How different it was for Liszt when he first visited Venice as a young man many years before, aged twenty-seven.
‘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?…’
Liszt wrote this 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.
I am repeating myself; I wrote that introduction when discussing Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli in 2011. But the return to that post is intentional, as a prelude to a more detailed exploration of Gondoliera from that set of three pieces, comparing it to La Lugubre Gondola of Liszt’s final years.
Liszt’s descriptions of gondolas and their talented oarsmen are revealing: …’ a boat is passing beneath my windows just now. It carries musicians, and a man’s beautiful voice, accompanied by a chorus, is singing ‘La notte è bella.’… They are going to the Lido; I shout that we must follow them; we leap into my gondola…’ The song mentioned is by Perruchini, who wrote popular Venetian songs. It is his setting of ‘La Biondina in Gondoletta‘ which Liszt uses as the basis of Gondoliera. This video of the song ascribes it, however, to Mayr…
… but whoever wrote it captured the rhythmic rocking of the Barcarolle style; interestingly, Liszt casts this 1840 piece [it was published much later] in the same key as that most famous of pianistic gondolier ‘songs’ written in 1845/6, Chopin’s Barcarolle, also in F sharp major. The longer version of La Lugubre Gondola has a section in F sharp major too; and, as in La Lugubre Gondola, Gondoliera starts at a lower range, with an evocative introduction conveying the rhythm of the oars and the swell of the water; at the end there is a beautiful chordal sequence above a tolling bell.
The song is presented in different guises – as a melody in thirds, then up an octave, with differing LH accompaniments, and, at one point, above a trill played by thumb and second finger, before transferring to the LH while the RH pirouettes daintily above in arpeggio figures.
A lovely piece, and an effective contrast to Liszt’s 1883 gondola pieces. I look forward to performing them this year.
Liszt’s writings on Venice are published in ‘An Artist’s Journey’, translated and annotated by Charles Suttoni, published by The University of Chicago Press.