Abbé Liszt


From The Hungarian Quarterly:

By the late 1850s, Liszt saw that his ambitious plans to bring about a new golden age in Weimar, with himself and Wagner as the leading spirits, were being “thwarted by the pettyness of certain local aspects as well as local and outside jealousy.” He gave up his work as an opera conductor and gradually withdrew from public musical life in Weimar. His interest increasingly turned towards sacred music; he started working on his oratorio The Legend of St. Elizabeth. Taking stock of his past work, he arranged many earlier songs and men’s choruses into cycles, and prepared them for publication. In 1861, he appeared at the music festival in Weimar that marked the creation of the General German Music Association (Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein), an organization he had helped found. (He was to remain supportive of the work of this Association to the end of his life, and appeared frequently at their festivals arranged in a different city each year). Soon afterwards, he followed Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, who had earlier left for Rome. Their wedding, already scheduled, was prevented by vile intrigues. They both remained in Rome, but they gave up the idea of marriage and no longer lived together.

During this new, quieter phase of his life, when he frequently stayed in simple monastic quarters, Liszt was able to complete his St. Elizabeth oratorio, his two St. Francis legends (in versions for piano as well as orchestra), and started work on The Canticle of the Sun and the Christus oratorio. Of instrumental works, he composed his two Concert Etudes (‘Forest Murmurs’ and ‘Dance of the Gnomes’) and his Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (which is the piano version of the second movement from Two Episodes from Lenau’s ‘Faust’). The Totentanz (Danse macabre), composed earlier for piano and orchestra – a paraphrase of the Gregorian Dies irae – was also premiered and published at this time. Liszt had long been interested in the reform of Catholic church music; this now became a primary preoccupation, and he would have liked to play a major role in the implementation of that reform. He was encouraged by Pope Pius IX, who paid him a visit at his lodgings, listened to his piano playing and called him “my dear Palestrina.” Liszt made a thorough study of Gregorian chant and the sacred polyphony of the 16th century to which the reformers wished to return. He strove to deepen his knowledge of religion and, after a period of serious preparation, took the four Minor Orders of the Catholic Church which carried some religious duties and qualified him to perform certain smaller liturgical services. He would have liked to become a choirmaster in the Vatican, but he did not wish to become ordained as a priest, although he always wore a cassock and was addressed as ‘Abbé Liszt.’

‘Abbé Liszt’ made his first public appearance in Hungary in August 1865, at the 25-year jubilee festivities of the National Conservatory. He had been instrumental in launching this institution making major monetary donations in 1840 and again in 1846; now he offered his new oratorio, The Legend of St. Elizabeth, as a gift. The work, written on a German text, had originally been intended for performance at the Wartburg (in the Grand Duchy of Weimar) where the Saint, a Hungarian king’s daughter, had lived. In the event, however, the first performance took place at the Redoute in Pest on 15 August 1865, sung in Kornél Ábrányi’s Hungarian translation. Due to the great success, Liszt conducted a second performance and regaled his compatriots with his piano playing at a benefit concert where he was joined on stage by Hans von Bülow and Ede Reményi. (After abandoning his virtuoso career, he only played the piano in public at benefit concerts. He was known for being always ready to help those in need and for supporting worthy artistic causes.)

“Franz Liszt”, Mária Eckhardt, The Hungarian Quarterly