Reminiscences of Norma (by Bellini)

by Franz Liszt


During the 1800’s, the opera held a strong popular appeal, as well as an aura of glamour, yet it was not generally accessible to a large part of the musical public. It is not surprising then that nearly every pianist of the day sought to win audiences by composing and performing his own operatic fantasies. Liszt’s performing career was initiated by his bravura transcriptions – they were the perfect outlets to display his unparalleled virtuosity and bring audiences the melodies they wanted to hear.

Liszt’s Réminiscence (a term coined by Liszt himself) on Bellini’s opera Norma is a brilliant transformation of a two-hour masterwork into a fifteen-minute piano piece of equal dramatic impact. A brief summary of the plot to this tragedy: Norma, a priestess facing battle against the Romans, secretly falls in love with a Roman commander, and together they have two illegitimate children. When he falls for another woman, she reveals the children to her people and accepts the penalty of death. The closing scenes and much of the concert fantasy reveal Norma begging her father to take care of the children and her lover admitting he was wrong. 

Seven arias dominate the transcription, providing a nearly continuous stream of beautiful melody. Norma is rumored to be the most difficult operatic role for a soprano (according to Lili Lehmann, it is more difficult than all three Brünhilde roles combined), and it is no surprise that Liszt made effort to transfer the challenges of this endurance-testing role to the piano; cascades of arpeggios, pages of octaves and tenths, and an obstacle course of leaps saturate the score. At the climax, the librettist Felice Romani, Bellini, and Liszt successfully meld the two themes of love and death into one satisfying and painful emotion, much as Wagner aimed to do in the “Liebestod” of his Tristan and Isolde. The text to the dramatic scene is translated below: 

The heart you betrayed,
The heart you lost,
See in this hour
What a heart it was.
In vain you sought
To flee from me;
Cruel Roman, at last
You are with me.
A god, a fate
Stronger than you,
Wills us together
In life and death.
On the same pyre
Which consumes me,
And in the earth,
I shall be with you.

Too late, too late
I have known you –
Sublime woman,
What a heart it was.

The heart you betrayed,
The heart you lost,
See in this hour
What a heart it was.

With my remorse,
Love is reborn,
A madder,
More desperate love.
Let us die together,
Yes, let us die:
My last word will be
That I love you.
But you, in dying,
Must not hate me.
Before you die,
Forgive me.

- Greg Anderson