Liszt: Die Legende von der heiligen Elisabeth

Gr 0034“I am particularly attached to St. Elisabeth. I was born in Hungary, just like her, and spent the most decisive twelve years of my life and career in Thuringia, quite close to Wartburg castle where she had been living and to Marburg, where she had died. I followed with attention the reconstruction works of Wartburg castle ordered by my Grand Duke of Weimar and saw Schwind painting the frescos in the “Elisabeth-Gang” leading to the chapel. HisThose frescos commemorate the chief events of St. Elizabeth’s legend, which I evoke in my work” – wrote Liszt to his mother in Rome on 2 December 1862.

Liszt’s words express his close inner attachment to St. Elizabeth from the House Arpad whose main object in life was, similar to Liszt’s patron Saint Francis of Paola, to practice charity. It is not by chance that above his bed in his Weimar home Liszt had a painting of the betrothal of St. Elizabeth and that behind his desk in his one-time flat in Pest a statue of St. Elizabeth could be found. During the 1855 reconstruction of Wartburg castle an Austrian artist named Moritz von Schwind painted a set of six pictures of the Hungarian-born saint’s life in Thuringia. Liszt retained the order of these six pictures in the scenes of his oratorio. Both parts consist of three scenes entitled: The Arrival of Elisabeth at Wartburg, Landgrave Ludwig, The Crusaders and Landgravin Sophia, Elisabeth, Solemn Burial of Elisabeth.

The plot of the oratorio was drafted, based on the frescos, by Liszt’s second common-law wife Carolyne Sayn Wittgeinstein while the libretto was the work of the German poet Otto Roquette. Liszt had started composing the large-scale work in 1857 but only completed it in August 1862. Though he would have liked to have the first performance of the oratorio at Wartburg Castle, on the original scene of the events, five more years had to pass until it could be realized. In the end, the premiere was given in the reconstructed Redoute of Pest on 15 August 1865, on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Pest-Buda Conservatory of Music established by Liszt. The oratorio was performed three times under Liszt’s baton including the full rehearsal on 14 August, the performance itself and a repeated concert on 23 August. The enthusiasm of the Hungarians surpassed all expectations: according to Liszt’s account an audience of about 2,000 followed the concert with unflagging attention. He had the impression that they were practically “participating” in the performance. The performing forces estimated at 500 by the composer were also considerable. Kornél Ábrányi, the Hungarian translator of the text, wrote of the event in the 17 August 1865 issue of Zenészeti Lapok (Musical Paper) as follows:
“The above day will constitute the brightest, most glorious and most consequential page in the history of art in Hungary. The Hungarian capital had hardly seen a similar moment of enthusiasm as the one when the celebrated compatriot and artist Ferenc Liszt appeared in front of the prestigious audience filling the great room to capacity as an incarnate and all- fascinating halo in person: his tall figure suggesting extraordinariness, with long grey curls, and in black ornate cassock.”

It is not by chance that the Hungarian audience was so enthusiastic about the work: despite the fact that Liszt had originally fancied Wartburg as the venue of its first performance out of respect for St. Elizabeth, he intended the oratorio to be an explicitly Hungarian composition. On 10 November 1862 Liszt wrote to one of his closest Hungarian friends Mihály Mosonyi: “If my wish comes true, this work will enrich the new Hungarian music literature in an integral manner.” Mihály Mosonyi was actively involved in the composition process: at the composer’s request he copied from several antiphons and church melodies associated with St. Elizabeth from old hymnbooks. Of these Liszt used the antiphon beginning with the words “Quasi stella matutina” for the comprehensive musical characterization of the saint. At the end of the score he enumerated the sources he had borrowed musical material from to represent the age and the environment in the most authentic manner possible. In addition to the above mentioned antiphon he was communicated by the musicologist Gábor Mátray a Hungarian-language melody “Szent Erzsébet asszony életirül” [On Saint Elizabeth’s Life] taken from a 17th-century hymn-book, the Chorus of the Poor was based on this theme. The third Hungarian source was the popular art song “Nem ettem én ma egyebet” [I Have Not Eaten Anything Today] that Liszt made use of in the Hungarian Magnate’s Song, and to indicate the Hungarian scene. Another borrowed melody incorporated by Liszt in his oratorio was the well-known Sachson tune “Schönster Herr Jesu“ he cited both in the March of the Crusaders and for depicting the German pilgrims in the last scene. Liszt was made familiar with it by his friend, the German Cantor Alexander Wilhelm Gottschalg. The last motif listed at the end of the score was Liszt’s own musical signature, the so-called “crux” (cross) motif. Originally a Gregorian intonation, it had a symbolic message for Liszt: it expressed faith, Christianity, more precisely Jesus’ redeeming cross. This motif had already emerged in Liszt’s early piano works but its meaning was elucidated here in words for the first time. Liszt later used this motif as a chief musical idea of his work Via Crucis.

Following the Pest premiere Hans von Bülow, one of Liszt’s favourite pupils and son-in-law, a famous pianist and conductor, wrote a review of the work that was an important study on 2 the aesthetics of the genre oratorio. According to Bülow Liszt was a pioneering representative, a reformer of the inner drama embodied in the genre of the new oratorio which was a splendid counterpart to the operatic reform carried out by Wagner. Parallel with the renewal of the opera in the middle of the 19th century radical changes took place in the 19th- century concept of the oratorio, the build-up of the compositions as well. It had to meet new aesthetic requirements and find its place and function beside the opera. The social background of this process was that by the early 19th century the oratorio had left its sacred environment, the church, and found its new home in the concert halls. Moreover, the two genres were not in sharp contrast but linked mutually with a multitude of fine shades and interactions. In his writings Liszt imagined an ideal drama in which the plot, passion and mood surpassed the boundaries of the stage, and the music expressed the drama in its entirety. Since this new sort of composition had to be designated differently, the composer entitled his work Legend.

The rapid development of orchestral timbres in the 19th century contributed in no less degree to representing the new, dramatic, almost operatic scenes-like tableaux of the oratorio. As far as orchestral colour effect and magic turn are concerned the Miracle of Roses in Liszt’s Legend of Saint Elizabeth comes, for example, very close to the magnificent moment in Wagner’s Siegfried when Brünnhilde woken by the hero’s kiss from sleep greets the sun. Similarly, the storm scene, the opening and closing tableaux or the farewell of Elisabeth and Landgrave Ludwig in the Legend display operatic qualities.

Despite Liszt’s disapproval his oratorios were repeatedly staged, particularly after his death, which elicited heated discussion among contemporary aestheticians. In Hungary the oratorio was revived at the Redoute on 19 November 1931 and parallel with it performed at the Opera House as well. The journal Új Nemzedék (New Generation) reported on both performances on the very day of the performance:
The Legend of St. Elizabeth. (Comments on today’s performance at the Opera.) At the jubilee celebration of the ideal of Christian women, St. Elizabeth of the House of Árpád, Hungarian art pays homage today to the memory of the immortal Hungarian princess with two large-scale musical events. Ferenc Liszt’s The Legend of St. Elizabeth is being performed at the Redoute where the composer had presented his world-famous composition sixty- six years ago, and simultaneously with it the work is staged at the Opera House as well. In its original form the legend is an oratorio, but the inherent dramatic constituents allow, moreover, require a scenic performance. It was already performed so in visualized form at the Opera House in 1891 where it has been performed seventeen times so far. Its first revival took place in 1907 and its second one on the centenary of Ferenc Liszt’s birth, on 21 October 1911.”

Although there can be no doubt that the stage representation of certain dramatic scenes of the oratorio must have been fascinating, this kind of performance did not mark the direction Liszt desired as far as the work as a whole is concerned. These days staging the Legend is no more on the order of the day. The audience has come to understand the work without scenery as well. The scenes come to life in the listeners’ imagination just as Liszt wished and imagined. This year’s performance at the Redoute is once again an event of extraordinary importance in the reception history of the work. Following legendary performances it is performed again on the venue which was the scene of its premiere and tremendous success.

Zsuzsanna Domokos