Illustrations of two pieces by Liszt:

  1. Evocation a la Chapelle Sixtine - Miserere d'Allegri et Ave verum Corpus de Mozart (1862)
  2. Aux Cyprès de la Villa d'Este - Threnodie (1877)

Click on the image to enlarge.

Evocation a la Chapelle Sixtine

In 1861, Liszt, separated from his long time companion Princess Carolyne von Sayn Wittgenstein, took up residence at 113 Via Felice (now Via Sistina) in Rome. The apartment was situated in the heart of the old city. At one end of the cobbled streets of the Via Felice were the splendid Spanish Steps and at the other a magnificent Bernini fountain. It was in this historical and inviting setting that Liszt was awakened every morning by ‘a concert of bells’ from the surrounding churches; for Liszt, this concert was ‘superior to anything one might hear in the Paris Conservatoire’. Quoting Byron, Liszt saluted his arrival in the ‘Eternal City’: ‘Oh Rome! My country, city of the soul’.

Very often on a Sunday, Liszt visited the Sistine Chapel ‘to bathe and steep my mind in the dark waves of the Jordan of Palestrina.’ On Christmas Day, 1861, Liszt wrote a letter to his beloved daughter, Blandine, telling her that his life in the Eternal City was more peaceful and harmonious, and better organized than it had been in Germany. This despite the fact that Rome was at that time ‘a musical wilderness’ with no public concert hall and where the instrumental music of Mozart and Beethoven was virtually unknown. Rome’s population was small relative to other major European cities such as Vienna, Berlin and Paris since Rome was not an independent secular capital city but a small town held within the enclave of the Vatican. Nevertheless, although sacred music dominated the musical scene, secular and modern music flourished in the homes of the aristocracy and high clergy.

Soon after his arrival, Liszt was welcomed as a guest at these musical gatherings held by European counts and barons, introducing them to the ‘new’ music with which he was familiar from his days in Weimar, Vienna, Budapest and Paris. It was during this period that he met his most famous Italian pupil, the 21 year old gifted Giovanni Sgambati who lived near the Princess Carolyne on the Piazza di Spagna. Sgambati was to have a career as both pianist and conductor. Gluck’s famous Melody from Orfeo and Eurydice and transcribed for piano by Sgambati is a piece beloved by singers, pianists, wind and string players. During the winter of 1862-63, following the death of Blandine, Liszt presented six historical vocal concerts in which the works of Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Mendelssohn and Mozart were sung. On September 11th 1862, Blandine had died unexpectedly from complications following the birth of her first child and Liszt’s first grandson. Devastated, Liszt entered one of his most productive periods, immersing himself in work, the salvation of many artists when facing tragic loss.

Amongst the 1862-63 compositions is what biographer, Alan Walker, has described as the ‘strangely neglected’ Evocation a la Chapelle Sixtine. Liszt was drawn to the place in the Chapel where, in 1770, the fourteen year old Mozart had heard Allegri’s Miserere which he later wrote down from memory. At that time, the now famous Miserere was unpublished. Its performance was confined to the Sistine Choir during Holy Week and circulation was restricted on pain of excommunication.

During one visit to this spot, Liszt observed ‘it seemed to me as if I saw Mozart, and as if he looked back at me with gentle encouragement. Allegri was standing by his side, basking in the fame which his Miserere now enjoyed.’ Capturing this vision in the Evocation, Liszt wrote: ‘I have not only brought them closer together, but, as it were, bound them together. Man’s wretchedness and anguish moan plaintively in the Miserere; God’s infinite mercy and the fulfillment of prayer answer it and sing in Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus. This concerns the sublimest of mysteries, the one which reveals to us Love triumphant over Evil and Death’. The music starts with Allegri’s simple theme and develops into dark and anguished chromatic harmonies which yield to the pure uplifting melody of the Ave Verum Corpus in the serene key of B Major. Death and Love struggle and, towards the end of the piece, we hear in the distance the return of the lofty Ave Verum Corpus sung in Liszt’s ‘divine’ key of F Sharp Major.

When, later, Liszt’s pupils brought the Evocation to play in master classes, Liszt warned that the piece was not for a large public but was to be played in a private setting, as if honouring its secret origins when sung during Holy Week by the choir of the Sistine Chapel. The Evocation is a noble and intimate piano piece, wrought from the private imagination and improvisation of the young Mozart and the guarded plaintive sonorities of Allegri’s Miserere Mei Deus. 

Au Cypres de la Villa d'Este

Liszt was at a low point in his life when he returned in 1877 to the Villa d’Este, a place of retreat and happiness in former times. On the threshold of old age, he already suffered from a number of illnesses in addition to the tragic and untimely losses of his children: Daniel and Blandine had died young, and Liszt’s third child, Cosima, had married the self-serving Richard Wagner, a relationship that did not go well for Liszt.

Alan Walker, Liszt’s biographer, describes how it was in this sad frame of mind that Liszt traveled from Germany to Rome, the ‘eternal city’, at the end of August 1877. Walker tells us that Liszt used to sit throughout the warm summer nights, contemplating the great cypresses and listening to the play of the fountains. The experience brought him closer to nature and helped to calm his troubled spirits. His mortal sadness is expressed in two of the best piano pieces of his old age: the "Cypress" Threnodies. 

Liszt: 'I have just written a hundred or so measures for the piano. It is a fairly gloomy and disconsolate elegy: illumined towards the end by a beam of patient resignation.’ A little later, he added: ‘For the last two weeks I’ve been absorbed in cypresses…I have composed two groups of cypresses, each of more than two hundred bars, plus a postludium to the cypresses of the Villa d’Este. These sad pieces won’t have much success and can do without it. I shall call them Threnodies, as the world elegie strikes me as too tender, and almost worldly.’

I play the first version of the Threnodies. It is six pages long and falls into six sections, distinguished by mood, key and tempo. Four bars of pesante bass octaves open the piece, soon joined by ascending octaves in the right hand. The mournful knell sets the ominous tone of the piece and, even in lighter airier sections, we are never far from the sound of tolling bells. The second section opens with a syncopated faster passage but rapidly the dark clouds return and maniacal appassionata dischords shriek out an agony before dying down as we enter the third section, with its deceptive ‘tranquillo’ heading. The ‘sotto voce’ instruction plays out as a moody murmuring that is soon interrupted by threatening bass notes. A beautiful modulation into the ‘heavenly’ key of F# Major offers short-lived relief before ascending chromatic chords in the right hand announce an ‘Agitato’, frightening fourth section beginning in the key of C# Minor. The opening tolling bass notes are played as tremolos and continue throughout the next section in E Minor in which ‘accelerando’, dissonant chords of anguish reach a climax before succumbing to a mood of worn out resignation.

The direction for the last pages signifies a return to Tempo 1, beginning in a happier key of G Major. Deep sighs accompany beautiful harmonic progressions that lead into the final section with its instruction – ‘senza agitazione, e molto legato’. A hymnlike progression of dignified chords change to 4/4 tempo with rippling broken chords that resolve in a magnificent C Major chord. The sense of foreboding fades as descending diminuendo chromatic chords end in a rest of complete silence before the final G Major chord. The triumph of Love over Death was a recurring theme in the mind of Liszt and both of these compositions end in a mood of quiet acceptance in the consoling, youthful key of G Major.

In the painting, images of tall, dense, dark cypress trees connect with the bass octaves that toll throughout the piece, while the fountains that blow over and across them ease their weight and spray light over this tale of grief and anguish.