Fast-forward to August 1837. Liszt and Marie d’Agoult are crossing the Simplon Pass from Switzerland to Italy. They have visited their daughter Blandine, en route; she lives with a foster family. Marie is pregnant with their second child, who will be born on Christmas Eve and known as Cosima.
‘ We cross the rugged Simplon Pass whose angry chasms and marble blocks, entrenched since the beginning of the world, had forged a hero’s will. We remain silent and lower our eyes because we feel very small wherever Napoleon has left his trace.’ (Letter to Louis de Ronchaud, written in September 1837, published March 1838 in the Gazette Musicale.)
Liszt’s travels, artistically and geographically, are described in his letter-articles of the time, translated and annotated in Charles Suttoni’s ‘An Artist’s Journey’, from which these quotes are taken.
Napoleon was responsible for ordering the building of the road that crosses the pass in the early 1800’s. My interest in the journey is both musical and personal – we crossed from Switzerland to Italy via the same route a few years ago on a family holiday, in the relative comfort of a Renault Scenic. Liszt and Marie travelled by coach: ‘…I think I would be lacking in gratitude if I did not mention the coachman who took us from Geneva to Milan, as it is difficult to imagine entering Italy under more pleasant auspices. Exquisitely civil toward “Your excellencies”, always laughing and singing…Salvatore Bellatella is a paragon among coachmen. May heaven’s dew descend on the hay he feeds his consumptive horses! May Lombardy long resound with the echoes of his song’s gay refrain…’
The Italian Lakes and Milan are where Liszt and Marie were then based for some time. And in Milan is the Brera Gallery, its art collection founded by Napoleon in 1809…