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What would the Passion sound like? Listen to Liszt’s answer

Christ Falling on the Way to Calvary (1514–1516), by Raphael

The composer's revolutionary masterpiece was created in a monastery outside Rome

It is in the approach to Easter that our Church’s musical life becomes richer than at any other time in the liturgical calendar.

As Jens F Laurson described so well in this magazine’s April 5 issue, Bach’s St Matthew sits, unapproachable, atop the Parnassus of Passiontide settings. Perhaps it is the tradition of hearing the work only at this time of year rather than, as with most other sacred works, whenever it fills a gap in programming, which makes it so special. Perhaps it moves us so because of its profound, uncelebratory yet joyous ecumenism and universality. Its being the work of a Protestant composer engaging reverently with the Catholic liturgy not even a century after the Thirty Years’ War ended gives it an eirenic quality other works can hardly hope to equal.

Yet unquestionably great as Bach’s masterpiece is, there are many other, perhaps lesser but certainly worthwhile, musical expressions of Passiontide devotion that deserve to be heard and performed.

A great focus of our prayer at this time of year is the Via Crucis, the Stations of the Cross. Surprisingly, its history in music is not ancient; indeed, before the 19th century it does not appear to have been the focus of any work.

This is perhaps because of the Stabat Mater’s use from the 13th century onwards, where traditionally one verse was recited after each Station. There are many well-known musical settings of Stabat Mater from the 16th century until the present day, chief among them those by Palestrina, Alessandro Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Bach’s parody of this, Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden (which incidentally meant the first German performance of Pergolesi’s setting was when Bach performed his parody in 1746), Schubert, Rossini, Dvořák (a particularly fine work of intense spiritual concentration), Szymanowksi, Poulenc and Sir James MacMillan, the latter written in 2015 and performed for Pope Francis in the Sistine Chapel last year.

Liszt’s setting of Via Crucis was the first to gain serious attention and it is still, by some considerable margin, the greatest. It was written near the end of his life, in 1878/9, when he was living what he called his vie trifurqué between Weimar, Rome and Budapest. With the frustration in October 1861 of his plans to marry Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, followed by the death in September 1862 of his 26-year-old daughter Blandine (his 20-year-old son, Daniel, had died in 1859), Liszt had become an almost unrecognisable shade of his formerly ebullient self. Over the remaining two-and-a-half decades of his life this malaise hardened into weary cynicism, not leavened by his gargantuan intake of alcohol – a bottle of champagne and a bottle of cognac a day was not unusual.

The transformative effect on Liszt’s approach to composition was startling. Where formerly his textures had been dense, overflowing, effervescent, they became now so sparse as barely to exist. Where once his harmonic language had been daring yet resolutely tonal, now he stretched tonality to a point that was not surpassed until Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2 exactly 30 years later.

In the context of Liszt’s Via Crucis – often known by its German title Die 14 Stationen des Kreuzwegs – this stretching of tonality is deeply unsettling yet ultimately induces curious serenity. We who have heard subsequent music, where tonality is not only stretched but shattered, we whose aural palettes are conditioned to brutal atonality and ugly dissonance inconceivable even to such contemporarily advanced musical thinkers as Liszt and Wagner, can still be taken by surprise when listening to Via Crucis because its departure from prevailing 19th-century musical language is so sudden and total. The change is not one for which the way had been paved, as with the Beethoven-Berlioz-Liszt-Wagner path of increasing chromaticism. It occurs immediately, abruptly and without warning; thus, it is fundamentally unsettling.

I said just now it induces serenity. How can the unsettling lead to the serene? I suggest it is precisely because we are conditioned to post-Schoenbergian atonality (conditioned but not acquiescent – an important caveat and the reason many contemporary composers have, Deo gratias, returned to advanced yet essentially tonal language). Once we accept that this is musical language 30 years ahead of itself, we open ourselves to the fact that this is music of genius. The sparse, almost barren textures; harmonies leading anywhere but resolution; choirs working in juxtaposition; organ solos breaking the traditional flow of a choral religious work: by employing all of these novelties, Liszt presents a musical depiction of Via Crucis which matches precisely the spiritual and emotional journey we undergo while praying or contemplating Christ’s journey. This leaves us feeling clear and calm in our contemplation of Christ’s suffering; to our feeling serene.

It is not, I think, mere coincidence that Liszt should have chosen to set this story when he did. When in Rome, he lived in a simple cell at the monastery of Madonna del Rosario, just outside the city. Here he passed his days in prayer and composition. It was a life of solitude. It would have been natural for Liszt to dwell on Christ’s own solitude during the journey described in the Way of the Cross. What could be more natural for a composer than to put those thoughts into music? That Liszt should have opened the door on to hitherto unimagined musical worlds while doing so is sign, were it needed, that he was a composer of the first rank.

David Oldroyd-Bolt is a writer, pianist and communications consultant