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Via Crucis, S53
1866 to Summer 1878
author of text

'Liszt: Missa Choralis & Via Crucis' (CDA67199)
Liszt: Missa Choralis & Via Crucis
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67199 
Introduction: Vexilla regis prodeunt
Station 01: Jesus is condemned to death
Station 02: Jesus takes up the Cross
Station 03: Jesus falls the first time
Station 04: Jesus meets his Blessed Mother
Station 05: Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the Cross
Station 06: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
Station 07: Jesus falls the second time
Station 08: The women of Jerusalem weep for Jesus
Station 09: Jesus falls the third time
Station 10: Jesus is stripped of his clothes
Station 11: Jesus is nailed to the Cross
Station 12: Jesus dies on the Cross
Station 13: Jesus is taken down from the Cross
Station 14: Jesus is laid in the tomb

Via Crucis, S53
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 It remained unpublished and unperformed in Liszt’s lifetime.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.

from notes by Paul Merrick © 2000

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Details for CDA67199 track 15
Station 8: The women of Jerusalem weep for Jesus
Recording date
26 March 2000
Recording venue
St Alban's Church, Holborn, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Hyperion usage
  1. Liszt: Missa Choralis & Via Crucis (CDA67199)
    Disc 1 Track 15
    Release date: October 2000
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