Saint Elisabeth of Hungary was certainly an obvious choice for Liszt. So too was the life of Jesus for a man who, whatever his personal and public shortcomings, has to be credited with the sincerest religious devotion. The life of the Polish saint Stanislaus seems to have been taken up partly to please the Polish Princess zu Sayn-Wittgenstein and, apart from three pieces and a setting of Psalm 129, ‘De profundis’, never developed into the finished oratorio, even though Liszt worked on it intermittently for a dozen years (between 1873 and 1885). From the inclusion of the earlier Salve Polonia
as an interlude, and from the use of some of the same material in the second of the Polonaises, it seems that Liszt was going to use national melodies to bind the work together in the same way that he employed them in St Elisabeth
, but the setting of ‘De profundis’ is a stark and serious affair akin to the style of the late piano pieces, and it is hard to see how the elements might have fused together. In any event, Liszt published Salve Polonia
in versions for orchestra, piano and piano duet in 1884, and the Psalm appeared in one version in 1883, so he may have known for a long time that he would not finish the oratorio. The rest remained in his desk, but the two Polonaises were complete in versions for solo piano—it cannot be said that they are transcriptions in the sense that there is no orchestral version of them extant—so their only place is amongst the bone fide works for piano, remembering the while that Liszt never revised them for publication.
The first Polonaise is a dark piece, harking back in some ways to such forerunners as Chopin’s C minor Polonaise and Liszt’s Polonaise mélancolique, and by the end even the metre, let alone the rhythm, of the dance is quite removed in a mystical rocking of simple chords. By contrast, the second Polonaise is thoroughly festive, breaking into a Polish revolutionary song ‘Dabrowski-Mazurek’ at the coda. This song also generates the second part of Salve Polonia, while the first section of that work, full of portents of Liszt’s late music, varies another famous Polish patriotic-religious song ‘O Lord who has guarded Poland’ around a tranquil and harmonically daring development of it—superscribed with a quotation from Psalm 83 (84 in the Authorized Version): ‘Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O Lord of hosts.’
from notes by Leslie Howard © 1991