not flourished amidst his personal ambitions. He took minor orders in the priesthood, and while he had always attended Mass regularly, he began doing so with renewed fervor. Always generous with his time and money, he expanded his charitable efforts in both areas. He gave away virtually all of his considerable fortune, accepted no money for his many concert appearances in support of various causes, and taught hundreds of piano students free of charge. He was tireless in promoting the efforts of other artists such as Berlioz and Wagner—in spite of their general ingratitude—and did little to raise his own musical profile. In fact, he even deterred his students from performing his works, afraid that doing so would harm their careers. Liszt’s spiritual awakening also informed his compositions, which had long reflected his religious beliefs. He increasingly focused on sacred music, striving to create a musical language both rooted in the past and looking to the future. His masses, oratorios, and other vocal works are rarely performed but convey an intensity and immediacy borne out of his powerful desire for, and love of, Christ. This same passionate faith is evident in dozens of instrumental works spanning his career, inspired by his interactions with a number of religious leaders and artists. They exist alongside works much more worldly in character, and yet I tend to think that more than a hint of the divine is present even in Liszt’s earthiest pieces. This summary has necessarily simplified and reduced the life of an unusually complicated individual. While I do think Liszt’s spiritual commitment ultimately deepened later in life, it would be misleading to claim that his life was an uninterrupted ascent from brokenness towards redemption. Just as his later years were marked by much heartache, disappointment, and doubt, so too can we find
abundant evidence of a robust faith even in times of great material wealth and indulgence. Like all of us, Liszt could be woefully inconsistent, selfless and innocent one moment, selfish and impure the next. In my own spiritual journey, I have gone back and forth between times where I truly seek to place Christ at the center of my life and times where I revert to my usual selfish ways. What I have found most spiritually helpful in studying Liszt is to focus on those qualities that most point towards God. While I can’t quite compete with his generosity as a teacher (I won’t be teaching for free anytime soon!), I do aspire to be as supportive a mentor as he was. He did much to encourage and promote his students and, in doing so, served as a powerful witness for Christ. As a musician, I am increasingly focused on how best to serve the music, not my own glory. I won’t delve into my personal life here (trust me, it’s nowhere near as interesting as Liszt’s!), but I will say that I try to put the feelings of others first and to think about what I can do for them, not vice versa. I’m far from perfect in all of these areas, but Liszt at his best has served as a pretty good role model for me. To end with a brief anecdote: Liszt famously did not teach piano technique in his lessons, telling students they should “wash their dirty linen at home!” If I’ve rehabilitated his image somewhat and provided some helpful advice, hopefully he’ll forgive me for airing some of his dirty laundry here!
Andrew Haringer is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Music Department at Williams College. He received his Ph.D. in February with a dissertation on religious and political elements in the early works of Franz Liszt.
Published on Dec 19, 2012