2015-03-01 Notes from the Bench

“Blessed Lord, All Love Excelling” by Franz Liszt

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate


The Hungarian composer, conductor, and teacher, Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was renowned throughout Europe during the nineteenth century for his virtuosic skill as a pianist. Among the greatest pianists of all time, his performance style and compositions influenced keyboard musicians during his own time and future generations of artists, including those performing during our own time. Liszt’s performances dazzled audiences with his displays of technical virtuosity and his ability to play entire recitals from memory; a tradition that has continued among piano artists to this day.

Liszt’s virtuosic piano works, transcriptions of orchestral works for piano, and symphonic poems are among his best-known and more important compositions. Among his later works are a number of sacred choral works, the influence of his devotion to religious life. “Blessed Lord, all Love Excelling” is an adaptation of Liszt’s “Ave verum corpus” which was written in 1871.

Franz Liszt was born into a family of musicians who lived in the Austrian Empire, which consisted of territories located in present day lower Austria and Hungry. The Liszt family was connected with the Esterházy family who were music connoisseurs and generous supporters of musicians and artists during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Esterházys employed one of the greatest composers of the late-eighteenth century, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). As a child, Franz Liszt began his music studies with his father and was appearing in concerts by the time he was nine. He attracted the attention of a group of wealth sponsors who financed his education in Vienna, one of the great cultural centers in central Europe during the eighteenth and nineteen centuries and the center of musical activity and innovation during this era. There he studied with Carl Czerny and Antonio Salieri.   Liszt moved to Paris in 1827 and earned a living teaching piano and composition. In 1832, he had the opportunity to hear the great violin virtuoso, Niccoló Paganini. It was at that moment that Liszt was determined to become that type of virtuoso on the piano as Paganini was on the violin. He was among a group of pianists dedicated to perfecting keyboard technique and addressing various technical problems, however, Liszt stood out as a master of all the aspects of piano technique. Liszt frequently performed concerts and toured Europe from 1839 until 1847 and enjoyed great popularity and financial success. Liszt was a generous individual who shared his wealth to support various charities, humanitarian causes, and fellow musicians.

In 1847, he retired from his career as a touring concert pianist to focus his energy on composition. He settled in Weimar and was appointed Kapellmeister Extraordinaire, a position he held until 1861, where he acted as the conductor for court concerts and theatre performances. It was during this period that the majority of Liszt’s best-known works were composed. In 1862, Liszt retreated to solitary living and religious life following a period of personal tragedy: the death of his son, Daniel in 1859, and his daughter, Blandine, in 1862. He joined the monastery Madonna del Rosario, located just outside of Rome and receive minor orders in 1865. Following his ordination, he was referred to as Abbé Liszt. He continued to be musically active: coordinating sacred music concerts, composing, and teaching. The final years of his life were filled with extensive travel between Rome, Weimar, and Budapest.


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