Liszt’s Masses and oratorios were very important to him and were all composed with particular care and subject to intense self-criticism and reworking. The early success of the great orchestral Mass for the Consecration of the Basilika at Esztergom (‘Graner-Messe’) may have encouraged Liszt to complete Die Legende von der heiligen Elisabeth
, his first oratorio. The time to complete the work was at hand too, since Liszt had resigned his post at Weimar. Although Liszt refused to attend a production in 1883, the work was quite often given as an opera in the nineteenth century—it is certainly as close as Liszt ever came to completing an opera in his maturity: the work is organized rather like a set-number opera with solos, choruses and orchestral pieces, but bound together by a series of themes and their transformations. These themes, which Liszt quotes in the preface to the full score, act as leitmotifs in the drama. The first, which dominates the orchestral introduction and recurs in some form whenever Saint Elizabeth herself is involved, is a plainchant, ‘Quasi stella matutina’, copied for Liszt by Mihály Mosonyi from an old Hungarian ecclesiastical hymnal. The second, ‘On the Life of St Elizabeth’, which is heard at the beginning of the ‘Interludium’, is from the seventeenth-century collection Lyra coelestis
of György Naray. The third, which is a Hungarian popular song given to Liszt by the violinist Reményi, appears in the central martial section of the ‘Interludium’. The Saxon hymn ‘Schönster Herr Jesu’ is used as the lyrical melody in the ‘Crusaders’ March’, while the fifth, a plainchant-derived group of three ascending notes (G, A, C) forms the basis of the main theme of that march, and is, in fact, the so-called ‘Cross-motif’ which recurs throughout Liszt’s religious music, from the Esztergom Mass to the Via Crucis
. The vocal score (which also used to be printed by Novello with a Liszt-approved English text) was prepared by Liszt himself.
As might be expected, the piano writing is beautifully organized, and the textures never sound like a crude representation of an orchestral score—a virtue familiar from Liszt’s painstaking transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies. And like those transcriptions, Liszt does not hesitate to substitute music which recreates the general effect sooner than the precise notes of the original—compare the Liszt piano part in the St Elisabeth vocal score with the no doubt more pedantically correct but absolutely unusable accompaniment provided in a recent Hungarian edition of the work. The first and third orchestral movements of the oratorio first appeared as piano pieces in their own right within the vocal score, and the second combines the introduction to the third number of the oratorio with the March that concludes the first part. The pieces were issued separately, but for some reason they were not accorded a listing in the Searle catalogue of Liszt’s works. Unfortunately, no version for piano solo of the ‘Miracle of the Roses’ section from the second number of the oratorio has come down to us, even though Liszt played it (improvised?) on more than one occasion. Like much of Liszt’s large-scale religious works, the musical language of these pieces is gentle and restrained, the harmonies largely unchromatic, the lines long and the architecture noble.
from notes by Leslie Howard © 1991