The Bells.” Example 2 shows the chant on which the hymn is based.

Example 2 . “Te deum” plainchant

    From these three pitches, Liszt creates the opening melody of “Excelsior!” (Ex. 3) He then takes that melody and fashions from it the entire prelude, which is grandiose and matches well the upward striving of Longfellow’s young hero in “Excelsior!” A contemplative middle section sung by the mezzo-soprano soloist is bracketed by powerful orchestral and choral musical exclamations. Liszt scored “Excelsior!” for both SATB and TTBB chorus, and even advised the conductor that the entire prelude could be performed by the orchestra alone.

Example 3. Opening melody of “Excelsior!” based on the Te deum

    Liszt closely follows the extreme emotional contrasts of Longfellow’s poem, demonstrating remarkable skill in declaiming the English text, which he barely understood. Although he never wrote a mature opera, Liszt did write operatic music; “The Bells” displays his considerable dramatic abilities as it successfully captures the unsettled, terrifying mood of Longfellow’s poem. It is rhythmically complex, harmonically advanced, with a clear, concise structure, and deserves many more performances than it has had since it was first performed in 1875.

"Stabat mater dolorosa" from Christus


Liszt received the initial inspiration for Christus while working in Weimar as the Grand Ducal Director of Music Extraor­di­na­ry, and completed it in 1866 in Rome. Liszt hoped that his sacred music would “express religious absorption, Cath­olic devotion and exaltation…Where words cannot suffice to con­vey the feeling, music gives them wings and transfigures them.”
    Christus is in three parts: Christmas Oratorio, a collection of scenes from the life of Christ, and Passion and Resurrection. The first part, the Christmas section, is based on Latin hymns and is pastoral in character. The Beatitudes opens the se­cond part of the work and was written in 1855. The third part begins with the "Tristis est anima mea" (My soul is sad) for baritone and orchestra. Next comes the "Stabat mater," followed by "O Filii et Filiæ" (O Sons and Daughters) and "Resurrexit," which closes this powerful and monumental work.
    The Latin hymn Stabat mater figures prominently in both the Via crucis and Christus. Liszt divides the lengthy hymn (ten stanzas of six lines each, written by the Italian poet Jacopone da Todi—author of Respighi’s Lauda per la Natività del Signore) into two main sections. Following the outline provided in the poem, Liszt begins a quasi re­ca­pi­tu­lation with stanza seven: “Make me weep lovingly with you To suffer with the crucified As long as I will live.”
    Overall there are ten major themes in this movement, most of which are derived from the Stabat mater melody. Liszt takes this straightforward Roman plainsong and from it weaves an entire half-hour musical drama. In addition to the highly programmatic nature of Via crucis—a virtual musical tableau—listeners can find musical dramatics in the Stabat Mater. Liszt opens it and commences the re­ca­pi­tu­lation with the alto solo singing the plainsong accompanied only by clarinets—a doleful effect indeed. Again the scoring of the sections “Fix the stripes of the crucified” and “Lest I burn by flames enkindled” suggest martial ideas, complete with dotted, gallop-like figures and plenty of loud brass.
    No stranger to rhetoric in music, Liszt maximizes the musical figure called appoggiatura found in the plainsong. Sounding like a sigh, this rhetorical device has figured in music from before Bach through modern times. The combination of these figures with careful alternation of soloists and chorus produces a choral symphonic movement that leads the listener through the penitential nature of the poem to its redemptive end. Drawing on his love of whole tones, Liszt closes out the movement with downward chordal progressions of whole steps that, incongruously, has the opposite aural effect: Listeners experience a sense of harmonic ascension—leading the penitent, listener and performer alike to the glorious paradise that Liszt so faithfully envisioned.

Via Crucis, S.53

Vexilla Regis
1. Jesus is condemned to death
2. Jesus takes up his cross
3. Jesus falls the first time
4. Jesus meets his grieving mother
5. Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus
6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
7. Jesus falls the second time

8. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
9. Jesus falls the third time
10. Jesus is stripped of his garments
11. Jesus is nailed to the cross
12. Jesus dies on the cross
13. Jesus is taken down from the cross
14. Jesus is laid in the tomb

Via crucis, which dates from 1878–79, is one of Liszt’s most interesting sacred works. The texts of the fourteen move­ments, correlated to the Roman Catholic "Stations of the Cross," were compiled by Liszt’s fiancée—Princess Sayn-­Wittgenstein. The work is harmonically austere and it effectively breaks down traditional notions of harmonic theory. Using whole tone scales and augmented triads, Liszt paints an aural picture of each station. Opening with the Latin hymn Vexilla regis, he points to the central dramatic role of the cross. He also includes fragments of the sacred hymn Ave crux, spes unica throughout the work.
    Liszt ef­fec­tively employs the organ as a sur­rogate orchestra, providing great latitude in choosing sounds for each movement; the clues, though, are definitely included in the score. In Station 2, where Jesus takes up his cross, the slow, ponderous, and heavy quarter note rhythm denotes the plodding footsteps of Jesus as he begins his sad journey.
    Later, when Jesus encounters Simon of Cyrene in Station 5, Liszt employs a different kind of rhythmic pattern—stumbling—­emphasized by off-beat syncopation. Above this tripping motive is a plaintive solo voice, haunting in its pain and loneliness. After an interlude in which Simon comforts Jesus, the steady rhythmic pattern returns, indicating that Simon has taken up Jesus’ cross.
    Interestingly, in both sections where the cross is being carried (at least aurally) there is a curious compositional device: a long cantus firmus-like motive. On first hearing, one could hardly distinguish it from any plainsong; careful inspection, however, reveals that the motive is the famous B-A-C-H motive. (In German musical nomenclature the note B is represented by the letter H.)
    Indeed, that the motive is sounded upside-down may be an allusion to the legend of the upside-down crucifixion of St. Peter, with Liszt perhaps referring to Bach as the musical equivalent of the first pope.
    The entirety of Via crucis is filled with similar imagery: the use of martial figures for the arrival of the centurions before the actual crucifixion; Liszt’s use of chromatically descending figures as Jesus is undressed; the harsh hammerlike chords when Jesus is nailed to the cross. And finally, in the last movement, as Jesus is carried to his tomb, Liszt again uses the off-beat rhythmic motive from Station 5 to accompany the final singing of Ave crux, spes unica. The mourners stumble towards the tomb with the dead Jesus and this harmonically forward-looking work closes as it began: with Liszt’s musical and spiritual veneration of the cross.


©2022–2023 David Friddle