Friday, February 7, 2014

Liszt - Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses

Franz Liszt's reputation during his virtuoso touring years was one of a gifted musician, perhaps the world's greatest pianist, and ladies' man. There was also another side to Liszt, for he was a devout Catholic all of his life and even took minor orders in the church late in life. This paradox of deeply religious, but never marrying any of the women he had intimate relations with, is but a part of this very complex individual.

In his last years of touring he became acquainted with the Russian Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein. She finally left her husband in Russia in 1848 and joined Liszt in Wiemar where he was acting Kappelmeister to the court. They lived together for twelve years, and had marriage plans that were constantly thwarted by her husband and his powerfully connected family to obtain a divorce.

Alphonse de Lamartine
Liszt worked on the collection of piano pieces he called Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses (Poetic And Religious Harmonies) for many years. He completed the set after he began living with the Princess first at her country house in Ukraine, and later at Wiemar.

Liszt took the title from a book of poems by the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine, and prefaces the collection with a fragment from the preface of the book:
"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 sometimes, as they listen: We pray with your words, we weep with your tears, we call on God with your songs!"
The Romanticism of the times can appear rather much to modern readers, but the early 19th century was a time of instilling drama, passion and downright excess in the arts.  Liszt took his cue from the French poet, and wrote ten pieces that run the range of drama, religiosity, and even dips into the abyss of gruesomeness. He was a musician that was inspired by literature and the visual arts to such a strong extent that he used his musical genius to express the feelings and emotions he received from the other arts. That is why Liszt's music is not so much a literal representation of the thing which inspired him, but an attempt to convey the emotions and feelings it gave him.

1.  Invocation - Liszt prefaces the first piece in the set with some lines from a poem by Lamartine of the same name:
Rise up, voice of my soul,
With the dawn, with the night!
Leap up like the flame,
Spread abroad like the noise!
Float on the wing of the clouds,
Mingle with the winds, with storms,
With thunder, and the tumult of the waves.
 Rise up in the silence
At the hour when, in the shade of evening,
The lamp of night sways,
When the priest puts out the censer;
Rise up by the waves
In these deep solitary places
Where God reveals himself to faith!
A call for assistance, a summoning to worship, the interpretations of the title and the music that follows are many. The piece is in E major.

2.  Ave Maria - This piece is a transcription for piano of a choral work composed by Liszt in 1846 for 4 voices and organ. Liszt writes the Latin text over the music thus showing that this is pretty much a literal transcription.

3.  Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (The Blessing of God in Solitude) - This piece is also prefaced by part of the poem Lamartine wrote by the same title:
Whence comes to me, O my God, this peace that overwhelms me?
Whence comes this faith in which my heart abounds?
To me who just now, uncertain, agitated,
And on the waves of doubt buffeted by every wind,
Sought goodness, truth, in the dreams of the wise,
And peace in hearts resounding with fury,
When barely on my brow a few days have slipped by,
It seems that a century and a world have passed;
And that, separated from them by a great abyss,
A new man is born again within me and starts anew.
The piece is in the key of F-sharp major and begins with a melody in the bass accompanied by the right hand playing in two parts in contrary motion:
The melody continues and gets more complex in texture as the melody is echoed in the bass and the treble in an impressive buildup of sonority. The melody continues and finally winds down to a close in a triple pianissimo. An episode with the tempo indication andante begins with a contemplative melody in the key of D major. This continues until another episode begins, this time in the key of B-flat major that is marked Più sostenuto, quasi preludio that is intended to be played somewhat freely as a prelude. After this episode the F-sharp major melody from the beginning of the piece returns in rolled chords in the treble accompanied by an arpeggios in the bass. The melody continues to build in intensity and passion until the right hand erupts in running sixteenth notes to the melody in the bass. Both hands erupt in breathtaking arpeggios in a cadenza that leads to the coda. Both of the preceding episodes are referred to and the piece comes to a peaceful close. This is one of the pieces of the set that has a life of its own as a recital piece.

4.  Pensée des morts (Thoughts of the Dead) - This piece was originally written under the title of Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses but Liszt revised the work considerably, renaming it  Pensée des morts and making it part of the set, instead of a stand alone piece. The first section is written in the remarkable (for the period) time signature of 5/4, with a few bars of 7/4 time thrown in the mix. This gives the music an instability that is culminated in intensity with the ensuing chords and runs. The explosion of insanity finally ends on B-flats hammered out in both hands. This leads directly to the De Profundis section that has the first three lines of the Latin text of the 130th psalm written over the pounding chords. The English translation of these lines:
From the depths I have cried out to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplication.
The music then returns to the underlying tension of the 5/4 time signature until the music morphs into music that imitates the form of the first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, a melody played over a triple accompaniment with long notes in the bass. The melody of this section continues as the mood intensifies, ebbs and flows until it returns to a chordal texture as in the De Profundis section, only this time more subdued. The piece ends quietly.

5.  Pater Noster - Another piece originally written for voices and organ, Liszt makes a literal transcription for piano, and includes the Latin text of the Lord's Prayer in the music.

6.  Hymne de l’enfant à son réveil (The Awaking Child’s Hymn) - Another transcription of a piece written originally for female voices with harp and piano accompaniment.

7.  Funérailles (October 1849) (‘Funeral’) -  A work inspired by the aftermath of the Hungarian uprising in October of 1849. Thirteen Hungarian Generals as well as the prime Minister were hung by the Austrians in retaliation for the uprising. Liszt knew some of those that were executed and wrote this in memory of them. The piece begins with the tolling of bells deep within the piano's bass register. The momentum and anguish build until the bottom falls out. The next section is a funeral march, which is followed by a section marked lagrimoso (tearful, crying).  This section grows in intensity and complexity until it gives way to a section that has led some to believe that Liszt also paid tribute to Chopin in this piece as it resembles the thundering left hand octaves of Chopin's A-flat Major Polonaise Opus 53 (Chopin by coincidence had also died in October of 1849). This battle section steadily increases in volume and intensity until the funeral march reappears in three octaves with full chord accompaniment. The lagrimoso section also briefly reappears. The battle section reappearance serves as a coda and a final crescendo, after which the music quietly expires. this is the other piece of the set that is most often played on its own.

8.  Miserere, d’après Palestrina (after Palestrina) - The melody is based on a motet Liszt heard at the Sistine Chapel. It does have a feeling of Paestrina's style in the melody, but no style of Palestrina in the keyboard gyrations of the accompaniment. Included in the simple initial statement of the melody Liszt has included the Latin text of the Miserere. The English translation:
God have mercy on me following thy great mercy,
and following thy compassion, wipe out my iniquity.
9.  Andante lagrimoso - A Lamartine poem also prefaces this piece:
Fall, silent tears,
Upon an earth without pity;
No more between pious hands,
Nor on the bosom of friendship!
Fall like an arid rain,
Which splashes on the rock,
That no ray from the sky can wipe away,
That no breath can come to dry.
This piece is unique to the set as it has no title save the tempo indication. Despite a middle section that tries to brighten the mood, the ending of the piece remains in despair.

10.Cantique d’amour (Hymn of Love) -  Liszt marks the accompaniment quasi Arpa (like a harp), and indeed Liszt made a transcription of this piece for harp. This final piece of the set is in contrast to the preceding sorrow of the Andante lagrimoso. As the Invocation set the stage by way of its hymn like atmosphere, so this Hymn Of Love rounds out the set with a hymn. The melody lies in the middle of the keyboard (something that Liszt did in other pieces too) that is surrounded by the accompaniment. The melody as well as the structure of the piece is rather straightforward; it is the accompaniment and the decorations of it that are ornate.


  1. I love this! Thank you for writing this information. I have fallen in love with Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, and your comments were lovely.

  2. Just heard Roberto Plano perform the who;e piece at the IU Summer Festival. Your essay enriches the music!