I decided to share with you what I’ve been working on for a long time. Almost 3 years ago I listened to Harmonies poétiques et religieuses by Franz Liszt and I had an idea that one day I will play the whole cycle. From that time, I’ve been slowly working on it, playing few movements on different recitals and last few months I decided to bring it all together so I learned it and now I want to share it with you. From Monday I will be posting one movement every evening so you can join me in exploring this beautiful work of art!The whole cycle is composed of 10 movements. The most famous one is Funérailles which most of you heard but other movements are not that often played. During my work on this piece I saw that the structure of the cycle is very carefully planned: the backbone of the whole piece is formed by 3 Christian prayers: Ave Maria, Pater noster and Miserere (no. 2, 5 and 8 ) while other movements are mostly inspired by Alphonse de Lamartine’s poems (no. 3, 4, 6, 9). All those poems have a strong religious and spiritual inspiration which gives the real meaning to the title connecting poetic and religious all the time. Liszt clearly states that religious ideas had a very deep emotional significance for him and with this music he brings it to life. Ancient prayers become full of universal ideas which are presented with unique passion. There are 2 movements inspired by death (no. 4 and no. 7) and they are definitely the most dramatic of the whole set. They are balanced by angelic beauty of no. 3 and no. 6 and by the calm prayers of no. 2 and no. 5. In the end of this one and a half hour journey Liszt brings us to Cantique d’amour, a movement in which he spared no effort to present the final triumph of love. It is really an amazing epic story which Liszt gave us through this piece and that’s why I’m happy to perform it.
Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (Poetic and Religious Harmonies), S.173, is a cycle of piano pieces written by Franz Liszt at Woronince the Polish-Ukrainian country estate of Liszt’s mistress Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein in 1847, and published in 1853. The pieces are inspired by the poetry of Alphonse de Lamartine ,as was Liszt’s symphonic poem Les Préludes
The ten compositions which make up this cycle are:
- Invocation (completed at Woronińce);
- Ave Maria (transcription of choral piece written in 1846);
- Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (‘The Blessing of God in Solitude,’ completed at Woronińce);
- Pensée des morts (‘In Memory of the Dead,’ reworked version of earlier individual composition, Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (1834));
- Pater Noster (transcription of choral piece written in 1846);
- Hymne de l’enfant à son réveil (‘The Awaking Child’s Hymn,’ transcription of choral piece written in 1846);
- Funérailles (October 1849) (‘Funeral’);
- Miserere, d’après Palestrina (after Palestrina);
- La lampe du temple (Andante lagrimoso);
- Cantique d’amour (‘Hymn of Love,’ completed at Woronińce).
Invocation is the first movement of the cycle. As the name suggests it is really epic in character. Following the tradition of all the great poets through centuries, Liszt starts with a call for assistance. I think everything is said in the first verse by Lamartine which Liszt uses as a preface to this movement: Rise up, voice of my soul. It is the rising we can hear in the music – the main motive is always rising and ascending but with it there comes an inverted descending motive which creates tension between those two forces. It is very literally the beginning of the journey, and in it we can already sense where will the journey take us. I like to think of this movement as an introduction to all the ideas we will encounter later. The listener gets an impression that Liszt used every possible way to get everything he could from the instrument. He was searching for sonority and complex sound structures with all the octaves, repeated chords, low bass notes and in the end he even uses the lowest note on the keyboard. He makes it clear that he is very determined and honest in his intention: Rise up, voice of my soul!m
Today we continue with the second movement from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses: Ave Maria. This piece is piano version of music for choir and organ. It is a prayer and like all good prayers it sounds so simple yet carries a lot of hidden meanings. The music very faithfully follows the text and everything we hear is just Liszt’s reflection on the words. That is clear in the middle of the work when the most dissonant and dramatic moments are composed on the word peccatoribus (sinners). In that way Liszt honours the tradition of using chromaticism to express dramatic sections of the text which was often used in sacred vocal music of the past. Also, there are few places where the music imitates liturgical responsorial singing in which a leader alternates with a chorus. The other peculiar thing in Liszt’s notation is that he writes una corda marks everywhere except on the three places which are actually three times God is mentioned in the text of the prayer (those three times he writes tre corde). There is a lot said in this simple piece.
Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (Benediction of God in solitude) is a masterpiece which has a special place in Liszt’s opus. This is the third movement of the cycle, the longest of all ten and definitely one of the most demanding and complex. Liszt writes few verses by Lamartine as a preface. They are about peace and spiritual satisfaction which leads to the resurrection of a new man: „A new man is born within me and starts anew.“ This message is brought forth by the choice of F-sharp major, an unusual and exalted key. Everything in this music speaks of that new energy which brings joy and comfort to man. The melody is repeated many times but each time the accompaniment changes showing always new possibilities and new potential. There is not much to say about this music because it speaks for itself better. Looking at its formal structure we come closer to Liszt the composer, appreciating the technical demands we see Liszt the pianist and understanding the way in which it conveys Lamartine’s poetic ideas we get to know Liszt the artist.
Pensée des morts (Thought of the Dead) is one of the darkest piano pieces by Liszt. It is the strangest and the most experimental piece in the cycle. The first version was originally published in 1835 with the title Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. So in a certain way this movement is the basis of the whole cycle. The first version was an avant-garde music of the time. It was written without time signature with marking senza tempo in the beginning. Apart from that, it was full of performance suggestions written in a way which reminds me of the modern music of our time. The second version (the one I play here) retained a lot from the first one. In it Liszt used very unusual time signatures (5/4, 7/4) and together with harmony, form and the style of writing for the piano we can get an impression that Liszt was striving towards a new musical language which would better suit his ideas. In that way this piece is an attempt to better understand and reach the other world of the dead as the title suggests. The whole character of the piece is in direct contrast with the previous movement. As much as Bénédiction lifts us up, Pensée des morts throws us all the way down to the depths of death. Those are not my dramatic interpretations of the music but Liszt’s own ideas presented clearly in the score. After heavy use of fortissimo passages, accents, unusual harmonic progressions and multiple chromatic scales Liszt leads us to the series of repeating fortissimo chords in the lowest piano register writing the text of the psalm De profundis (from the depths). He used all compositional means to lead us to the depths after which follows the last section of the piece. It is a very calm melody consisting of one repeated tone reminding the listener of the death bells tolling in the distance. All things considered I think that this piece is the most demanding one for the pianist and for the listener. Liszt pushes to its limits both tonal structure, harmony, piano as an instrument and the performer’s abilities and leaves us with only one tone resonating in the distance.
The fifth movement of the cycle is Pater noster. It is a plain musical setting of the Latin text. Like in vocal music, Liszt writes the text of the prayer in the score. When we look at all the movements in the cycle, it is interesting that Liszt puts the simplest and shortest one in the middle. I think that shows the special place this movement has for the whole cycle. It is the heart of the cycle and with its strong message it doesn’t need any special effects neither in compositional, technical, formal, nor in any other way. When I play this piece I have a feeling that this music is on the border of not being music in a classical sense because it just flows with the words. There is no effort needed, just listening to the prayer. In that way Liszt accomplishes an atmosphere of ancient spirituality and Gregorian chant which brings the listener as close as possible to the intentions of the words.
Harmonies poétiques et religieuses continue with Hymne de l’enfant à son réveil (The Awaking Child’s Hymn) which is again inspired by Lamartine’s poem. The character of the piece is quite similar to the Bénédiction, but this movement is much shorter and simpler. The music precisely reflects the poem which is a child’s prayer. In its simplicity and beauty the child knows God listens and prays for the whole world: „Since he hears from so far the wishes that we send, I want to ask over and over for what others need.“ We can hear those clear, selfless and inspiring intentions in Liszt’s music.k
Funérailles is a fascinating work. This very intense and colorful music was inspired by many events that happened during the time it was written. Liszt writes „October 1849“ in the score. It has a strong political background because in 1848 and 1849 Hungary went through revolution which failed resulting in execution of Hungarian generals and prime minister in October 1849. We can see that Liszt felt the burden of those difficult times. Apart from that, Frederic Chopin died the same month, which was another tragedy for Liszt because they were good friends and held each other in high regard. Through Funérailles Liszt was definitely sending a message about all the things he went through. It is interesting that he managed to connect those two tragedies in this piece. He payed homage to Chopin with the middle part of Funérailles which was clearly inspired by Chopin’s Heroic Polonaise. The whole piece is like a picture of war which results in execution and grief. The piece itself gained popularity and it is mostly performed outside of the cycle but I think it is deeply connected to all the other movements and essential to the structure of Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. It is the second movement of the cycle inspired by death and it ends without resolving all the questions which are presented. The story isn’t finished, it continues with Miserere.
The eight movement is Miserere, d’après Palestrina. It is the third prayer of the cycle, after Ave Maria and Pater noster with which it shares a lot of similarities. Liszt was once again inspired by liturgical singing and managed to bring it to the piano. The text is written in the score, it is a plea for mercy from the beginning of the 50th Psalm. There are 3 distinct parts, like three variations on one theme, each with a different character and different way of using the instrument. In the first one Liszt presents the theme in a vocal manner, in the second he uses tremolos in the upper piano register and the third one is full of arpeggios which sound through entire keyboard. I think that this piece explores all the nuances of the text. After the tragedy of Funérailles Liszt prays, asks for mercy and tries to resolve the tension which is still integral part of this music. It is interesting to see that the next movement is called Andante lagrimoso with the preface from Lamartine: „Fall, silent tears, on earth without pity.“ All those movements one after another tell a story of a process of penance. Using modern words we could say it is about finding one’s own inner peace.
Andante lagrimoso has a special place within the cycle. It is the only movement without French or Latin title, but it has a preface with few verses from a poem by Lamartine. I think this piece is the most intimate one from the cycle and Liszt’s way of composing is a bit different than in other movements. There are no bombastic passages or brilliant technical inventions, just the contrary, everything is so simple but filled with meaning. Liszt’s musical ideas are clear from his markings in the score but he often uses just a single chord to express a lot of things which would usually be done using more material. I think that is why this music sounds so intimate and fragile. The first version of the piece is called La lampe du temple after a poem by Lamartine. It uses a metaphor of an oil lamp burning in the temple to illustrate soul standing before God. It is really a mystical poem dealing with the most complex questions of human nature. All musical material from Andante lagrimoso is already present in Liszt’s La lampe du temple but what is different is the way of presenting them. Andante lagrimoso is like a synthesis of La lampe du temple, but much more intimate and simple. I think that is also the biggest difficulty in interpreting this piece. There is so much to say and in comparison so little notes to play. Maybe the best example of that is the ending in which there are so much changes in just four chords. With this piece Liszt brings piano to the border of its expressive capabilities and with the tragic ending he sets the scene for the last movement of the cycle.
Finally we come to the end of this amazing cycle. Cantique d’amour is a movement which concludes this epic story in the best possible way. All the tension, drama and tragedy is resolved with one simple melody which is repeated many times while the accompaniment grows, becomes bigger, louder and leads us to the final chords which not only conclude this movement but the whole cycle. It is interesting to observe the similarities between the first and the last movement: both are in E-major and both share some similar musical ideas. The endings of Invocation and Cantique d’amour sound as if they reply to each other. After Cantique d’amour nothing more can be said. The main message and the main idea, as the title suggests, is love. What Liszt does is very interesting because he takes all the drawbacks of a piano as an instrument and manages to overcome them. The theme consists of very long notes and forms a big phrase which can only be achieved if we make a crescendo on those long notes which, of course, piano cannot do. When a note is played on a piano it only becomes quieter with time but Liszt decides to go against that. Using all kinds of accompaniment which is always rising on the keyboard he creates an illusion of crescendo which is becoming more and more intense. In that way the theme gains its structure and sounds full of energy. Liszt’s love for the piano and its sound overcomes all difficulties and he shows us that with a right attitude everything becomes possible.
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