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Hyperion Records

CDA67199 - Liszt: Missa Choralis & Via Crucis
Recording details: March 2000
St Alban's Church, Holborn, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: October 2000
Total duration: 71 minutes 54 seconds


'A disc in a million. Matthew Best gives the music’s every moment of excitement its full impact – stunning. Makes essential listening' (Gramophone)

'On excellent form, the Corydon Singers give an impassioned account, rich in tone and dynamic contrast and, above all, exemplary in the matters of ensemble and balance. Majestic sound' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Strongly recommended' (Fanfare, USA)

'I find the Corydon Singers' performance of Via Crucis utterly compelling and truly memorable … an essential Passiontide recording' (Organists' Review)

Missa Choralis & Via Crucis
Kyrie  [6'22] GreekEnglish
Gloria  [4'57] LatinEnglish
Credo  [7'21] LatinEnglish

Liszt's position as a composer for the Church has always been controversial. The paradox that the most modern composer of the age, the supporter of the revolutionary ideals of 1789, 1830 and 1848, ended up writing music for an institution regarded as a bastion of everything conservative and reactionary, has led to a questioning of Liszt's motives. With the rapidly advancing secularization of culture, Liszt was seen as disillusioned, and his decision to take minor orders in 1865 was considered a startling about-turn for one so worldly.

In fact, Liszt wrote sacred music with reform in mind. The dismal state of church music in the first half of the nineteenth century, when it was common to hear opera cabalettas sung to liturgical words, encouraged him to go back to plainsong and the music of Palestrina for inspiration. Composed in 1865, the year he took minor orders, the Missa Choralis embodies these twin elements. The influence of plainsong pervades the thematic material, albeit refocused through Liszt's boldly original and expressively chromatic harmonic language.

Via Crucis (1866-1878) is an extraordinary work. It is a devotion describing the journey of Christ carrying the Cross, divided into fourteen 'stations' or stages. Most Catholic churches have pictures or statuettes of these scenes along the walls of the nave, usually seven on each side. The devotion consists of meditations on each scene, usually in the form of prayers and singing. If the number of participants is not too large, they move around the church in a group, stopping at each station. This was what Liszt visualized when he composed the music, and in one of his most deeply personal works, he presents a series of radically expressionistic, intense miniatures.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Liszt composed four settings of the Mass, of which the Missa Choralis is the third (the others are the male-voice Mass of 1848, the Gran Mass of 1855 and the Hungarian Coronation Mass of 1866). The Missa Choralis is the only one for the traditional forces of mixed choir and organ, as such being more frequently performed liturgically than the others, two of which require full orchestra, choir and soloists. It was composed in Rome in 1865, partly in the Vatican where in April Liszt stayed as a guest of the Papal Chamberlain, Cardinal Gustav Hohenlohe, and partly at the Villa d’Este. 1865 was an important year in the religious life of Liszt, as he received the tonsure followed by the four minor orders, and entered the Catholic Church. Henceforth he was known as the Abbé Liszt.

The position of Liszt as a composer for the Church has always been controversial, never more so than in his own day, when the world took his entry into orders as a startling about-turn for a man so worldly. Today, though, with the advantage of hindsight, we can try to see the composer whole, and concentrate on his works independently of his colourful life. We now have a greater knowledge of human psychology, including religious psychology, and it is clear that Liszt, who outside music was very devout, belonged to a religious type found in all cultures and at all times. Our own age is usually called secular—a secular world which in the nineteenth century was quickly gaining ground. To some extent Liszt’s career must be seen in relation to this, his reaction giving rise to the paradox whereby the most modern composer of his age, the supporter of the revolutionary ideals of 1789, 1830 and 1848, ended up writing music for an institution regarded by many as still medieval, a bastion of everything conservative, reactionary, and increasingly irrelevant. The advent of Marxism in the twentieth century only contributed to the false notion that Liszt was disillusioned, and the Church itself at an end.

When Liszt met Cardinal Hohenlohe in Germany in 1859, he told him in confidence about his plan to reform church music. As a result, Hohenlohe wrote from Rome inviting him to stay with him in the Vatican should he visit the city. Liszt had last been there in 1839, at which time he had heard music by Palestrina sung in the Sistine Chapel. Liszt’s musical reform was not a systematically worked-out plan, but a reaction to the dismal state of church music in the first half of the nineteenth century, when in France and Italy it was common to hear opera cabalettas sung to liturgical words. Liszt was one of the earliest musicians to advocate the restoration of plainsong. Among his sixty or so church works is a collection of plainsong antiphons for Christmas and Easter with added harmony (Responses and Antiphons, S30). The harmonisation of plainsong was widely discussed in Liszt’s lifetime, particularly in France, and to some extent it formed the basis of his church style. It is part of Liszt’s genius that such an erroneous concept could have led to the production of masterpieces. The Missa Choralis is built initially on a musical ideal compounded of plainsong and Palestrina, the twin elements of Liszt’s imagined reform, which in the 1840s pre-dated the founding in 1867 of the Cäcilien-Verein in Germany, with its not dissimilar ideals.

Liszt referred to this Mass in his letters as ‘a cappella’. Another name he gave it was ‘Messe de Jubilé’. The jubilee was the 1800th anniversary in 1866 of the founding of the Holy See in AD66. Liszt said at the time that he intended to dedicate the work to Pope Pius IX. It seems clear that Liszt had designs on a performance in the Sistine Chapel, the home of the Palestrina tradition and a cappella performance, and the heart of any attempt he might propose at reform. There is, however, no record of a performance there—perhaps he encountered opposition from Salvatore Meluzzi, the choirmaster at the Sistine, who was a conservative musician and outlived Liszt by eleven years. In the event the Mass was published in 1869 by Kahnt without a dedication and with an organ accompaniment.

The key of the work is D minor/D major, though the opening Kyrie has no key signature and is written as if in the Dorian mode, a pseudo-Renaissance conceit on Liszt’s part. The Christe ends in D major with two sharps, and the other movements are in G (Gloria), D (Credo), B flat (Sanctus and Benedictus) and D (‘Dona nobis pacem’); a genuine D minor with the flat key signature occurs only at the Agnus Dei, one of the most poignant settings in the mass literature. Liszt’s emphasis in the work on D major may be a ‘royal’ association (the key for example of the march from the symphonic poem Mazeppa, which has the inscription ‘Il s’élève roi’, and of the motet Domine salvum fac regem—‘God save the king’)—especially as he told his companion Princess Carolyne von Sayn Wittgenstein that the tonsure ‘signifies the “royal dignity” of those admitted into the ranks of the clergy’.

Although the influence of plainsong on the thematic material is evident, there are only two actual quotations, one a ‘Credo in unum Deum’ intonation used also in the male-voice Mass, and the other an antiphon given fugal treatment at the start of the Kyrie. This antiphon is taken from Vespers on the Feast of Corpus Christi and has the text ‘Sacerdos in aeternam Christus Dominus secundum ordinem Melchisedech, panem et vinum obtulit’ (‘Christ the Lord a priest for ever in the line of Melchizedek brought bread and wine’). Clearly Liszt’s choice of this material in 1865 was influenced by biographical factors. (In Renaissance England this same melody, with the words ‘Gloria tibi Trinitas’, formed the cantus firmus of the In Nomine.) The Christe is homophonic and in F major, its key of one flat remaining for the reprise of the Kyrie. The word ‘eleison’ is sung repeatedly in D major at the end.

A fortissimo unison phrase heard at the outset dominates the Gloria. Its piano response in four-part harmony for ‘et in terra pax’ illustrates the principle of textural contrast used in the movement, which has no real fugal writing. The vigorous theme is used imitatively at the ‘Laudamus’, and the ‘Domine Deus’, at the end appearing in augmentation at the ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’. The ‘qui tollis’ is marked ‘Lento assai’ and has expressive chromatic harmony. The original ‘Animato’ returns at the ‘Quoniam tu solus’ with the earlier four-part music, forming a climax at ‘Jesu Christe’. The ‘Amen’ leads effectively from a G sharp minor tonality straight back to the G major of the opening.

The Credo is built mainly as a series of variations on the plainsong intonation, sung fortissimo in unison by the choir at the outset. Liszt casts the melody in triple time, which gives the movement impetus as far as the ‘descendit de coelis’, an Adagio in 2/2 time passing into F sharp major at the ‘et incarnatus est’. The ‘Crucifixus’ returns to the variation technique, restoring the earlier tempo, but putting the theme into the minor mode. Gradually energy is released, taking the music to a climax at ‘iterum venturus est’, with again a 2/2 signature, but no change of tempo. A pause on ‘non erit finis’ leads to the ‘et in Spiritum Sanctum’, where the triple-time rhythm dominates right throughout the ‘confiteor’. ‘Amen’ statements sung in a jubilant 2/2 end the movement, whose final bars repeat grandly the opening unison intonation motive.

The Sanctus, marked ‘Solenne’, is in 6/4 time, Liszt introducing a clever syncopation throwing the second and third ‘Sanctus’ statements off-beat. The solid harmony here is a long way from Palestrina, but the music is superbly imagined. The most active organ writing of the Mass appears at the ‘pleni sunt coeli’ whose energy is released into a captivating change of metre at ‘gloria tua’. The ‘Hosanna’ statements are quiet, a series of triads leading imperceptibly from B major back to B flat major. The Benedictus, marked ‘Andante quieto’, is an example of how Liszt can compose simple music to great effect. The return of ‘Hosanna’, instead of using the earlier music, is the occasion for a passage of real beauty with inner parts moving between held pedal notes in the soprano and bass.

The expressive harmonic ingenuity of the Agnus Dei, marked ‘Lento assai’, is again an example of Liszt’s compositional genius in a simple context—nobody would expect such music from the piano virtuoso. The third ‘Agnus’ leads to the ‘Dona nobis pacem’, where Liszt gives the mass a cyclic character by re-introducing music from the Kyrie, spanning out the word ‘pacem’ with pedal notes as in the second ‘Hosanna’. A series of measured ‘Amen’ statements to the earlier ‘eleison’ music ends the work in a resplendent D major.

Liszt began Via Crucis in 1866 when he lived near the Colosseum at the Church of Santa Francesca Romana, and finished it at the Villa d’Este in the summer of 1878. A copyist’s manuscript with Liszt’s autograph corrections containing three versions of the work, one choral, one for organ solo, and one for piano solo, is dated by the composer ‘F. Liszt Budapest 26 Février 79’. In 1874 he wrote that the work would not be ‘learned or ostentatious’, but ‘simple reflections of my youthful emotions—which remain indestructible across all the trials of the years!’ The texts were chosen by the Princess Wittgenstein, whom Liszt thanked in 1877: ‘You have arranged admirably the texts for the Via Crucis. I shall try to thank you in my composition …’ The work was rejected for publication by Pustet in Regensburg basically because it was too original and would not sell. It remained unpublished and unperformed in Liszt’s lifetime. The first performance took place in Budapest on Good Friday 1929, conducted by the composer Artur Harmat, Professor of Church Music at the Liszt Academy (the Department of Church Music was abolished in 1950 and reinstated in 1989).

‘The Way of the Cross’ is a devotion which describes the journey of Christ carrying the Cross, divided into fourteen stages or ‘stations’. Most Catholic churches have pictures or statuettes of these scenes along the walls of the nave, usually seven on each side. The devotion consists of meditations on each scene, usually in the form of prayers and singing. If the number of participants is not too large, they move around the church in a group, stopping at each station. This was what Liszt visualized when he composed the music.

The devotion originated with the Franciscans, who as guardians of the holy places in Jerusalem began to erect models in their churches, which acted as a substitute for an actual visit to Jerusalem. In the eighteenth century the order was allowed to grant permission for stations to be erected in other churches. The devotion is a form of Passion, and is particularly associated with Lent. The number of stations has not always been fourteen; sometimes as few as eleven were used. Today it is common to add a fifteenth in order to end with the Resurrection rather than with the tomb. Although Liszt set only the fourteen stations, he adds a short epilogue in keeping with the positive ending favoured today.

Liszt wrote a foreword to the work in which he refers to The Way of the Cross as ‘a service for the souls of the dead’. He also describes a Service of the Stations he once attended on Good Friday in the open air at the Colosseum, and suggests that perhaps on another occasion a harmonium could be used to support the music. ‘I should be indeed happy if some day my music could be sounded there, however, even so it would be insufficient to express my innermost emotion which overwhelmed me when once there, amidst a pious procession, I knelt and several times repeated the words: O! Crux Ave! Spes unica!’

It is clear that Via Crucis belongs among the most personal works of Liszt. In particular its theme of the Cross relates it to other works. Liszt in fact used a three-note musical symbol of the Cross (consisting of a rising tone plus minor third, soh-lah-doh, an intonation from plainsong) in several works, including the male-voice Mass, the Gran Mass, the symphonic poem The Battle of the Huns and the ‘Dante’ Symphony. It can also be found in the two oratorios, The Legend of St Elisabeth and Christus, as well as the Faust-Symphonie, the First Piano Concerto and the B minor Piano Sonata. Here Liszt uses the motif, quite logically, to set the words quoted in his preface: ‘O crux, ave’, sung immediately before Station I.

Via Crucis belongs to the large group of works by Liszt based on pictures or statues. The list is too long to give here, but pianists will think straightaway of Sposalizio, Il Penseroso, and the two St Francis Legends. Among the orchestral works are Orpheus, The Battle of the Huns and From the Cradle to the Grave. As programme music, the interest of these works lies partly in how Liszt added the time element to an art form that does not contain it—a picture is static and unchanging. In many cases Liszt chose the picture for what it symbolized—usually something with a religious content. Although he is credited with formal innovations, his real genius lay in creating musical character—an originality amounting to new coinage, both thematic and harmonic. Liszt renewed the musical language, which is why he was so influential. It is the immediacy of his message which is arresting, and this may explain the visionary nature of some of his early and late music. Liszt does not present a musical argument; he gives statements. This literal cast of mind works well in the religious works. In Christus the storm is a storm (a terrific orchestral noise), the miracle a miracle (the orchestra falls silent at the voice of Christ); the nativity is child-like, the three kings are splendid, the Crucifixion is terrible. In Via Crucis, the same mentality operates, but as if through a magnifying glass, creating intense miniatures. The nailing to the Cross is conveyed in hideous grinding staccato discords. The compassion of Veronica lies in the curve of an unadorned melodic line. The carrying of the Cross produces a heavy mind-numbing trudge. The meeting with Mary is a mixture of anguish and heart-ease in music of great harmonic originality. Liszt is direct, uncompromising—and extremely modern. His method is expressionistic. He says to us: ‘This is real.’ In Via Crucis we meet the man who believed.

As a programmatic composer, Liszt was able to provide the musical equivalent of a meditative commentary, along the lines of the texts printed in books of the Stations. An example is his use of the Stabat Mater at the three stations where Jesus stumbles (Nos III, VII, IX). Here we see Mary with Jesus in the picture at these points. Another striking comment is perhaps theological: when the women of Jerusalem meet Jesus, he tells them not to weep for him, but for their children. Liszt at this point adds a vivid passage for the organ redolent of martial trumpets, but unresolved in its tonality, indeed including fortissimo whole-tone chords. It may be that Liszt is referring to the ‘tuba mirum’ of the Day of Judgment.

Again, tonality here is also a comment. The key of the work is D minor, and this reflects Liszt’s ‘service for the souls of the dead’ comment, as nearly all Liszt’s D minor works have this association (for example De Profundis of 1834 for piano and orchestra, the ‘Dante’ Sonata, Totentanz, and Mazeppa—who ‘dies’, then rises). The ending in D major restates the music for Mary.

Liszt used two Latin hymns and two German chorales. The Latin hymns are Vexilla regis and Stabat Mater. Both melodies are found in the Liber Usualis, and were used by Liszt in other works. Vexilla regis occurs at Vespers on Passion Sunday, and was used as the basis of an extensive piano piece in E minor in Rome. The Stabat Mater melody is found at Vespers on the Feast of the Sorrows of the Virgin, and was used as the basis of the huge Stabat Mater in Christus, as well as in a piano solo version of the melody in A flat. In Via Crucis only verse 1 is sung, but three times in different keys. The German melodies are O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, and O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid, both found in a collection of chorales arranged by Liszt for the piano. Both are known in harmonisations by Bach, but here the harmony is Liszt’s own.

Paul Merrick © 2000

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