Franz Liszt, Psalm 13

By Dana Gooley, Brown University

Written for the concert The Art of the Psalm, performed on Oct 22, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

If Franz Liszt had done nothing after retiring from the concert stage in 1847, his place in history would have been assured. He had vastly extended the expressive range of the piano and had logged a solid decade of unparalleled concert triumphs all over Europe. Yet instead of resting on his laurels, the 36-year-old virtuoso re-channeled his creative energies. He accepted an appointment as court music director in Weimar in 1848 and became a helmsman of the modern music scene. With an orchestra and assistants at his disposal, he set about realizing compositional ambitions that were kept on hold during the hectic virtuoso years, resulting in the “Faust” and “Dante” Symphonies, most of the symphonic poems, the Missa Solennis, the Legend of St. Elizabeth, and Psalm 13.

Liszt did not perform Psalm 13 often, but it served as an outlet for genuine religious feelings he had harbored since his youth. As he wrote to his friend Franz Brendel, “The tenor-part is very important; with it I have let my self sing and have drunk in the offspring of King David in flesh and blood.” Throughout the piece the tenor gives leading phrases and the choir echoes them, forming a dramatic tableau of the psalmist David leading his people in prayer. Liszt’s setting is a progressive, “new German” composition through and through. At a time when most composers in Germany looked to Bach and Handel as models for religious music, it leaves tradition behind and mobilizes all the resources of modern dramatic and symphonic music.

The six verses of the psalm follow an emotional journey Liszt favored: lamentation leading to heroic affirmation. The first two verses, with their plangent repetitions of “How long, O Lord?” express the suffering occasioned by the mysterious inscrutability of God’s ways. Tenor and choir render this existential weariness in pleading, dramatic recitative. The impatience intensifies until the third verse, “Look upon and hear me,” where a gorgeous melody, caressed by the orchestra’s strings, introduces a tone of hope and the promise of consolation. The bliss is dispelled briefly in verse 4, as thoughts of the enemy return in agitated music. The turning point is verse 5, where the psalmist reaffirms his faith. Here Liszt presents a new, hymn-like melody, and extends it with a reprise of the “Look upon and hear me” music. This transitions into the celebratory fugal finale, launched by the final verse, “I will sing unto the Lord.”

Liszt’s technique of “thematic transformation,” through which he sought to extend the Beethovenian symphonic legacy, is also in full evidence in Psalm 13. The work’s opening theme, an intense lamentoso melody in the strings, gets a softer, lyrical transformation for the phrase “Look upon and hear me,” and it later metamorphoses into the optimistic fugue subject of the finale. Hints of sonata form further contribute to the fascinating blend of opera, oratorio, and symphony that came together in Liszt’s first large-scale religious work.