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    Franz Liszt: Superstar, Sinner, Saint

    For years Franz Liszt had been two men: a hedonist, scoundrel, and homewrecker, but also a generous soul who pined for a life of peace and prayer.

    By Nathan Beacom

    April 14, 2022

    Available languages: español

    • Natalie Golovin

      Fabulous! Thank You Nathan Beacom

    • iago

      i didn't know that "love of pleasure" was counted among the human weaknesses.

    • Tim Geoffrion

      Thank you for this very meaningful essay on Liszt's life and spiritual journey. I found it quite hopeful, while so helpfully grounded in a realistic view of human nature and flawed humanity. Today is Easter Sunday. I'm just reading your article today, which I'm finding quite fitting--perhaps not as a real life story of resurrection but rather a great illustration of the relentless resurrection power of Christ at work in those who are called by God. Thank you again.

    • Brian Scoles

      This is one of the best Holy Week devotions that I've read in a long, long time. Liszt's story is a vivid reminder of what Paul wrote in Romans 7:7-25.

    The scent of lemons drifted lazily through a quiet summer garden outside Rome, an old monk went quietly about pulling weeds, the bees buzzed merrily around his head, and a gentle breeze whispered through the leaves. Adding to this happy chorus were the notes of twinkling old piano drifting from the monastery window. Inside, the greatest pianist the world has ever known was sketching out a new musical poem.

    Not long ago, he was the most celebrated, fawned-over, sought-after man in Europe. The compositions that wowed audiences, from his Ave Maria, to Liebestraum No. 3, to the Hungarian Rhapsodies, still move millions today. The likeness of his face was in every shop window, his name was on everyone’s lips, his discarded coffee grounds and locks of hair were the prizes of adoring fans. But life was different now, and his time was spent in the company of his piano, his papers, and the old brothers of this abbey. The little birds of Monte Mario were his only audience, twittering along as he wrote a tribute to Saint Francis, who once preached to the birds of Assisi.

    For a long time, Franz Liszt had been two men. In his days as a touring pianist, he was a hedonist, a scoundrel, and a homewrecker; he was also a generous soul who always pined for a life of peace and prayer. Now, on this sacred hill, things were simplifying themselves. For the first time, he was becoming one person. Underneath his years of superficial celebrity lay a desire still deeper than that which drove him after fame.

    “Holiness” is a stuffy word, easily misused by the sentimental, but in its oldest origins, it simply means “wholeness.” That is what Liszt was really searching for, and what he came nearer to finding in these, his later years. In his life and in his music, we can see that universal human drama between selfishness and salvation. In it, we can learn something about wholeness, too.


    Franz Liszt was baptized in 1811 under the name Franciscus, after the saint whose influence would stay with him all his life. As a child, he quickly showed himself to be a prodigy. Without formal training, he could play difficult pieces by ear, already impressing listeners with his depth of feeling and emotion at the age of eight. His father, Adam, recognized this spark of talent, and became a tireless promoter and manager of his son’s career. Pulling strings with the wealthy and powerful, Adam found little Franz the best of teachers, and soon he was blowing people away with his virtuosity. As a child of eleven, he was already better than many a trained pianist, and he could sight-read pieces that would take professionals weeks to master.

    Adam took his boy on the road, and Franz played for crowds across Europe. Special pianos soon needed to be manufactured to endure the intensity of young Liszt’s playing (it was not uncommon for him to break a string during a concert). But Franz’s chief wish all this time was to become a priest, and not a pianist. Adam was strictly against this, emphasizing to the boy that his vocation was to art and not to the Church.

    When Franz became a young man, his father died, and he gave up touring for teaching. His thoughts returned to priesthood, but this time his mother forbade it. Disappointed and aimless, Liszt went to Mass every day, prayed, and taught his students. He was looking for his life’s direction. During this time, he saw the great violinist Niccolò Paganini in concert in Paris. Paganini was so talented that many speculated he had made a deal with the devil. He was a sensation. The sight of this otherworldly performance set Liszt alight, and he went again on tour, for the first time as a grown man.

    It was at this time that Liszt gained his reputation as a cad. The weaknesses inherent in his character, both the love of pleasure and the need for approval, were fed by worshipful audiences and eager women. Among his many dalliances, the most notable occurred in this period of his early adulthood, when he began an affair with the Countess Marie d’Agoult. The two would sneak away from the Count D’Agoult in Paris for liaisons in Liszt’s apartment, which he called the “rat hole.” In time, the two would go away to Switzerland, leaving Marie’s husband behind, and producing three children out of wedlock. But the relationship was founded on passion, and never had a real compatibility of character. After several years of strife and drama, it ended decisively.

    photograph of Franz Liszt

    Franz Liszt, 1858 (Public domain)

    At its end, Liszt returned to his scandalous ways, moving from woman to woman, and his performances were more popular than ever. Behind him, he left a string of broken, used hearts and fractured family relationships. Even then, this way of living was never fully satisfying; he described the cycle of drama as “the real demon of extremity in emotion and excitation.” Liszt wanted peace.

    His music at this time was full of emotion and excitation, in a way that almost seems to reflect his breakneck pace of life. Around this time, in 1838, he wrote and performed the Grand galop chromatique, which is exactly what it sounds like, a breathless gallop from start to finish, running up and down the keyboard at exhilarating speed. It had been designed to have the effect of whipping up a crowd, and it worked. But the galloping did slow to a trot in 1847 when Liszt met a princess in Kyiv by the name of Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein.

    The princess was quite unlike the women who had been a part of Liszt’s affairs. She was intellectual, she was commanding, and she was devoutly Catholic. The two fell in love and, under her influence, Liszt left touring for good in order to concentrate on composing his own music.

    During the following decade, which he spent in Weimar, Germany, he composed a great many works. Among the compositions of this period was the 1856 Missa solennis, also known as the Gran mass, to inaugurate a new basilica in Esztergom (Gran), Hungary. This piece, the critic Pius Richter wrote, showed that “inner tension” in Liszt, who wanted the “pleasures of the world and joys of heaven” all at once. There was something to that. Liszt was again a practicing Catholic, praying with Carolyne every day. And yet the two lived together as man and wife despite Carolyne’s marriage to an estranged husband, and Weimar was to witness still one final affair between the composer and a student of his, a married woman. The two men within Liszt continued to abide together, and not at peace.

    My Life Is Simplifying Itself

    By the mid-1860s, Liszt was living alone in the Monastery of our Lady of the Rosary outside of Rome. At that time, the monastery was far enough from the city that it had a feeling of remoteness, and yet from his window Liszt could see mighty Rome spreading out before him like a glorious map, marking out a landscape traversed by saints, artists, and heroes. He would often go into town, and one observer remarked, on seeing the composer strolling about the streets, that he had a “humble manner, and was always smiling.”

    But these smiles came only after a period of deep suffering. In 1859, Liszt had lost his son Daniel to illness and in 1862, his daughter Blandina died from complications of childbirth. These deaths hit him deeply.

    With the death of his own children before him, Liszt’s own death took on a new immediacy. He composed his last will and testament, expressing a desire to return to the light of wholeness he had seen in his childhood, and he committed to excising the self-obsessed part of his soul. “In spite of the numerous transgressions and errors that I have committed, and for which I feel sincere repentance and contrition, the divine light of the Holy Cross has never entirely been withdrawn from me. At times, indeed, it has overflowed my entire soul with its glory,” he wrote, “the glowing and mysterious feeling that has pierced my entire life, as with a sacred wound. Yes, Jesus Christ Crucified, this was ever my true vocation.” The composer had long been both Jekyll and Hyde. But now there was no longer a split personality who lived a lavish, prodigal life at night and prayed and donated to charity in the day. There was only Liszt. As far as can be known, this really did constitute a change to which he would be faithful for the rest of his life.

    Liszt wrote to his cousin Edouard about the impact of the loss of his children, “Blandina has her place in my heart beside Daniel. Both abide with me bringing atonement and purification, mediators with the cry of ‘Sursum corda!’ [lift up your heart!] – When the day comes for Death to approach, he shall not find me unprepared or faint-hearted. Our faith hopes for and awaits the deliverance to which it leads us.” As he reflected on the loss of his children, his understanding of art changed too. Music became a way of prayer: “I must set fires alight for those of my dear ones that are alive, and keep my dear dead in spiritual and corporeal urns. This is the aim and object of the Art task to me.”

    A Second Childhood

    A theme emerges in Liszt’s letters at this time of returning to his boyhood. “You know, dearest mother,” he wrote, “how during the years of my youth, I dreamed myself incessantly into the world of the saints. Nothing seemed to me so self-evident as heaven, nothing so true and so rich in blessedness as the goodness and compassion of God. When I now read the lives of the saints I feel I am meeting again, after a long journey, old and revered friends from whom I shall never part.” To Eduoard, he wrote of a growing clarity of consciousness and peacefulness of heart.

    One lesser-known piece of music from this period powerfully illustrates the drama between light and dark that had been Liszt’s life, and the peace that was now coming over him. Évocation à la Chapelle Sixtine (1862) grew from the experience of sitting in the Sistine Chapel and reflecting on the great pieces of music by the composers Gregorio Allegri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that had been inspired by its beauty.

    The composer had long been both Jekyll and Hyde. But now there was no longer a split personality who lived a lavish, prodigal life at night and prayed and donated to charity in the day.

    The Évocation begins with a low and somber theme from Allegri’s 1638 Miserere, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” It then swirls from the depths as Liszt complicates the theme with chromatic harmonies, growing more and more intense until the listener is wrapped in a kind of apocalyptic frenzy. You can feel the deep grief over sin and despondency over loss, all the conflict of his younger days and the confusion of a soul pulled between good and evil. This battle between sin and darkness on the one hand, and mercy and repentance on the other, occupies the central part of the work, as the serene theme of Mozart’s 1791 Ave verum corpus momentarily breaks the confusions and turmoil, and, finally, guides the work to its conclusion.

    Liszt described the piece this way: “Man’s wretchedness and anguish moan plaintively in the Miserere, and God’s infinite mercy and fulfillment of prayer answer it and sing in Mozart’s Ave verum corpus. This concerns the sublimest of mysteries, the one which reveals to us Love triumphant over evil and death.” Into his old age, Liszt insisted to his students that this piece was not meant for public performance, but only for private contemplation.

    In 1865, Liszt would fulfill his boyhood dream, don the priestly cassock, and become a member of the clergy with minor orders. He was known from thereon out as the Father Liszt, and he presented a striking image to the world. Still with his glorious long hair and handsomely square jaw, this celebrity now strode about in humble black robes and spent his mornings again at the altar.

    But Father Liszt was, of course, still Liszt: he loved to eat and drink wine and smoke cigars and he loved, most of all, to make music and help others make music. He was still just as impressive on the keyboard. At a dinner in Paris around this time, he was presented a newly written piano score before dinner, which he glanced through approvingly. After supper, he played the piece from memory. The cleric was still a genius.

    He did not have to abandon what was good in the young Liszt to become holy; indeed, he could not, if to become holy is really to become whole. His talents as a musician were now lifted up into service. He used them to teach young people at no cost, to raise money for the poor, and to calm the distress of patients at the mental hospital. People who knew him at this time of his life began to speak of an essential generosity and goodness that guided his action.

    The Way of the Cross

    Liszt’s remaining years were by no means as simple or peaceful as he might have hoped. In fact, cares and sufferings only seemed to mount. Around age seventy, his health rapidly declined. He was fatigued, becoming blind, and suffering from asthma and dropsy. His limbs were always swollen and it was painful for him to walk. At the same time, his public reputation was at a low, due in part to some public relations blunders regarding a book he had published on Hungarian music. And family strife meant that he had become estranged from his only remaining daughter, Cosima. Perhaps this can be thought of as recompense for a youth of unbridled pleasure and public adulation, but, as Liszt once counseled his cousin, God sometimes allows terrible trouble to come upon those he loves.

    As Liszt’s life trended toward its close, his music changed in unpredictable ways, anticipating modern composers who lay well in the future. Pieces like Nuages gris (1881) disregard convention and leave the listener hanging with a haunting, desolate feeling. While he wrote the Via crucis, an 1879 choral work detailing the stations of the cross, Liszt was walking his own way of the cross, suffering and lonely. But the cross was for him not only a sign of suffering. The final movement of this work bears the title “Ave crux, spes unica,” that is, “hail the cross, our only hope!” In the end, it was this hope that drove Liszt to give to the world the beauty that has outlasted the suffering and sins of his life. This is meaningful. It is a sign that perhaps, in the end, beauty and wholeness, rather than pain and disarray, have the final word.

    Contributed By NathanBeacom Nathan Beacom

    Nathan Beacom is a writer from Chicago, Illinois. His work on agriculture and the environment and other subjects has appeared in Civil Eats, America Magazine, Front Porch Republic, and elsewhere.

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