It is the Vaporetto Line 1 or Line 2 which you take, along the Grand Canal. Get off at the San Marcuolo stop, and wend your way through the narrow streets till you find the Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi; then imagine Liszt there, wearing his soutane, and members of the Wagner family: Richard, Cosima (Liszt’s daughter), the children, their tutors plus some domestic servants, who stayed here in the winter of 1882-1883. It is here in Venice that Wagner died.
Two gondoliers were hired for the duration of the Wagner family’s sojourn at the Palazzo; one would have had the duty of taking Liszt back along the canal to the railway station on January 13 1883, when he left for Budapest. Perhaps both were needed for the subsequent funeral procession in February, taking Wagner’s body and mourners along the same route to the same station, where a specially chartered train bore his body to Bayreuth.
Liszt had become obsessed with the water-borne funeral cortèges which he witnessed in Venice. Alan Walker tells us, in the third volume of his Liszt biography, that Liszt commented to Princess Marie Hohenlohe: ‘The oars of a Gondole Lugubre beat on my brain. I have tried to write them and had to rewrite them twice, whereupon other lugubrious things came back to mind…’
Wagner was mortally ill in Venice; he often had heart spasms, and died of a heart attack. Did Liszt have a premonition of Wagner’s death, and of his final gondola journey? Liszt composed a remarkable piece named La Lugubre Gondola while staying at the Palazzo Vendramin. It is unremittingly dark and chromatically tortured, conveying the underlying swell of the water, and with a tolling bell in the bass.
Another piece by the same name has a questioning recitative at the opening; it later offers some hope in the radiant key of F sharp major in the middle section; but agonized chords towards the end plunge us into darkness again. A plaintive, lone voice gradually disappears at the conclusion. A version for cello and piano gives the recitative to the cello; a very telling choice of instrument.
Photographs – Palazzo Vendramin by Carlo Naya – photographed in the 1870s
The Wagner family in 1881 in Bayreuth
Plaque commemorating Wagner’s death, Grand Canal, Venice