“Saint Stanislaus,” which Liszt began composing in 1874, is a thrillingly strange piece that sways between the mundane and the arcane, as the composer’s later music often does. What happened to this artist in old age is one of the enduring mysteries of musical history: the former showman of the European salons rocketed off into regions that no other nineteenth-century composer, not even Wagner, came near. The journey had much to do with Liszt’s increasing immersion in the rites of the Roman Catholic Church, in which he had taken four of the seven holy orders by 1865 (including Exorcist). He determined to revive archaic modes of plainchant and Renaissance polyphony, and imposed upon them experiments in alternative scales and unconventional harmony. The result is a sound that is unsettling even to modern ears.
....Liszt wrote some of “Saint Stanislaus” while staying with Wagner in Venice, in late 1882. Wagner had only a few months to live, but he was still in command of all his faculties, not to mention his cruelties. He told Cosima that her father’s newest music, which he probably heard floating through the walls of the Palazzo Vendramin, was a symptom of “budding insanity.” More perceptive was an earlier comment that Liszt’s dissonances seemed to display a certain self-disgust, as if the composer were compensating for his youthful excesses. There is something to this. Many observers were suspicious of the suddenness with which the debonair superstar of the Romantic piano—the epicenter of the phenomenon that Heinrich Heine dubbed “Lisztomania”—made himself over as the black-clad Abbé Liszt.
But he was no charlatan. Even in his decadent, dandyish days, he had worked at his faith, and in old age he became that rare Christian who practices to the hilt the principle of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. He was generous beyond the bounds of what seemed credible. Most of the century’s major composers profited from his enthusiasm—even those who denounced him. He gave lessons to hundreds of pianists and never charged money. He sent large amounts to total strangers who importuned him in the mail. When staying in hotels, he often let his manservant have the more luxurious room. His spirituality, in other words, took the form of concrete action. Here was the root of his difference with Wagner, who was self-absorbed on a Pharaonic scale, and whose idea of religion came dangerously close to self-deification.
All the same, “Parsifal” succeeds in becoming the spiritually radiant work that “Saint Stanislaus” and other Liszt sacred pieces only aspire to be. It is at once popular and mystical, festive and arcane. It illuminates the highest hope that religion holds forth—the hope for a healed world. Liszt probably knew this, which is why he made his peace with the inscrutable fate of dying in Bayreuth. With a martyr’s devotion, he even asked at one point to hear Wagner’s prose writings read aloud.