Elegies 1 & 2, La lugubre gondola 1 & 2 | Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten | Elegies 1 & 2



Pierre Soulages, 2013



Richard Jonathan

Richard Jonathan is the author of the literary novel Mara, Marietta: A Love Story in 77 Bedrooms

In this section I draw on the framework presented in The Elegy in Music – Part 1: A Fresh Perspective to offer my appraisal, as elegies, of ‘Elegie’ 1 & 2 & ‘La lugubre gondola’ 1 & 2 (Liszt), ‘Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten’ (Arvo Pärt) and ‘Elegie’ 1 & 2 (Bartók). The sections that follow this one provide an analysis of the pieces.



The Liszt pieces here exhibit the composer’s impeccable taste, the artist’s innate ability to convey emotion without emoting, feeling without sentimentality, woe without weepiness. To the generic form of the elegy the composer brings his character, that distillation of life experience that, here, takes the form of purified expression and poetic vision. However wistful, there is gravity in Liszt’s melodies; however funereal, there is vigilance in his rhythms. Never does the indignity of loss override the dignity of memory. Within its frame of feeling, the music ebbs and flows, an ‘art of time’ confronting the irreversibility of time. Music, writes Basil de Selincourt, is one of the forms of duration; it suspends ordinary time, and offers itself as an ideal substitute and equivalent. Music demands the absorption of the whole of our time-consciousness; our own continuity must be lost in that of the sound to which we listen. Our very life is measured by rhythm, by our breathing, by our heartbeats: these are all irrelevant, their meaning is in abeyance, so long as time is music. The beginning and the end of a musical composition are only one if the music has possessed itself of the interval between them and wholly filled it.1 The paradox of the musical elegy, then, is that in lamenting the irreversibility of time and the inevitability of death, it in fact ‘suspends ordinary time, and offers itself as an ideal substitute and equivalent’. The consummate skill with which Liszt manages the relations between tensions in these four elegies ensures that ‘the music has possessed itself of the interval between the beginning and the end [of each piece] and wholly fills it’. And thus it is that Liszt’s elegies, in stealing time from death, quite literally ‘give life’.


1 – Quoted in Susanne Langer, Feeling and Form (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953) pp. 110-11

Pierre Soulages, 2012



Paul Griffiths: Arvo Pärt’s music does not sound like anyone we are likely to meet. There is a great deal that something—what?—has forbidden it to say. Much that we know to be possible has been revoked, which places it in a very different category from music which may sound in some ways similar, but which was created with all the knowledge and experience available to its composers: plainsong, for example, or Notre Dame organum, or Vivaldi. Pärt’s music, however simple in substance, is complex in that it stands before us inexplicably tongue-tied. We may feel that we have nothing to say in return.1 I don’t know why Paul Griffiths, a brilliant musicologist, acutely responsive to a wide range of music, might ‘have nothing to say’ about an Arvo Pärt piece like ‘Cantus’. I, for my part, find the piece an excellent elegy, honouring Benjamin Britten via its sophistication and mourning his death via its simplicity. If Pierre Soulages’ paintings, as shown here, are a fine representation of ‘a good death’, so is ‘Cantus’. For me, Pärt’s complexity, here, is as simple as that.


1 – Paul Griffiths, Modern Music and After: Directions Since 1945 (London: Oxford University Press, 1995) pp. 312-13

Pierre Soulages, 2013



My interpretation of Bartók’s ‘Two Elegies’ draws on the background to their composition (presented below). I am struck by the life each elegy conveys, by the presence of these two pieces, as if the love affair nipped in the bud nevertheless gave rise to a rose. I am reminded of Hanna Segal’s theory of artistic creativity: All creation is really a re-creation of a once loved and once whole, but now lost and ruined object, a ruined internal world and self. It is when the world within us is destroyed, when it is dead and loveless, when our loved ones are in fragments, and we ourselves in helpless despair—it is then that we must re-create our world anew, re-assemble the pieces, infuse life into dead fragments, re-create life. Symbol formation is the outcome of a loss, it is a creative act involving the pain and the whole work of mourning. The creation of symbols, the symbolic elaboration of a theme, are the very essence of art.1 Like life itself, there is a miraculous dimension to art, and Bartók’s ‘Two Elegies’ bring to mind, for me, a passage in Susanne Langer: The great office of music is to organize our conception of feeling into more than an occasional awareness of emotional storm, that is to say, to give us an insight into what may truly be called the ‘life of feeling’, or subjective unity of experience; and this it does through rhythm. The essence of rhythm is the preparation of a new event by the ending of a previous one. Whatever the special mood of a piece of music, or its emotional import, the vital rhythm of subjective time permeates the complex, multi-dimensional musical symbol as its internal logic, which relates music intimately and self-evidently to life.2 It is largely because Bartók’s ‘Two Elegies’ so vividly evoke the ‘life of feeling’ that I find them so effective.


1 – Hanna Segal, ‘A Psychoanalytic Approach to Aesthetics’. In Rita Frankiel, ed., Essential Papers on Object Loss (New York University Press, 1994) pp. 491-92, 498
2 – Susanne Langer, Feeling and Form (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953) pp. 126, 129

Pierre Soulages, 2013


Franz Liszt | Photo: Franz Hanfstaengl

II-a. LISZT – ELEGIE NO. 1 – for piano, S. 196 | for cello & piano, S. 130

Liszt’s two small works entitled Elegie date from 1874 and 1877. His Elegie I (Schlummerlied im Grabe) (S 196)1 in memory of Marie von Moukhanoff opens with a twenty-measure introduction representative of the austere recitative-like style of his late period. The main theme presented at the a tempo marking, however, is in A major and more characteristic of his earlier Weimar period with its romantic leanings. The first two notes establish the descending, minor-second motive heard throughout much of the work. Liszt inverts the theme to an ascending second (m. 37) and varies the opening theme with a triplet accompaniment beginning in m. 51. This transformation leads to the passionate climaxes of the work at mm. 68-74 and 85-91. Atypical of Liszt, he repeats sixteen measures exactly.


1 – S 196 is the original version for pf.

From Ben Arnold, ‘Piano Music: 1861-1886’. In The Liszt Companion, ed. Ben Arnold (USA: Greenwood Publishing) pp. 152- 156


Dedicated to Lina Ramann, Elegie II (S 197),1 like many of Liszt’s late works, looks forward at the same time it retains romantic and almost nostalgic characteristics of the past. The ultra romanticism of the dolcissimo amoroso section stands in stark contrast to the sparse texture of the opening Quasi Andante with a single-note line ascending over two-and-a-half octaves and only one chord supporting the eight-measure phrase.


1 – S 197 is the original version for pf.

From Ben Arnold, ‘Piano Music: 1861-1886’. In The Liszt Companion, ed. Ben Arnold (USA: Greenwood Publishing) pp. 152- 156


La lugubre gondola (S 200/1) (in 6/8) is in a tripartite form, with the second section a major-second transposition of the first. The first two sections are based upon the undulating barcarole accompaniment that give the feeling of Venetian canals. The poignant, single-line melody and the cross-relations (that occur, for example, in mm. 6, 13, and 17) establish the bitterness that underlies much of the lament. Each of the sections closes with a descending, single-line pattern. Liszt based the third section upon the first two, but the constant tremolo accompaniment and the lower register destroy the lilting rhythmic ostinato of the earlier sections. The music fades to nothingness with the last three measures containing only ppp tremolos in the lowest register of the piano.


From Ben Arnold, ‘Piano Music: 1861-1886’. In The Liszt Companion, ed. Ben Arnold (USA: Greenwood Publishing) pp. 152- 156


Liszt composed the second La lugubre gondola in 1885 (S 200/2). This version in 4/4 is related to, but extremely different from, the earlier version, opening with a thirty-four-measure introduction consisting largely of broken diminished chords and recitative-like passages. The ostinato figure from the first version appears in a modified form in m. 35 and in the same 4/4 meter of the introduction rather than the 6/8 of the first version. While the mood resembles that of the first, the melody is distinct until m. 43 where the melodic ideas appear similar. Like the previous version this section repeats, but down a minor second rather than a major second. The undulating left-hand figure continues in the next section that consists chiefly of chords of long values, resolving a minor second down every two measures and forming major-to-minor harmonies. Liszt marks this section Un poco meno lento and further labels it dolcissimo, dolente. At m. 109 the music breaks out into a more romantic texture with blocked chords in the left hand and open octaves in the right with a transformation of the lyrical material beginning in m. 35. This outburst builds to a tremendous climax that leads to a restatement and transposition of the diminished chords in the introduction. After the recitative statement, a series of blocked minor chords descend and return to where they started. After a variant of these chords, a single line emerges that forms the last seventeen measures of the piece, which ends with whole notes moving from a G to a G. Pesce described the way the outer parts frame the inner sections of this work: ‘These outer parts suggest disjointed, improvisatory utterances; at the very end, the sense of aimlessness is reinforced by a bare, stripped down fragment of a whole-tone scale. As seen in La lugubre gondola no. 1, we sense here the true welding of form and idea to which Liszt aspired.’


From Ben Arnold, ‘Piano Music: 1861-1886’. In The Liszt Companion, ed. Ben Arnold (USA: Greenwood Publishing) pp. 152- 156



Arvo Pärt: In the past years we have had many losses in the world of music to mourn. Why did the date of Benjamin Britten’s death—December 4, 1976—touch such a chord in me? During this time I was obviously at the point where I could recognise the magnitude of such a loss. Inexplicable feelings of guilt—more than that even—arose in me. I had just discovered Britten for myself. Just before his death I began to appreciate the unusual purity of his music—I had had the impression of the same kind of purity in the ballads of Guillaume de Machaut. And besides, for a long time I had wanted to meet Britten personally—and now it would not come to that.1


1 – Arvo Pärt quoted in the sleeve-notes to the ECM recording of Cantus.
Embed from Getty Images

Cantus offers a sense of peace and ineffable sadness. After an initial bell stroke has sounded three times, the violins enter with exquisite grace in their highest register, dancing slowly downwards; an octave beneath them the same pattern is unfolded in a slower tempo, while beneath that moves the same pattern, at ever slower speeds and lower octaves. In its underlying processes Cantus bears a striking resemblance to Arbos (and to the slightly earlier Calix): a compound triple metre, the note-by-note construction of a descending phrase, an alternating rhythmic current, the sounding together of the same material at proportionally slower tempos, and the overall descent from a high beginning to a low conclusion. Even so, the differences, and not only those of texture and tempo, are significant.

Yamanobe, Scratch, 2012

Cantus has five layers of tempo, which enter in turn, each one an octave lower and twice as slow as the one before, so that what began in the violins has slowed to a sixteenth of the tempo by the time it gets to the double basses. The top two layers (violins 1 and 2) and the bottom two layers (cellos and double basses) each consist of an M-voice and a T-voice1 in 1st position below it; the middle layer, however, consists of a single M-voice played by violas (and should sound slightly forward in the overall balance). The ‘melody’ is quite simply a descending A minor scale (Aeolian rather than melodic or harmonic minor). As the music unfolds, the faster-moving layers naturally cover a greater range than their slower counterparts, each layer coming eventually to rest on a different pitch within a low chord of A minor. These pitches are arrived at one by one, so that the first violins reach their low c’ six full systems before the double basses finally come to rest on a low A,. Ex. 16 shows the beginning of the string entries (M-voices only) as far as the cello entry (the double basses enter four bars later). The bell sounds regularly throughout, in groups of three strokes followed by a rest. Having begun ppp, the work reaches its loudest point, fff, just before the first violins reach their final long c’. There is no indication in the score that the strings should diminish this dynamic level, though the low tessitura acts as a natural constraint, and the bell is marked progressively softer.


1 – M-voice: a sequence of notes in a melody. T-voices: the tintinnabuli harmonies.

Arvo Pärt, Cantus, Ex. 16

Having no T-voice, it is the violas who play the most subjective role in this work, though their differentiation within the surrounding texture is a most subtle matter. Once they have completed their cycle and been enfolded, so to speak, in the work’s final triadic entity, the bell falls silent. At this point also the T-voices in both the cello and double bass layers drop away; the double basses do not quite complete a regular octave cycle of the melodic pattern; having reached C, they continue directly on down to B,, and then the final A,. At the end of the long culminating string chord, the bell sounds softly one last time, and is left to merge into the awaiting silence.


From Paul Hillier, Arvo Pärt (Oxford University Press, 1997) pp. 103-04

Yamanobe, Scratch, 2008



Bartok’s state of mind after the break with Stefi can perhaps be inferred from the rhetorical and rhapsodic elegy for solo piano completed in February 1908, which would later be paired with a second piece in December 1909 and published the following year as Két elégia (Two Elegies). Stefi’s leitmotif makes an appearance in the fourth and fifth bars in a version that uses a diminished triad with a major seventh (C-E-F#-B); on the second system of the second page of the score it is found a tone higher than in the quotation he sent to her on 6 September 1907 (D#—F#—A#—D♮) marked appassionato, with its first three pitches grinding dissonantly against E minor harmony, the last alongside C7. The climax of the first section at bars 46-47 transforms the leitmotif into a grief-laden variant in which an arpeggiated and sustained D minor chord supports a C# played in octaves that falls to a C♮. This version of the figure underpins both the final angry climax, ten bars before the end, and the point of closure of the piece on a ‘pentatonic’ D minor chord with a minor seventh.

Stefi Geyer, 1905

The first Elegy demonstrates a further development in Bartok’s attitude towards tonality, and while it certainly could not be described as being atonal (indeed the composer observed that it was in D minor), it does show quite a considerable extension from the Second Suite. Its opening is highly chromatic: the first phrase (up to the start of the third beat of the fourth bar), which Benjamin Suchoff has compared to a motif from Liszt’s Symphonic Poem, Les Préludes, merely omits A#; the second, nearly parallel, phrase excludes G♮; and the third (to the end of bar 14) encompasses the entire chromatic space. Bartók immediately balances the flux of the opening with a more harmonically stable passage in which the melodic E is circled by its nearest chromatic neighbours in a gesture that suggests grief, supported by decorated arpeggios first based on G9, then on an augmented triad on F. The section reaches it high point on the last beat of bar 20 with a symmetrical black-note pentatonic chord (D#3—G#3—C#4—D#4 in the left hand, F#5—G#5—C#6—F#6 in the right).

Elvire Ferle, 1999

From bar 53 the opening theme is developed, beginning very quietly with a pair of fugal entries that recall the opening gambit of the Andante sostenuto of the Violin Concerto. The theme progresses through another passionate outburst before settling into a reworking of material from the third phrase of the piece, against rapid broken-chord figures in the left hand. This melodic line soon takes on a whole-tone character, descending linearly from B5 down to D. On the penultimate page a synthetic whole-tone-based scale (B—C—D—E—F#—G#—A) scurries above a further permutation of the motto in which it descends through A3—F#3—D3—B♭2. These elements are all symptomatic of Bartók’s increasing ability to accommodate and consolidate many different types of tonal and modal material within a coherent framework that would later be described as polymodal chromaticism.

Elvire Ferle, 1999

One of the immediate outcomes of the break-up with Stefi Geyer, then, was the composition of an Elegy for piano. In December 1909 Bartók wrote a second piece with the same title.

If the first Elegy was related to the Violin Concerto, the second evokes the experimentation of the Fourteen Bagatelles, and includes such radical techniques as a kind of tightly controlled aleatoricism, and limited polyrhythm (Bartók indicates 4/4 in the right hand and 3/4 in the left hand in the middle part). Although this is a virtuoso piece and there are elements of post-Lisztian rhapsodism, the tonal language is expanded and the opening section is fixated on the pitches A#—C#—E—G#—A. Although this is derived from a descending variant of the Stefi leitmotif, the perfect fourths that had featured at the close of the First String Quartet are implied through the figure B[—C—D]—E—A. Furthermore, Bartók recalls the insistent knocking from the second movement of the quartet with repeated octave As at the end of the first section, and repeated Ds at the centre of the Elegy. At its conclusion, the figure outlining a stacked pair of perfect fourths exposed at the start is placed against the strumming of the opening figure, rolled out by both hands and left suspended to fade into silence. The affair with Stefi, one might suspect, had been finally laid to rest.


From David Cooper, Béla Bartók (Yale University Press, 2015) pp. 83-84, 96

Elvire Ferle, 1999


It was possibly during his first half-year as a teacher that Bartók came into contact with a nineteen-year old girl, Stefi Geyer, who was studying violin at the Academy under Jeno Hubay. Certainly he was with her and her brother in June 1907, just before a Transylvanian trip, in Jaszberény, a town east of Budapest, on the edge of the Great Plain. Stefi may not have given him much encouragement, but she became the focus of his romantic passion, the recipient of his most personal thoughts and the dedicatee and protagonist of much of the music that he began to write later in 1907. Bartok’s few letters to her are the only existing statements of belief and purpose the composer made, but their overt seriousness can seem too well organized for there to be anything unwittingly revealing. The letters also come so early in Bartók’s life that they can be no more than a starting-point for an understanding of the mature man.

Stefi Geyer

The first of his published letters to her is dated 16 August, the day before his card to Etelka Freund. This is a long, light-hearted, if rather wry depiction of the difficulties of folk-song collecting, written as a dialogue between researcher and informants. Three weeks later Bartók had left Transylvania and was staying once again with Böske and her family in Vészto. The immensely long letter from this address, written perhaps after everyone has gone to bed (‘It is one o’clock in the morning’), covers in detail Bartók’s reasons for his atheism, as well as what he views as his purpose in life. Perhaps Stefi was prodding him with little malicious darts to have prompted this avalanche. Bartók has passed beyond the Nietzschean sentiments expressed earlier and embraced greater tolerance: ‘Let everyone do as he likes, it’s no business of mine.’ He expresses a faith in nature and science, and sees atheism as the natural successor to Christianity (‘distorted into Catholicism’), which in turn (‘with its splendid code of ethics’) had taken over from the faiths of the ancient world. The worldview retains something of his Christian upbringing: ‘Everybody and every living thing—even mosquitoes and fleas—has an object in life’. He then describes his own object: ‘On however small a scale, to give a few minor pleasures; on a bigger scale, to work for the good of that set of corrupt demi-gentlemen we call the Hungarian intelligentsia by collecting folk-songs, etc.’. Apparently the Trinity is what concerns Stefi, but Bartók declares that if he ever crossed himself, it would be ‘in the name of Nature, Art and Science’.

Stefi Geyer & Béla Bartók

Her reply to this is still unpublished, but Bartók’s following letter gives an idea of what it contained. I anticipated you might react like this, yet when you actually did so, I was upset. Why couldn’t I read your letter with cold indifference? Why couldn’t I put it down with a smile of contempt? Or maybe I am after all mistaken in thinking that you accept as true that clumsy fable about the Holy Trinity? Of course there was nothing unusual at this time about an atheist philosophy for educated people of Bartók’s generation and background, but in Hungary this generation was starting to reject the conservative nationalism of the establishment as well. Possibly the dialogue with Stefi finds Bartók defining his outlook not merely for her or himself, but in the wider context of Hungarian cultural life. What is unmistakable from the letters is that Bartók was deeply in love with this girl, and the failure of the relationship to develop plunged him into a period of great bleakness.


From Kenneth Chalmers, Béla Bartók (London: Phaidon Press, 1995) pp. 66-68

Béla Bartók & Stefi Geyer


Bartók got to know Stefi Geyer in 1907, perhaps during the opening celebrations for the Academy of Music, at which they both performed. Geyer was a child prodigy from the violin school of Jeno Hubay. By 1908 it was obvious to Bartók that Geyer did not return his affection, and Bartok was so deeply shaken that he decided not to have any contact with her for many years. In the thirties they met again, and during Bartók’s last years spent in Europe they were close friends.


From Tibor Tallián, Béla Bartok: The Man and His Work, trans. Gyula Gulyás (Budapest: Corvina, 1981), pp. 64-65). Cited in Judit Frigyesi, Béla Bartók and Turn-of-the-Century Budapest (University of California Press, 1998) p. 319

Stefi Geyer & Béla Bartók


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