‘Have you ever been to Venice? Have you ever glided on the sleepy waters in a black gondola down the length of the Grand Canal or along the banks of the Giudecca?… Have you seen the moon cast its pale rays on the leaden domes of old St Mark’s?…’
Obviously I didn’t write that; Liszt did, in a public letter to Heine, published as an article in the Gazette Musicale, 8 July 1838. ‘I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs’ starts the letter, quoting from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which Byron completed in Venice. Arriving with Marie d’Agoult in late March 1838, Liszt was clearly captivated by the city, writing engagingly about it in articles which appeared in instalments in L’Artiste.
Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli, consisting of three pieces in its revised version, is a supplement to the Italian Année. The first piece, Gondoliera, is based on a song by Perucchini, La Biondine in Gondoletta; the second, Canzone, is based on Nessun Maggior Dolore, from Rossini’s Otello, also a gondolier’s song, and the third piece, Tarantella, originally Tarantelles Napolitaines, is based on themes by Guillaume Louis Cottrau.
The original version of Venezia e Napoli had four pieces. The first, a Lento, quoted a song which Liszt heard sung by a gondolier to words from the epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata by Torquato Tasso. Tasso fired Liszt’s imagination, and that of many others, too; Goethe wrote a play about him, Byron a poem, many composers – including Rossini – based operas on him or his poetry, artists painted him, or scenes/characters from his writings. Liszt used the gondolier’s song as the basis of his symphonic poem, Tasso, which started life as an overture to Goethe’s play about the poet, performed at Weimar. In his preface to Tasso, Liszt mentions Byron’s poem as an influence, and writes:
‘Tasso loved and suffered at Ferrara, he was avenged at Rome, and even today lives in the popular songs of Venice. These three moments are inseparable from his immortal fame. To reproduce them in music, we first conjured up the great shade as he wanders through the lagoons of Venice even today…’
Byron’s shade was also wandering through the lagoons of Venice; Liszt visited Byron’s house, and once travelled in a gondola steered by a man who had ferried Byron about, fifteen years earlier. The gondolier quoted verses by Byron and told Liszt news of Byron’s mistress, Theresa Guiccioli. Liszt, Tasso and Byron – a heady Venetian combination.
Liszt’s articles about Venice appear in ‘An Artist’s Journey’, translated and annotated by Charles Suttoni.
Here is a curiosity – Hofmann playing Liszt’s Tarantella, from a piano roll.