There are four pieces associated with the death of Wagner, the contemporary composer whom Liszt admired above all others, despite the sometimes serious difficulties in their personal relationship. Liszt stayed with Wagner at the Palazzo Vendramin on the Grand Canal at the end of 1882, where he had a premonition that Wagner would die in Venice, and that, therefore, his body would be carried by a funeral gondola. The music which he wrote (La lugubre gondola
is usually the preferred title) is a transformation of the shape of a barcarolle, with harmony so original that the sense of tragedy is exceptionally desolate. Liszt later revised and extended the work, altering the metre from 6/8 to 4/4, without losing either the rocking of the boat or the plainting of the melodic line, but the second version is painted in more powerful colours than the first (Liszt also produced versions for violin or cello and piano). The comfortless piece which Liszt composed upon hearing that Wagner had died, R W—Venezia
, is almost as violent as Unstern!
but for the obvious reason of personal anguish. The deliberate echoes of Wagnerian grandeur are destroyed in a great dissonant cry. A little later, on the day that would have been Wagner’s seventieth birthday, Liszt composed the tiny elegy At Richard Wagner’s Grave
, which he opens with the theme of Excelsior!
, the first part of his choral work The Bells of Strasbourg Cathedral
which Wagner had used to open Parsifal
. Turning the compliment about, Liszt’s piece ends with a hushed recollection of the bell motif from Wagner’s opera. This piece, which also exists for organ or for string quartet and harp, remained unpublished for decades.
from notes by Leslie Howard © 1991