In the contemplative lyricism of Liszt and Wagner

To celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Franz Liszt …

In 2004, I was given the opportunity to record a disc with all that Liszt wrote or transcribed for cello. Little in amount, but some extremely deep and extremely inspired pages, composed mostly in the last years of his life.

The biographer of Liszt, Lina Ramann, wrote in her diary in March 1883 a sentence stating that Liszt could have written countless elegies, since his existence was nothing but a vast elegy. His two Elegies for cello (1875 and 1877) and Romance oubliée (1880) reflect this contemplative and collected state of a serene man approaching death. We know that Liszt was a close friend of Wagner, to the point that he stayed at his home in Venice, in 1882, until the death of his host.

Being a cellist of the Paris Opera Orchestra since 2006, I had the chance to deepen my knowledge of Wagner’s work « from inside ». And every time I tell myself: but of course ! And I realize that Liszt and Wagner were two musicians sharing the same sensitivity and how much they have influenced each other, each with its own music and own tools.
Orpheus, Liszt’s symphonic poem (which was transcribed by Saint-Saens for violin, cello and piano) was written in 1854. Wagner’s Siegfried was begun in 1857, but the end of the second act and the third act were completed only in 1871 (after the composition of the Meistersinger and Tristan, thereby causing a sudden style change in the score). Each time we perform it at the Opera, the pages when Brünnhilde awakes inevitably remind me the introduction and the final chords of Orpheus. Liszt himself transcribed for violin, cello and piano the Vallée d’Obermann (First Year of pilgrimage -1948 to 54), whose contemplative and passionate lyricism relates to some pages of Tristan and Isolde (1857 to 1859 ). Let’s mention too Liszt’s transcription of the romance « O mein holder Abendstern, » sung by Wolfram von Eschenbach in Tannhäuser (1845), itself transcribed by Leslie Howard for cello and piano, which, paradoxically, is closer to the original, since the cello section echo the baritone in Wagner’s opera …
And what about this strange premonition : in December 1882, Liszt composed the Lugubre Gondola. Three months later, this is an actual gondola that carries by the Grand Canal Wagner’s body for his final journey to Bayreuth. The second version for piano (The Lugubre Gondola II) was written after the death of Wagner – probably in 1885 – and right after, the version for cello and piano. We hear many augmented or disminished intervals, which are also to be found in two other pieces Liszt composed in memory of Wagner : RW-Venezia and Am Grabe Richard Wagners, whose initial pattern (given to the cello in the transcription Liszt made for harp and string quartet) is very similar to the original theme of Parsifal‘s Prelude !

What is my point ? But nothing ! Everything has been said of Wagner and Liszt and I do not pretend to have something new here. But if there is a strong link between these two giants, the instrument that I have the chance to play seems more than ever to be the ambassador which allows the lyricism of Wagner to join that of Liszt. And vice versa.

Alexis Descharmes