About this Recording
8.553786 - LISZT: Sacred Choral Music
English 

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Sacred Choral Music Vol. 1:
Ave Maria, S20/1
Die Seligpreisungen (The Beatitudes), S25
Pater noster, S41/1
Via Crucis, S53
Vater unser, S29

 

Franz Liszt was born in 1811 at Raiding (Doborjan) near Ödenburg (Sopron) in a German-speaking region of Hungary. His father, Adam Liszt, was a steward in the ernployrnent of Haydn's former patrons, the Esterhazy Princes, and an amateur cellist. The boy showed early musical talent, exhibited in a public concert at Ödenburg in 1820, followed by a concert in Pressburg (the modern Slovak capital Bratislava). This second appearance brought sufficient support from members of the Hungarian nobility to allow the family to move to Vienna, where Liszt took piano lessons from Czerny and composition lessons from the old Court Composer Antonio Salieri, who had taught Beethoven and Schubert. Legend has it that he was kissed by Beethoven, an event that must have been supposed to confer the legitimacy of succession on the boy. In 1822 the Liszts moved to Paris, where, as a foreigner. he was refused admission to the Conservatoire by Cherubini, but was able to embark on a career as a virtuoso, displaying his gifts as a pianist and as a composer.

On the death of his father in 1827 Liszt was joined again by his mother in Paris, where he began to teach the piano and to interest himself in the newest literary trends of the day. The appearance of Paganini in Paris in 1831 suggested new possibilities of virtuosity as a pianist, later exemplified in his Paganini Studies. A liaison with a married woman, the Comtesse Marie d'Agoult, a blue-stocking on the model of their friend the novelist George Sand (Aurore Dudevant), and the subsequent birth of three children, involved Liszt in years of travel, from 1839 once more as a virtuoso pianist, a r61e in which he came to enjoy the wildest adulation of audiences.

In 1844 Liszt finally broke with Marie d' Agoult, who later took her own literary revenge on her lover. Connection with the small Grand Duchy of Weimar led in 1848 to his withdrawal from public concerts and his establishment there as Director of Music Extraordinary, accompanied by a young Polish heiress, Princess Carolyne zu Sayn.Wittgenstein, the estranged wife of a Russian nobleman and a woman of literary and theological propensities. Liszt now turned his attention to new forms of composition, particularly to symphonic poems, in which he attempted to translate into musical terms works of literature, to the disapproval of critics such as Eduard Hanslick in Vienna.

Catholic marriage to Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein had proved impossible, but application to the Vatican offered some hope, when, in 1861, Liszt travelled to join her in Rome. The couple continued to live separately there, starting a period of his life that Liszt later described as une vie trifurquee (a three-pronged life), as he divided his time between his comfortable monastic residence in Rome, his visits to Weimar, where he held court as a master of the keyboard and a prophet of the new music, and his appearances in Hungary, where he was now hailed as a national hero.

Liszt's illegitimate daughter Cosima had married the pianist and conductor Hans von B├╝low, whom she later deserted for Wagner, already the father of two of her children. To Wagner he gave considerable encouragement, helping him when events necessitated a hurried departure from Dresden and escape to Switzerland in 1848. The two composers were, as time went on, associated in their musical ideals, although the relationship between Liszt and his daughter Cosima remained strained. His final years were as busy as ever, and in 1886 he gave concerts in Budapest, Paris, Antwerp and London. He died in Bayreuth during the Wagner Festival, now controlled by his daughter Cosima, to whom his appearance there seems to have been less than welcome.

Franz Liszt had had a sound Catholic upbringing. His father Adam, before his marriage, had tested his vocation with the Franciscans, but had left the order to which he aspired, described by his superiors as inconstant and variable in character. Liszt himself, while fundamentally Catholic in his beliefs, did not let this prevent swings of character in other directions. In France he had, as an adolescent, found himself strongly influenced by the Saint-Simonians and then by the teaching of the Abbe Lamennais and while he always fully accepted Church dogma, he nevertheless followed the social teaching of Lamennais, that allied Catholicism with ideas of social reform. Clearly his association with Princess Carolyne influenced him strongly towards religion, a tendency that had its final expression in the years of his life spent in Rome after 1861, although here too the flesh remained, inevitably, weak.

Liszt's first setting of the Ave Maria, S20/1, in B flat major and for eight-part choir and organ, using solo voices as the parts divide, was written in 1846. It is very much in the spirit of the time, and while it may appear to be derived from an earlier tradition, it nevertheless makes use of an element of drama, as the hour of our death (et in hora mortis nostrae) is mentioned, leading to the final hushed Amen.

Die Seligkeiten or Die Seligpreisungen, S25, (The Beatitudes) was written in 1859 and is a setting of well-known words from the Gospel of St Matthew (Matthew V, 3-10) for solo baritone, seven-part choir and organ. The manuscript has on the first page the date May 1859, pour Carolyne and below the date 15th October 59, with the words El/e est /'inspiration, la liberte et le salut de ma vie - je prie Dieu que nous fructifions ensemble pour la vie eternel/e (She is the inspiration, freedom and salvation of my life - I pray God that we bear fruit together for the life eternal). The composition reflects Liszt's relationship with Princess Carolyne and the influence she had on his religious life. It was included in his oratorio Christus with a Latin text. Each of the beatitudes is at first stated by the soloist, without accompaniment, echoed by a seven-part choral setting of the words, the text treated with restrained drama in a setting that suggests plainchant in its solo writing. With the fourth beatitude the text is shared between soloist and choir, the latter completing the verse, with a dynamic climax in the final blessing of those persecuted, repeated until the concluding softer and slower three times repeated Amen.

The four-part F major Pater noster, 541/1, with an organ part, here omitted, that simply doubles the voices, was written in 1869. Liszt, in a letter of 17th November, refers to two little, light and innocent choral pieces, the present Pater noster and a further setting of the Ave Maria. They are dedicated to Madame Laussot, director of the Florence Cherubini Society. The music is aptly described, essential simple in form and leading to strong unanimity in the plea for deliverance from evil, sed libera nos a rnalo.

Liszt's Via crucis (The Way of the Cross) is a much more substantial and controversial work. It was written in September and October 1878 at the Villa d'Este in Rome and seemingly completed in February 1879 in Budapest, where it was first performed on Good Friday fifty years later. The harmonic language of the work is advanced, a combination of chromaticism and traditionalliturgical music, with its dependence on the early modes. Through the music comes the three-note musical symbol Liszt had derived from plainchant for the Cross, an ascending major second followed by an ascending minor third, heard near the start of the work. Via crucis, with Septern Sacrarnenta (Seven Sacraments) and Rosario (Meditations on the Rosary) were submitted by Liszt to the Regensburg publisher Pustet in 1884, with suggestions for title-pages, but were rejected. An introduction draws attention to the popularity of the Stations of the Cross as a devotion and the annual Good Friday custom followed at the Coliseum in Rome, the scene of the death of so many martyrs. Liszt here expresses the hope for a worthier set of representations of the fourteen stations, suggesting the sculptures of Galli, and for a harmonium to accompany the expression of his feelings, as, so often, he has knelt with the procession to say the words O! Crux Ave! Spes unica! (O! Hail Cross! Only hope!).

Via crucis has practical alternatives in the accompaniment suggested, which may be for organ or harmonium, or for piano, as in the present performance. It is scored for mixed choir and four solo voices and opens, after the brief piano introduction, with unison male and female voices singing the words of the first and third verse of the Vexilla regis (The King's banners), set as in plainchant in the first mode. Imitative entries mark the following section, the sixth verse of the hymn, each opening with the Cross motif. The piano provides a dramatic representation of the first station, Jesus is condemned to death, followed by the bass, representing Pilate, in the Latin words of the scripture, I am innocent of the blood of this just man. The second station, with its chromatic and intense piano introduction, brings the unaccompanied baritone Ave crux! (Hail, Cross!), followed by the augmented intervals that mark Liszt's later, experimental harmonic language. At the third station, Jesus falls for the first time, men's voices pronounce the Latin text, followed by the women's voices singing the opening words of the Stabat mater (There stood the mournful mother weeping). This leads, appropriately, to the fourth station, Jesus greets his holy Mother, expressed on 1 y by the piano, a moment of poignancy, leading to the piano representation of the fifth station, Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the Cross, ending with music that recalls the first bearing of the Cross in the second station. The sixth station, Saint Veronica, opens with a single piano line introducing Bach's version of the German chorale 0 Haupt voll Blut und Wunden (O sacred head sore wounded), from the St Matthew Passion. At the seventh station, Jesus falls for the second time, male voices proclaim the Latin text, followed by the women's voices singing again the opening of the Stabat mater.

This is followed, at the eighth station, by The Women of Jerusalem, an extremely chromatic piano part leading to the solo baritone words Nolite fIere, Do not weep over me, but over yourselves and your sons. The section ends with the trumpet sounds of an Allegro marziale. At the ninth station, Jesus falls a third time, male voices again declare the event and the women again mourn and at the tenth, Jesus is stripped of his clothing, the piano expresses the intensity of mourning. Male voices ring out with the Latin words Crucifige (Crucify him), with Jesus is nailed to the Cross, leaving an unaccompanied baritone to sing the last words of Christ, as he dies on the Cross at the twelfth station. Here the women's voices echo the final Consummatum est (lt is accomplished), before the choir takes up the German chorale O Traurigkeit, with Liszt's own melody and harmonization in the style of Bach, here unaccompanied in its first verse, leading to an accompanied repetition of the opening words and mysterious final chords. At the thirteenth station, Jesus is taken down from the Cross, the piano provides its own meditation in the simplest terms, while the final station, Jesus is laid in the grave, opens with the Cross motif, and with the mezzo-soprano soloist singing words to the Cross, Ave crux, spes unica (Hail, Cross, onIy hope), echoed by the choir, in music that now suggests joy and hope in its lilt, before quiet final measures, as the Cross is again remembered.

The seven-voice German Vater unser, 529, (Gur Father), also included later in the oratorio Christus, was written in Weimar, before Princess Carolyne left for Rome. It makes some use of the liturgical intonation of the Pater noster and combines an element of chromaticism with an unaccompanied choral setting that seems to transplant Palestrina into the later nineteenth century.

Keith Anderson


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