When Liszt arrived in Rome, capital of the Papal State, the city was passing through its death throes. Though divested of a large part of its territory, Rome was the last island of stubborn resistance to the Risorgimento, the Italian movement of national unification that proclaimed democratic ideas.
The troops of Napoleon I I I , Emperor of France, defended the city. (Liszt, decorated in 1860 with the Croix d’officier and in 1861 with that of the Commander of the Legion d’Honneur, was a great admirer of Napoleon I I I , taking him and his regime for a most democratic and liberal one). In September 1870, with the fall of Louis- Napoleon Bonaparte, Rome “fell.” It became the capital of Victor Emmanuel’s Kingdom of Italy, and the pope lost his temporal power.
The Roman chapter is the most puzzling period of Liszt’s life. When it became clear that he would no longer stay in Weimar, he first wrote to Princess Carolyne, who was already living in Rome, that the Eternal City would not suit him, and they would go somewhere else. (The Princess wrote to Cornelius on 28 July 1865 that she “would rather suffer here [in Rome], than be happy elsewhere.”19) Liszt arrived for the planned wedding only to find the pope had annulled it at the last minute. This annulment must have been a terrible blow to the princess, but i f Liszt felt frustrated or relieved, we do not know. The differences between him and the princess that became more and more pronounced later on suggest that he might have felt relieved. What we do know is that Princess Carolyne would have by all means expected to become his wife. Afterwards, she became increasingly involved in the tenets of religion, sank deeper and deeper into her own exalted, mystical world, and locked herself in her dark rooms. Sometime in 1875 she wrote to Liszt’s “cousin” Eduard Liszt in Vienna, complaining bitterly about the “lack of regard for a woman he [Liszt] has accepted everything from and should be the husband of.” It seems, however, that the topic of their marriage became struck off the agenda for the years to come. Not even the death of Carolyne’s husband, Prince Nicholas Sayn- Wittgenstein in March 1864, altered the silence about this issue so far as we know. Liszt and the princess did not live together, although Liszt visited her regularly, despite all of their increasing differences.
Liszt, nevertheless, still did not leave Rome. He established himself in the Eternal City and did not move at all in Rome until 1864. He remained in the city until 1869 and returned frequently, almost every year until his death. Liszt had several reasons to remain in Rome, although he himself did not reveal them. The first was his long standing attraction towards church music. As early as 1835 in one of his articles, he indignantly lamented the shameful and scandalous situation, the “stupid and pervasive howling” he called it, that prevailed in French churches under the name of church music. His experiences were the same in Italy during 1838 and 1839: the glory of church music in Rome (except in the Sistine Chapel) belonged to the past. Moreover, in Genoa, the unspeakable organ improvisations were based “on bows of the prima donna and the amorous grimaces of the first tenor of last night’s opera performance,” as Liszt wrote in his essay “Genes et Florence” in 1839. From his youth, he was interested in Gregorian chant and in the Renaissance masters, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Orlando di Lasso. Liszt developed their modality into romantic neo-modality. He composed his first Mass (S 8) for male choir in 1848, the Gran Mass between 1855 and 1858, and arrived in Rome with his oratorio Die Legende von der heiligen Elisabeth (S 2) in progress. He had not ceased claiming that he believed his chief duty as a composer was to produce new and valuable church music. The brother-in-law of Princess Marie Sayn-Wittgenstein, the later Cardinal Gustav Hohenlohe, living in Rome, held out the promise of seemingly marvelous opportunities for him in the Eternal City and made Liszt believe that he would be able to reform church music according to his own conceptions. No task more appealing could have been offered to him. His dream (and Carolyne’s) was for him to become a new Palestrina. It was for this reason that he became an abbe. He received the tonsure on 25 April 1865 and minor orders on 30 July. To join the church had never been a strange idea to Liszt since he had been a sincere Catholic, with a certain attraction towards mysticism. In his early youth, his father and later his mother had prevented him from becoming a priest. Neither was Madame Anna Liszt happy to know that on 23 June 1857 he became confrater of the Franciscans in Pest, and she burst into tears when informed about his receiving minor orders. Liszt, nevertheless, soon realized that his reform plans did not interest the church, like those of Gaspare Spontini’s large-scale Rapporto intorno la riforma della musica di chiesa had in 1839. The church was not inclined to accept new ideas, not even in the field of music. Although he had wanted to become the choirmaster at St. Peter’s Basilica, it was impossible for him as a foreigner and still less likely for him as an artist of very subjective religiosity, who as a composer “entered the music of Venusberg into the church.” After his many disappointments in the sphere of secular music, he suffered an even worse lack of comprehension and success in the domain of sacred art.
In addition to the irresistible attraction of the marvellous beauty of Rome and its surroundings, Liszt had another more serious reason to settle down there. He hoped with priestly asceticism to overcome his own self, the demon that dwelt within him. Unfortunately, he was not able to. As a result, he became a “piano playing abbe” (called so by his pupil Carl Tausig in a letter to Cornelius on 24 August 1865) and an “abbe courtesan” (as noted his friend Michelangelo Caetani, Duke of Sermoneta, in a letter to the Grand Duke of Weimar, 21 May 1865). Liszt was seeking tranquillity, yearning to create, and yet thirsting for entertainment and success. He continued to perform on the piano with pleasure in the salons of aristocrats, diplomats, and prelates, and also played at numerous benefit concerts in Rome and Tivoli. In the company of distinguished men, beautiful ladies, strong cigars, wine, and cognac, he soon forgot the behaviour that was part and parcel of his priestly garb. Even when retiring from the centre of Rome, he chose places where visitors could readily reach him. Like Beethoven’s “Prayer for inner and outer peace,” Liszt sought peace in various cloisters and apartments during the 1860s. On 20 June 1863 he moved to the cloister “Madonna del Rosario” at the Monte Mario, where Pope Pius IX visited him on 11 July. For a short time when receiving the tonsure on 25 April 1865, Liszt lived in the Vatican apartment of Monsignor Hohenlohe. On 22 November 1866 he moved to the cloister of Santa Francesca Romana at the Forum and travelled in lovely Umbria, staying by the shore of the Adriatic Sea in Grotta Mare with his friend, the Abbe Solfanelli, during July and August 1868. After a short visit between May and June 1865 and then almost every autumn from 1868 until his death, Liszt lived as a guest of Cardinal Hohenlohe at Tivoli in the chilly and uncomfortable Renaissance Villa d’Este, with its marvellous garden of cypresses and fountains.
In Rome, he continued his activity of teaching without pay and held master classes in which his many pupils from Italy and as well as from abroad performed. Although his projects concerning a church career and reforms of sacred music proved a fiasco, he resumed his interest in secular, symphonic, and chamber music. Interest in these types of music from “beyond the Alps” had slowly developed in Rome. In some of the concerts Liszt’s own works were performed.
From August to October 1864, several journeys took him away from work. He first returned to Germany to take part at Karlsruhe Music Festival. He then visited Munich, Weimar, Berlin, and Paris, and returned to Rome in October. Between 9 August and 12 September 1865, he stayed in Hungary: he attended the premier of his Legend of St. Elisabeth in Pest, and spent a week in the little town Szekszard as guest of his best Hungarian friend, Baron Antal Augusz. From the beginning of March until 15 May 1866, he was in Paris for the performance of his Gran Mass, including a side trip to the Netherlands. In June 1867 he visited Pest again at the coronation of Francis Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth as King and Queen of Hungary because of the country’s compromise with Austria. The ceremony took place in Buda Castle, in the Matthias Church, while Liszt’s Coronation Mass was performed. In July, he returned to Weimar and Meiningen (Music Festival), directed St. Elisabeth at Wartburg castle near Eisenach, and stayed in Munich before returning to Rome. In 1868, his last Roman year, he did not leave Italy, but stayed in the Eternal City except for a short journey to the Villa d’Este.
Several painful incidents occurred making it difficult for Liszt to work at times during the 1860s. On 11 September 1862 he lost his second child: the charming Blandine Ollivier died in Saint-Tropez from complications of childbirth. On 6 February 1866 his mother Anna died in Paris. In addition, his only living child, Cosima, gave him enormous trouble. Liszt knew of Wagner and Cosima’s secret love already in 1864 and tried everything possible to save her marriage with von Biilow. In August 1864 he appealed to Cosima’s feelings in Karlsruhe and to those of Wagner at Lake Starnberg. In August 1865 he invited Cosima and von Biilow to Pest and Szekszard for the same purpose of keeping them together. In April 1866 he tried to speak with his daughter in Amsterdam and attempted to convince her again in Munich as late as October 1867. From the Bavarian capital, he secretly paid a short visit to Wagner who was living in Triebschen, Switzerland, after having been exiled by King Louis I I because of the scandal around Wagner and the Biilow couple in Munich. Neither Cosima nor Wagner listened to him. Cosima finally left her husband in the summer of 1868 and joined Wagner with her four daughters, two of which were Wagner’s children. There followed a terrible, painful break of several years between father and daughter. Wagner and Cosima married in 1870, but it was not until the end of September 1871 that Liszt insisted on reconciliation. The reunion of the three finally took place in September 1872 when Wagner and Cosima visited Liszt in Weimar.
These were the familial sorrows. He also had to endure similar sorrows, in particular, his plans for reforming church music. Never did a failure cause him such tremendous and everlasting grief as the terrible reception of his Gran Mass in Paris on 15 March 1866 at St. Eustache Church. Even the amiable reception in Holland in April, where he always had been popular, was a poor consolation to him.
The result of all these external and internal obstacles was that his works did not progress as he would have liked. On 11 November 1867, he wrote to Baron Augusz: “At least 4 or 5 hours a day writing music should be accomplished, without which [ . . . ] I am in bad humor and lose any sense of what I am doing in this world.” Although neglected for a long time, Liszt’s output during his Roman years is not poor at all; on the contrary, it contains compositions in several genres of great value and importance. As a whole, this Roman chapter of his life could be called L’apres-midi d’un Faune, preceding the last period that the outstanding Hungarian scholar Bence Szabolcsi called “twilight.” The Roman years can be appreciated as a huge step forward after Weimar. Liszt composed many of his most beautiful and moving compositions during this period, pushing in several directions trends that would lead to the coming century.
Heroes such as the rebel Prometheus, symbolizing enlightenment, or the ruminating Faust or Hamlet no longer inspired his works. His motto was caritas (charity), and il gran perdono di Dio—the great remission. His ideals became charitable, and his figures for inspiration became forgiving persons like Saint Elisabeth of the Arpad Dynasty, his patron saint Francis of Paola, Saint Francis of Assisi, or the Redeemer Himself. Literature remained the intermediary, but instead of Byron, Shakespeare, Dante, Schiller, or Nikolaus Lenau, it was the Fioretti (the flower garden), the Cantico del Sol of Saint Francis of Assisi, and other sacred texts that inspired his music.
He wrote a few independent orchestral pieces. La notte (S 699) is a version of the dark and expressive Michelangelo piece entitled II penseroso, from the Italian volume of Annees de pelerinage, with a new, explicitly Hungarian middle section. This work and Le triomphe funebre du Tasse (S 517) constitute, with the “oraison” Les morts (S 516), the Trois odes funebres.
The diverse piano works were all significant, including the grandiose and staggering funeral piece inspired by J. S. Bach, the variations written on the “Crucifixus” bass theme of the Mass in B minor: Weinen, Klagen (S 180) that Liszt composed in memory of Blandine in 1862. Liszt composed another funeral music, a March, in memory of the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian who was executed in Mexico in 1867. This March is an extraordinarily exciting piece and a forerunner of his late style, included in the third volume of Annees de pelerinage (S 163). Liszt further enriched the piano’s potential for musical color in his Zwei Konzertetiiden (S 145) and the Deux Legendes: St. Franqois d’Assise: la predication aux oiseaux and St. Franqois de Paule marchant sur les flots (S 175).
He composed most of his large-scale sacred works during this period as well. The Mass (S 8) for male choir received its final form in 1869 destined for Szekszard. Liszt called it ma messe Sexardique. The Missa Choralis (S 10), composed in 1865, and the Requiem for male choir (S 12), written in memory of Emperor Maximilian, belong to the best of his oeuvre, while the Hungarian Coronation Mass (S 11), completed in 1869, is a more formal, occasional work. The two grandiose oratorios, Die Legende von der heiligen Elisabeth (S 2) and Christus (S 3), are both long, the first taking three hours and the second even more. Neither of these oratorios is homogeneous in style and quality, but each remains of considerable artistic value. Both contain delicately orchestrated and beautiful movements. Christus, especially, contains highly dramatic and moving sections. Liszt also composed a number of small sacred choral works often with organ accompaniment. Mihi autem adhaerere (S 37), Pater noster (S 49), and Tantum ergo (S 42) are expressive works, reduced to essentials and composed with the most economic tools, representing Liszt’s late, ascetic style. In 1862 he composed the beautiful Cantico del Sol di Francesco d’Assisi (S 4) for baritone solo, male choir, and organ that he revised between 1880 and 1881.
His musical language in his Roman period include more extensive and freer use of chromaticism and more frequent use of Gregorian melodies, modality, and his individual neo-modality. Liszt uses Hungarian elements with ever greater frequency in a more and more idealized, abstract, and individual manner. His piano works move toward impressionism, and his sacred works begin to shed any superfluous elements. All of these changes intensify further in his last period, La vie trifurquee.