The two enormous orchestral movements from the oratorio Christus
appeared first in Liszt’s vocal score, but in the reissue he made some corrections and alternative suggestions which are incorporated in the New Liszt Edition. Christus
is a very different conception from Saint Elisabeth
in its musico-dramatic structure. It is divided into three almost distinct sections—Christmas Oratorio, After Epiphany and Passion and Resurrection. There are movements based upon plainchants, others entirely freely composed. Some movements are for voices and organ only, others use the full orchestra, and the last two movements of the first part—for orchestra alone—are like orchestral pictures of the early life of Jesus. Most commentators agree that Christus
as a whole contains, along with the Piano Sonata and the Faust-Symphonie
, the best of Liszt’s music. The two orchestral sections may not represent the highest point of the whole oratorio—surely the Passion music does that—but they are nonetheless particularly moving evocations of the shepherds and their pipes, and of the Wise Men following the star. Both movements have an almost Schubertian suspension of time to them. The shepherds’ pipes begin carolling in a regular 6/8 before the shepherds themselves—in something reminiscent of a chorale undulating between 3/4 and 2/4—join in. A central hymn-like theme completes the material and all three themes weave in an out, leading to a jubilant outburst of the pastoral opening theme before the recapitulation. The march of the kings begins in an uncomplicated, almost playful mood, but at the moment when they see the star and follow it the mood is transformed, and one of Liszt’s most inspired melodies raises the music to quite another level. An adagio section symbolizes the offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and the kings’ joy finally becomes uncontainable and the tempo increases to a splendid display of justifiable rhetoric. It is sad to have to report that most orchestral performances of this movement on record miss this mighty transformation of mood and pace altogether.
from notes by Leslie Howard © 1991