LISZT: Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses Nos. 7-9 / Consolations / Ave Maria (Philip Thomson/ Victor and Marina Ledin) (Naxos: 8.553516)
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Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Complete Piano Music, Volume 4
Then came the thing I had longed for -- Liszt's playing. I sat near him so that I could see both his hands and his face. For the first time in my life I beheld real inspiration -- for the first time I heard the true tones of the piano. He played one of his own compositions -- one of a series of religious fantasies. His manipulation of the instrument was quiet and easy, and his face was simply grand -- the ups compressed and the head thrown backward. When the music expressed quiet rapture or devotion a smile flitted over his features; when it was triumphant the nostrils dilated.
-- George Eliot, Journal, 1854
The story of the child prodigy who flashes like a meteor across the musical world, to burn itself out or vanish into oblivion after a brief interval, is an all-too-familiar tale. But the story of the child prodigy who bursts upon the musical world in a dynamic explosion of brilliance and who remains in that world for not five years or ten but for more than sixty years, captivating audiences with his vitality of spirit, hypnotizing them with his colossal virtuosity -- that story is unique and it belongs to Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Liszt gave his first public performance at the age of nine and his last at the age of seventy-four. In the intervening sixty-five years he was unrivalled as the greatest piano virtuoso in all Europe, which in the nineteenth century, as far as music was concerned, was all the world. Of course, there were critics who complained of his playing, just as there are critics today who complain of his music. As a composer, Liszt fully exploited his mastery of the instrument, filling his compositions with all the pianistic fireworks he could so effortlessly set off in his playing. Basically, Franz Liszt lived as he composed, always on a grand scale, the embodiment of the quintessential, nineteenth century, flamboyant romantic. Born a Catholic, Liszt all his life maintained that he was a true believer. In a letter written to Joseph d'Ortigue (1802-1866), a scholar and critic specialising in the history and practice of Catholic Church music, Liszt wrote:
In the depth of my being I feel myself a Christian and I bow joyously (avec allegresse) my soul under the benevolent and light burden of Christ our Saviour, as I attempt in supplication to do what his church out of love demands of us -- now, as we shall not part that which God has joined, so shall I never agree to sever the ties that join feeling with thought, the language of the time with the essence of eternity, art in its highest manifestation -- I shall not cease to be a musician as I increasingly become a Christian. Quite the contrary I hope just through this to attain a better music-conscience and so to fulfil my artistic task with increasing power.
In a letter written in 1860 to Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, Liszt admits that he felt a "mysterious feeling which has pierced my entire life as with a sacred wound. Yes, 'Jesus Christ on the Cross,' a yearning Ionging after the Cross and the raising of the Cross, -- this was ever my true inner calling..."
Throughout his life, the central struggle of Liszt's being was fought on religious lines and he expressed his deepest religious sentiments through his music. It is his music that gives proof of the great sincerity of his religious aspirations. Liszt created an astonishing quantity of religious works, not only for chorus but also for the piano. His most famous piano cycle is a set of ten pieces entitled Harmonies poetiques et religieuses
. The title of the collection was taken from a group of poems by Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869) published in 1830. Liszt began sketching one of the piano pieces (which eventually became the third in the set) in 1845. The rest of the pieces took form between 1847 and 1852. He published the collection in 1853. There were good reasons why Liszt occupied himself with devotional expression. He developed a deep friendship with Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein (1819-1887) during his last year of touring in 1846. She followed Liszt from Russia to Weimar, eventually living out her final years in Rome, in extreme religious devotion, writing her 24-volume Inner Causes of the External Weakness of the Church
. Liszt's Harmonies poetiques et religieuses
is dedicated to her. Liszt prefaces the Harmonies poetiques et religieuses
with a fragment from the foreword of Lamartine's collection of poems:
Il y a des ?ómes meditatives que Ia solitude et Ia contemplation el?¿vent invinciblement vers les idees infinies, c'est-?á-dire vers Ia religion; toutes leurs pensees se convertissent en enthousiasme et en pri?¿re, toute leur existence est un hymne muet a Ia Divinite et ?á l'esperance. Elles cherchent en elles-m?¬mes, et dans Ia creation qui les environne, des degres pour monter ?á Dieu, des expressions et des images pour se le reveler ?á elles-m?¬mes, pour se reveler a Iui: puiss'-je leur en pr?¬ter quelques-unes! Il y a des cceurs brises par Ia douleur, refoules par le monde, qui se refugient dans le mond de leurs pensees, dans Ia solitude de leur ?óme, pour pleurer, pour attendre ou pour adorer; puissent-ils se laisser visiter par une muse solitaire comme eux, trouver une sympathie dans ses accords, et dire quelquefois en l'ecoutant: Nous prions avec tes paroles, nous pleurons avec tes larmes. nous invoquons avec tes chants! (There are some meditative souls that solitude and contemplation raise inevitably towards ideas that are infinite, that is towards religion: all their thoughts are converted into enthusiasm and prayer, all their existence is a mute hymn to the Divine and to hope. They seek in themselves and in the creation that surrounds them steps to climb to God, expressions and images to reveal him to them, and to reveal themselves to him: I would that I could lend them some of these! There are hearts broken by sorrow, held back by the world, who take refuge in the world of their thoughts, in solitude of soul, to weep, to wait, or to worship; I would that they might be visited by a muse solitary like them, to find sympathy in her harmonies and to say something to the listener: We pray with your words, we weep with your tears, we call on God with your songs!)
Liszt also headed the Invocation
, the Benediction de Dieu dans Ia solitude
, and the Andante Lagrimoso
with poems by Lamartine. The Ave Maria
, Pater Noster
, and Hymne de l'Enfant ?á son Reveil
are piano versions of three smaller works for chorus. The first six pieces in the cycle can be heard on Volume 3 in the Liszt series (Naxos 8.553073). Funerailles
is the seventh composition in the cycle, and, perhaps the best know work in the collection. The title of the first sketch of the work now in the Goethe and Schiller Archives in Weimar is Magyar
. The final version is dated October 1849. This is a clear reference by Liszt to the tragic events following the failure of the 1848-1849 Hungarian War of Independence. The Austrian imperial and military courts put Count Lajos Batthyeany (the president of the first free Hungarian government) to death and sixteen officers from the leaders of the War of Independence. Liszt lost some of his best and dearest friends at this time. The sad events in his homeland affected him deeply. He wrote: "I too belong to that strong and ancient race, I too am a son of that original and undaunted nation, which is certainly destined still for better days to come. O my wild, distant fatherland! My friends unknown! My great, vast family! The cry of your heart beckons me close to you... Why does a harsh destiny keep me far away?"
The Swiss-German composer, Joseph Joachim Raff was a member of