Liszt’s Bénédiction

June 8, 2011

This year is a Liszt anniversary year — his 200th birthday is coming up in October — and I have been listening to a lot of Liszt in the meantime, focusing, as you would expect, on his piano music, but also making forays into his chamber, orchestral, and even choral music. It has been a good education for me, for although I have known certain of his big showpieces (Totentanz, Sonata in B minor, certain opera transcriptions) in an offhand way I must admit that I have not taken him all that seriously. I have tended to buy into the caricature of Liszt of a somewhat vulgar showman who piled up heaps of notes to get an easy round of applause.

After spending quite a few hours with Liszt over the last six months, I am ready to agree that that portrait is a caricature. There is some truth in it, of course (for there are heaps of notes), but there is more musical substance in his work than I had expected. He wrote some very lovely chamber music for cello and piano, for instance, and his Schubert transcriptions are a treasure. I have been getting to know the mighty Sonata in B minor in more detail, and it is amazing.

I have also been exploring the religious side of Liszt. Both early in life and late (though not so much in the middle) he was a devout Catholic, and he wrote a considerable amount of music on Catholic themes: music for Mary, music inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, music for Christmas and Easter, and so forth. Perhaps my favourite of his religious pieces, however, is Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, a long (20 minute), gentle, luminous, and transporting meditation for piano. It stands with the very best of his work, and might, I think, be counted among the finest purely instrumental compositions on a sacred theme in the entire tradition.

I am thinking of this today because Inside Catholic has “re-printed” a good essay by Stephen Hough (himself a very fine pianist) which explores Liszt’s spiritual journey and sacred music in some detail, focusing on the Bénédiction as an outstanding example of his art:

The Benediction is a work celebrating the love affair between a soul and God; solitude, not as a denial of love, but as a concentrated immersion in the life of God who is Love. In this way, the idea of solitude sheds its negative connotations. The heart, free from an attachment to the particular, can love the All. Liszt’s profound awareness of these truths expresses itself in a seraphic sublimation in the Benediction. Absent is any sense of loneliness, for this is not a turning inward to escape from people or reality but a joyous stretching outward to God, and from Him to others.

I recommend reading the entire essay, as Hough is a rare example of someone who is both musically and religiously literate. In the meantime, here is a video of Jorge Bolet playing roughly the last half of the Bénédiction.

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