The old Thematisches Verzeichnis
of Liszt’s works, which appeared in two editions during the composer’s lifetime, mentions a solo piano version of the prelude to the Longfellow cantata Die Glocken des Strassburger Münsters
, S6 (1874), published by Schuberth. This publication does not seem to have been made, and no manuscript of a piano version survives, but the piece has been cited in all subsequent Liszt catalogues. The present writer hopes to have solved the mystery: the full score of the cantata bears a footnote on the first page of the music suggesting that the prelude could be performed without the voices as a separate orchestral piece. The hope was that, if the elusive piano and vocal score which Liszt prepared could be tracked down, a similar instruction might allow the piano to play the prelude alone. After some searching, a copy of the Klavierauszug
was located in the Library of Congress, and it happily revealed that the prelude could indeed be performed without the voices as a piano solo. Interestingly, the vocal score transposes the prelude from E flat in the orchestral version to E major, presumably entirely for the convenience of the pianist, but also establishing a connection with Liszt’s other piano pieces in E major inspired by his religious faith, such as the ‘Bells of Rome’ Ave Maria
(recorded on volume 7) or the second St Francis Légende
. The ending of the piece is slightly different from the orchestral version, too. All told, Liszt’s Excelsior!
exists for mezzo-soprano, mixed chorus or male chorus, and orchestra or piano, for orchestra, for solo piano, for piano duet, and for organ. Wagner knew the work well, and ‘borrowed’ (with very uncustomary acknowledgement) Liszt’s theme for the opening of Parsifal
, a circumstance remarked on by Liszt in the manuscript of his very sad little piece Am Grabe Richard Wagners
. In the cantata, Liszt contents himself with the repeated setting of the one word ‘Excelsior!’ from Longfellow’s Golden Legend
, reserving the second part of the cantata proper to set the text of the section ‘The Bells of Strasburg Cathedral’ in full. Not a word about ‘the banner with the strange device’ known to us all from Balfe’s famous parlour duet. But Longfellow happily accepted Liszt’s dedication.
from notes by Leslie Howard © 1995