St Francis of Paola Walks on the Waters

In the 1860’s, Franz Liszt was a retired virtuoso (having given up the stage at age 35), had lost two of his children, and was denied by the Vatican marriage to his great love and muse Princess Carolyne Wittgenstein.  Declaring his intention to live a solitary and pious life, he moved to Rome.

There, he followed his youthful fantasy of a Catholic life, qualifying for several minor orders (including exorcist), and immersing himself in that particular genre of Catholic kitsch, the lives of the saints.  Two grand piano pieces arose from that inspiration, the two Legends, dedicated to his surviving daughter Cosima von Bülow.  The first is a depiction of the famous St Francis of Assisi and his sermon to the birds; the second is the lesser-known St Francis of Paola (which is in southern Italy, across the Strait of Messina from Sicily) who, denied passage across a lake by a boatsman, instead performed the miracle of walking across the water. 

The second Legend was inspired partly by a painting by Liszt’s contemporary Eduard von Steinle of the historic Nazarene school, depicting Francis standing on top of turbulent waters (in Liszt’s words, “according to the law of faith, which governs the law of nature”) and underneath stormy clouds; from a break in the clouds the word “Caritas” shines forth like a neon motel sign.

However not just the painting but the story itself of this Francis of Paola seemed to compel Liszt.  In order to make the piece more accessible, he arranged a simplified version of it in 1865, a somewhat unusual choice on Liszt’s part.  He further orchestrated it.  Then, in 1875, he composed a piece for male chorus, organ, trombones and timpani called “An den heiligen Franziskus von Paula.”  It uses music from the coda of the piano legend, the declarative, quietly religious theme that follows several pages of burning virtuosity. 

The Legends occupy a somewhat fringe neighborhood in the grand city of Liszt’s piano music.  Ignored by scholars, they are occasionally resurrected by pianists unembarrassed by the straightforward grandiosity and sentimentality of Liszt’s religious feeling.

I personally happen to love the second Legend, and its success with an audience relies often on the performer’s attitude.  Like faith itself, any performance that allows doubt or irony to intrude on the purity of feeling will spoil the effect, and turn this masterpiece into the very religious kitsch that somehow inspired it. 

-- Nathan Carterette