Liszt was one of the big stars of the nineteenth century. He was the greatest piano virtuoso of the era and he used his sensational technique not only for personal effect but also to spread, through his transcriptions, knowledge of other composer’s work. He also founded the New German school dedicated to progress in music, specifically through alliance with other art-forms, culminating in the Wagnerian vision of the Gesamtkunstwerk. His friendship with Wagner lasted until the end of his life and he saw both Parsifal and Tristan at Bayreuth within ten days of his death.
In 1882 Liszt was staying with Wagner and Cosima (Liszt’s daughter and Wagner’s wife) in Venice composing his final oratorio Die Legende vom heiligen Stanislaus when a strange presentiment caused him to break off work and write the two versions of La lugubre gondola. This work was inspired by a funeral procession of gondolas that he had seen on the canals. Soon after, Wagner died in Venice and his body was borne from the Palazzo Vendramin by gondola. Liszt with his curious fascination for the diabolic and the spiritual considered the work to be a premonition. The music is austere and simple but highly chromatic, far from any tonal basis. The cello part is deep and rich, exploiting the full depths of the instrument. It is a short work, less than ten minutes but it resonates long after the final bar.