Ecstasy and Solitude: Franz Liszt’s Journey of Contemplation


O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united,
The Lover with his beloved,
Transforming the beloved in her Lover.

Upon my flowering breast
Which I kept for him alone,
There he lay sleeping,
And I caressing him
There in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

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When the breeze blew from the turret
Parting his hair,
He wounded my neck
With his gentle hand,
Suspending all my senses.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
Laying my face on my Beloved;
All things ceased; I went out from myself,
Leaving my cares
Forgotten among the lilies.

Would anyone reading these stanzas without knowing their author or their origin realize that they were part of the allegorical poem “The Dark Night,” which depicts the ascent of the soul to the heights of contemplative prayer, or that their author was the great 16th century Spanish Carmelite mystic St. John of the Cross?

Both Franz Liszt’s piece, “Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude,” and St. John’s poem revel in their rich and ecstatic language, daringly extreme in their attempts to depict a state of spiritual bliss, the highest form of which was pointedly called the spiritual marriage by many saints.

The first-time listener or reader would have been unwittingly on target in his intuitive, instinctive reaction. Both the composer and poet realized (the former through aspiration and reading, the latter though inspiration and burning experience) that Christian contemplation is meant to be a love affair; that human love, even at its pinnacle, is a mere shadow of that love with which God created us and to which he calls us for an eternal consummation.

As a teenager, Liszt possessed a desire to enter the priesthood. This youthful passion was twice frustrated, first by his father, who had tried and failed as a Franciscan before marriage, and later by his confessor, Abbe Bardin. Thus blocked in his attempts to enter the religious life, Liszt embarked upon a uniquely successful career as a pianist, which came to an end in 1847. That year he retired from the concert platform and withdrew to semi-seclusion in Weimar, where he began to concentrate seriously upon composition and conducting. In 1861, he began his life of clerical compromise in Rome, taking minor orders and living a life remarkably similar to an ordained religious. In each of the phases of Liszt’s life, a definite pattern of withdrawal, search for God, and reflection upon personal vocation can be seen.


The figure of Liszt wearing a flowing black cassock is as familiar to us as is the notion that he was principally a composer of flashy, virtuoso showpieces written to dazzle large, mainly female audiences. Superficial evaluations of Liszt have tended to combine these two images into an unattractive figure of enormous pretense and hypocrisy. Whereas the faulty musical judgment has at last been universally discredited, there are few who have taken Liszt’s religious beliefs seriously. Most seem to have been unable to look beyond the amorous acrobatics to the genuine spiritual quest that was central to his whole life.

It is easy for us with either cynical or puritanical hindsight to see Liszt’s oscillation between indulgence and repentance as mere humbug — a theatrical continuation of his life of stage and salon. While no one would suggest that Liszt was a saint, it is a fundamental error to see his frequent falls as a contradiction of a serious Catholic life. The Anglo-Saxon often regards sin — especially sins of the flesh — with a certain subconscious Victorianism, which lingers on even after the religious beliefs themselves have been discarded. This prudery is entirely foreign to the teaching of Christ who revealed that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

Thus Liszt’s fierce inner struggles — sometimes successful, often not — can be seen as an arduous journey towards God undertaken with a deep sincerity, rather than a dismal series of falls with some dangerous detours along the way.

“Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude” was completed in 1847 at Woronince, a chateau belonging to the Princess Carolyn von Sayn-Wittgenstein. Liszt was a frequent guest there between February 1847 and the early part of 1848, when they both moved to Weimar. It was a year of tremendous significance in the composer’s life: He met the princess for the first time, returned to the practice of his Catholic faith, and decided to give up his public career as a pianist, playing his last concert in September. It seems as if his sporadic visits throughout the year to Woronince were like mini-retreats, an important preparation for the twelve-year “retreat” to Weimar, and perhaps too a stepping-stone to his years of semi-monastic seclusion in Rome.

It is highly significant that one of the first pieces completed at this time was the Benediction, a double celebration of solitude in his retirement and of his rekindled faith in God. The musical leap is a chasmic one from the early operatic paraphrases and fiendish etudes to this long, ecstatic stretch of slow, serious material. The Benediction remained a favorite piece during the Weimar years, and Liszt would often choose to play it for students and friends at the candlelit soirees at the Altenburg.

The threefold musical structure of the piece is fairly straightforward. To the ear it creates the impression of being a timeless, improvised elaboration of harmonic color. Unlike much of Liszt’s other religious music, where modal harmony and plainsong influences are predominant, the Benediction uses a rich, voluptuous language with the pentatonic scale (the five black notes on a piano) as its dialect, achieving lushness through a piling up of textures rather than from any harmonic spice or variety. Where plainsong perhaps represents the Church’s liturgical, communal voice, in the Benediction Liszt is aiming beyond that to the individual’s experience of the Beatific Vision itself.

Some commentators have seen the benediction of the title as an act out of which comes the ecstasy. In other words, God gives a “blessing” (in the central section) which is flanked by the first and last sections representing the blissful experience of this momentous event, its promise and afterglow. This is the format when St. Francis preaches to the birds in Liszt’s first Legend. However, it seems that in this piece the “benediction” is rather an ecstatic state, and is represented by the first and last sections. Thus, the mere fact of being alone in communion with God produces the rapture; the hymn-like section in D major, which seems like the “churchy” part, is in fact the “human” part — when the person praying may spend a few quiet moments with a book. The Carmelite method of mental prayer in which the soul’s direct conversation with God might be refreshed and interspersed with brief intervals of spiritual reading from the Gospels or other writings of the saints is entirely compatible with these sentiments.

Twelve years after Liszt had finished the Benediction, Wagner was putting the finishing touches to the orchestrated score of his opera Tristan und Isolde. An entirely different love affair is being portrayed in Wagner’s work, but it shares the same principle of a direct, inseparable link between tonality and psychology. Where in Liszt’s pentatonic world the heart is at peace in the inebriation of God’s love, in Tristan the longing and desire are never perfectly fulfilled. In a human marriage the longing always exceeds the satisfaction because human love is finite and we were made to be satisfied only by the infinite. In the “spiritual marriage” the perpetual longing and thirst is satisfied in exact proportion to its yearning, because, by its very nature, the human soul was created for this relationship: As Augustine says in the Confessions, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” Here we approach the dizzying world of heaven itself, always seeking and finding, always desiring and receiving. Removed from time and space, this ecstatic pendulum exists in a perpetual, eternal, and unified consummation. In contrast, for the lovers in Tristan, time and space are painfully evident, especially in the threatening return of daylight and discovery in Act Two and the distance separating the lovers in Act Three; hence the feverish irresolution of the music.

In Western musical tradition chromaticism has often been an expression and symbol of suffering and death; in the Christian theological tradition these two mysteries of human experience have been seen as a symptom and result of sin — not an individual’s sins directly causing his or her sufferings, but rather the universal malaise which has grown from the tragic roots of original sin. In the heavenly vision that the Benediction strives to capture there can be no sin and death has lost its sting; hence the absence of chromatic harmony.


The Benediction is a work celebrating the love affair between a soul and God; solitude, not as a denial of love, but as a concentrated immersion in the life of God who is Love. In this way, the idea of solitude sheds its negative connotations. The heart, free from an attachment to the particular, can love the All. Liszt’s profound awareness of these truths expresses itself in a seraphic sublimation in the Benediction. Absent is any sense of loneliness, for this is not a turning inward to escape from people or reality but a joyous stretching outward to God, and from Him to others. Here perhaps is the context for Liszt’s lifelong dilemma about a religious vocation. He knew that he was not aiming at a stoical rejection of life and love, but rather a “salon, a court, an affair,” the staggering magnificence of which few of us can imagine.

When Liszt had completed the Benediction in 1847 he was at a crucial turning point in his life. All seemed filled with optimism: a new life with Princess Carolyn; serious musical ideas brimming over, with time to explore them; the challenge of moving to Weimar with his plan to make it a new Athens where artistic life could flourish; and, to keep all this together, his rediscovered Catholic faith.

Many contradictions and difficulties lay ahead for Liszt: the revolutionary upheavals of 1848, the bitter opposition that he and the Princess were to experience in Weimar, the widespread critical rejection of his music and numerous personal problems, culminating in the Church’s refusal to grant an annulment to Princess Carolyn. His final years were filled with disillusionment and depression. It is a long and perplexing distance between the profound serenity of the Benediction and the dark world of “Nuages Gris,” the two “Lugubre Gondolas,” and other late works. Even Sursum Corda (Lift up your hearts) from the third book of the “Années de Pelerinage” suggests a struggling elevation — prayer which has become arid and anxious.

The later developments in Liszt’s life of prayer could shed some light on the apparent darkness of his final years. Most of the great spiritual writers have agreed on a certain pattern in a soul’s ascetical progress. The initial conversion and discovery of God in prayer is usually a period of great joy and consolation. As a person grows in the spiritual life these delights gradually disappear, leaving the soul in what seems like darkness. This is not because God has deserted the person, but rather because He wants to draw him closer to Himself, helping the soul to seek and love God rather than His gifts.

This period of aridity can last for years, although it is seldom without some respite, and further progress in prayer depends largely on the generosity of abandonment and love we offer God during this time of refining. Thus it is entirely compatible with genuine spiritual progress that the Liszt of “Unstern” enjoyed a more intimate union with God than the Liszt of the Benediction — in fact it is more likely. We know that the latter piece was written at the time of Liszt’s return to the sacraments, and although the piece takes us into the world of high contemplation it is virtually impossible that Liszt could have experienced such a state of prayer at first hand. But perhaps at the end of his life, after so many years of disappointment and difficulty, still clinging tenaciously to his faith, Liszt could echo the following words of the Carmelite, St. Thérèse of Liseux, written at the end of her life:

I give thanks to Jesus for making me walk in darkness, and in the darkness I enjoy profound peace[ — ]I am content, nay full of joy, to be without all consolation. I should be ashamed if my love were like that of earthly brides who are ever looking for gifts from their bridegrooms, or seeking to catch the smile which fills them with delight. Thérèse, the little spouse of Jesus, loves Him for Himself.


This article originally appeared in the September 1998 issue of Crisis Magazine.

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