Music with Ease > Classical Music > Concert Guide: Romantic Era > Cantata, "The Bells of Strasburg" (Liszt)
Cantata, "The Bells of Strasburg"
"Die Glocken des Strassburger Munsters" ("The Bells of Strasburg Cathedral") was written in 1874, and is dedicated to the poet Longfellow, from whose "Golden Legend" the composer took his theme for musical treatment. The work is written for baritone solo and mixed chorus, and is divided into two parts -- a short prelude which is entitled "Excelsior," andante maestoso, and in which this word is several times repeated by the chorus with gradually increasing power from piano to fortissimo; and "The Bells," which comprises the principal part of the work.
The second part opens with a massive introduction in which the bells, horns, and trumpets play an important part, leading up to the furious invocation of Lucifer ("Hasten! Hasten! O ye Spirits!"). Without a break comes the response of the spirits, first and second sopranos, altos, and tenors ("Oh, we cannot, for around it"), followed by the Latin chant of the bells sung by tenors and basses, with a soft tremolo accompaniment ("Laudo Deum verum!"). Again with increasing power Lucifer shouts his command ("Lower! Lower! Hover downward!"). As before, the chorus responds in a sweet, harmonious strain ("All thy Thunders here are harmless"), again followed by the slow and sonorous chant of the bells ("Defunctos ploro!"). Lucifer reiterates his command with constantly increasing energy ("Shake the Casements"). In its response this time the chorus is full of energy and impetuosity as it shouts with great power ("Oh, we cannot! the Archangel Michael flames from every Window"). The chant of the bells is now taken by the basses alone ("Funera plango!"). Lucifer makes his last appeal with all the strength that voice and orchestra can reach ("Aim your Lightings"). In the choral response ("The Apostles and the Martyrs wrapped in Mantles") the sopranos and altos are in unison, making with the first and second tenors a splendid effect. For the last time the first and second basses sing the chant of the bells ("Excito lentos!"). With no abatement of vigor the baffled Lucifer sounds his signal for retreat, and the voices reply, sopranos and altos in unison ("Onward! Onward! With the Nightwind"). As the voices die away, choir, organ, and orchestra join with majestic effect in the intonation of the Gregorian chant ("Nocte surgentes").