Liszt’s musicianship in his two legends, St. François d’Assise: La predication aux Oiseaux, and St. François de Paule: Marchant sur les flots

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2013

38 Pages



Franz Liszt was born in western Hungary on October 22nd 1811 and died at Bayreuth, Germany in July 1886. He was a pianist, a teacher and a composer. He developed several musical ways such as programmatic music, technique and thematic transformation. He traveled most of his life, and composed a number of works about the places that he traveled.

He met his first lover, Countess Marie d’Agoult at the end of 1832, and they had three children, Blandine, Cosima and Daniel.

Liszt separated from Countess Marie d’Agoult in 1844, and he had met his second beloved one who took a very important role for Liszt’s life, Princess Carolyne in 1847.[1] His only son died at age of twenty-one in 1859, and three years later, his elder daughter Blandine died at the age of twenty-six after giving birth to her first child. Liszt’s only surviving daughter, Cosima left her husband, Hans von Bülow in order to live with Richard Wagner. These three children are from Countess Marie d’Agoult. Lastly, Princess Carolyne had been trying to obtain a divorce from Prince Nicholas von Sayn-Wittgenstein in order to marry Liszt, but it was denied on the day before their planned wedding day on Liszt’s fiftieth birthday, October 22, 1861.[2]

The period 1860-1869, he devoted himself to religious music. Here is a document that he rewrote as his Testament on September 14, 1860:

I am writing this down on the 14th September, the day on which the Church celebrates the Festival of the Holy Cross. The denomination of this festival is also that of the flowing and mysterious feeling which has pierced my entire life as with a sacred wound.

Yes, ‘Jesus Christ on the Cross’. A yearning longing after the Cross and the raising of the Cross, - this was ever my true inner calling; I have felt it in my innermost heart ever since my seventeenth year, in which I implored with humility and tears that I might be permitted to enter the Paris Seminary.[3]

He spent most of the time composing religious music, and by this time he began to write some pieces for organ.[4] He stayed at Rome for a long time and spent his elder life. He started a two-year retreat at the Madonna del Rosario, and he completed Two Franciscan Legends, St. François d’Assise: La Predication aux Oiseaux, and St. François de Paule: Marchant sur les flots in 1863. They were dedicated to his only surviving child, Cosima. Liszt had personal relationships with these two saints, and particularly he regarded St. Francis of Paul as his patron.[5] Liszt programmed these two Francis Legends as followed ideas. These programmatic works are liked of symphonic poem in piano. The first Legend, St. François d’Assise: La Prédication aux Oiseaux (St. Francis of Assisi: The Sermon to the Birds) was inspired by the moment that the thousands of birds were easing in the cloud above the Monte Mario. The second Legend carries another miracle story: Among the many miracles of St. Francis of Paula the legend celebrated is the one which he performed crossing the Straits of Messina. The ferrymen refused to rent their boat to a person of such humble appearance; he ignored them and walked on the sea with assured step.

Liszt gave the first public performances of these on August 29, 1865 in Pest. At that time, they were not published yet.[6] The following year, they were published in both places, Pest and Paris. He arranged them for orchestra in 1863 and then, he simplified the second Legend as the piano version. However, none of these arrangements (orchestra version and simplified piano version) were published in his life time.[7] The orchestra version was published in 1983 by Editio Musica Budapest.[8]

After hearing a performance by Liszt, Camille Saint-Saëns wrote:

As I write I picture myself once again in the home of Gustave Doré, gazing upon that pallid face and those eyes that fascinated all listeners, whilst, beneath his apparently indifferent hands, in a wonderful variety of nuances, there moaned and wailed, murmured and roared the waves of the "Légende de Saint François de Paule marchant sur les flots!" Never again will there be seen or heard anything to equal it.[9]

Saint-Saëns frequently performed in public and sometimes collaborated with Liszt. He arranged both Legends for organ.[10] According to Smith, Saint-Saëns performed the first Legend his own arrangement for organ on November 28, 1878 at the Trocadéro in Paris, and another performance at St. George’s Hall in London, 1881. In Weimar, he performed it with Liszt in attendance, 1882. After hearing his performance, Liszt wrote a letter to Saint-Saëns of May 14, 1882:

I am still struck with wonder at your ‘predication aux oiseaux and oiseaux de St. François.’ You use your organ as an orchestra in an incredible way, as only a great composer and a great performer, like yourself, could do. The most proficient organists in all countries have only to take off their hats to you.[11]

The concert Saint-Saëns gave on April 2, 1866 at Salle Pleyel, he performed the second Legend on the pedal piano with the audience including Berlioz, Gounod and Liszt.[12] He performed it again with another a half an hour of organ music at a Mass on March 15, 1868 in Notre Dame, Paris.[13]

Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904) also described Liszt’s performance as:

His playing was free, poetic, replete with imaginative shadings, and, at the same time, characterizes by noble, artistic repose. And his technique, his virtuosity? I hesitate to speak if it. It suffices to observe that he has not lost it but has rather added to it in clarity and moderation. What a remarkable man! After a life incomparably rich and ctive, full of excitement, passion, and pleasure, he returns at the age of sixty-two and plays the most difficult music with the ease and strength and freshness of a youth….[14]

II. St. François d’Assise: La Prédication aux Oiseaux

A. Biographical information

Who is St. Francis of Assisi ? He was born in Assisi, Umbria in 1811 or 1182, and died in 1226. He was a founder of Franciscan order. He got his nickname, Francesco (the Frenchman) before he received his baptized name, John. He only obtained a deacon, not a priest.[15]

B. Program

There is a charming story from Chapter 16 of the Little Flowers of St. Francis – Paris 1860:

…and still in the same fervour of soul, he lifted up his eyes and saw the trees which stood by the wayside, filled with a countless number of birds; at which St. Francis wondered, and said to his companions: “Wait a little for me in the road, and I will go and preach to my little brothers, the birds”. And he went into the field, and began to preach to the birds that were on the ground; and forthwith those which were in the trees came around him, and not one moved during the whole sermon; nor would they fly away until the Saint had given them his blessing.

According to what Brother Matteo afterwards related to Brother James of Massa, St. Francis went among them, touching them with his cloak, and none of them moved. The substance of the sermon was this: “My dear little birds, you are much beholden to God your Creator, and at all times and in all places you ought to praise him; he has given you liberty to fly about everywhere, and has given you double and triple raiment; know also, that he preserved your race in the ark of Noah, that your species might not perish; you are beholden to him for the element of air, which he has appointed for you; and also for this, that you sow not, neither do you reap, but God feeds you; he fives you the rivers and the fountains for your drink, he fives you the mountains and the valleys for your refuge, and the tall trees in which to build your nests. And since you know neither how to spin nor to sew, God clothes you, you and your young ones. Wherefore your Creator loves you greatly, since he has bestowed on you so many benefits. Therefore, beware, my little birds, of the sin of ingratitude, and study always to please God.”

While the holy Father thus spoke to them, the little birds opened their beaks and stretched out their necks and spreading their wings, all reverently bowed their heads to the earth, and by their acts and their songs, showed that the sermon filled them with great joy. And St. Francis rejoiced and was glad with them, and marveled much at such a multitude of birds, at their beautiful variety, and their attention and their familiarity, for all of which he devoutly praised their Creator in thee. Finally, the sermon being finished, St. Francis made the sign of the cross over cross, which St. Francis had made over them, they divided themselves into four parts; and the one part flew towards the east, and another towards the west, and the third towards the south, and the last towards the north; and each of the four parts went their way, singing wonderful songs, signifying by this, that as St. Francis, the Standard-bearer of the Cross of Christ, had preached to them, and had made the sign of the cross over them, according to which they had separated themselves, going to the four parts of the world, so the preaching of the Cross of Christ, renewed by St. Francis, should be carried by him, and by his Brother to the whole world; and that, like the birds, these Brothers, possessing nothing of their own in this world, should commit their lives solely to the Providence of God.[16]

C. Analysis

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The musical structure is presented as a through-composed piece: Introduction, Presentation (entry of St. Francis), Development and Coda.

The introduction presents the birds’ chirping. The next large section is ‘Entry of St. Francis’. There are three subdivided sections, and each represents the particular characters: bird song, St. Francis, and cross. The ‘St. Frances’ section contains the recitative of the saint, and the ‘cross’ section presents the religious choral style. The development section has two sections, and each section has two different styles. The ‘a’ section has two phrases of three bars plus two bars. The first ‘b’ section has a nine bar-phrase, and the second ‘b’ section has ten plus seven bar-phrases. There are numerous key shifts in the development. The coda section is stable in the tonic and uses the material from the section ‘B’ of ‘Recitativo’.

It is a simple work comparing Liszt’s other piano works in lots of ways except technique. This piece demands highly trained techniques like various trills: multiple and double trills to represent chirping birds.


[1] She was already separated from Prince Nicholas von Sayn-Wittgenstein, and had a daughter Marie. Liszt stayed at her house as a guest at Woronince for three months, from late 1847 to January 1848. When Liszt left to Weimar in February 1848, Princess Carolyne followed with him.

[2] The New Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., s.v. “Liszt, Franz,” by Alan Walker.

[3] Merrick, Paul. Revolution and religion in the music of Liszt. Cambridge, 1987, p. 61.

[4] The New Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., s.v. “Liszt, Franz,” by Alan Walker.

[5] Walker, Alan. The man and his music, London, 1969, 2nd edition, 1976, p. 139.

[6] Walker, Alan. Franz Liszt. Vol. 3: The Final Years 1861-1886. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1996, p.92

[7] Peterson, John David. "Franz Liszt's Deux Légendes." The American Organist 24/2 (Feb. 1990), p.75

[8] Rucker, Partrick. "James Conlon's Liszt." Journal of the American Liszt Society 23 (Jan.-Jun. 1988), p.78

[9] Saint-Saëns, Camille. Outspoken Essays on Music, trans. by Fred Rothwell. Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, p.79

[10] Walker, Alan. The man and his music, London, 1969, 2nd edition, 1976, p.341

[11] Smith, Rollin. Saint-Saëns and the Organ. Stuyvesant, New York: Pendragon Press, 1992, p.305

[12] Ibdl. p.83

[13] Ibdl. p.90

[14] Hanslick, Eduard. Music Criticisms. Translated by Henry Pleasants, Baltimore: Penguin Books Ltd., 1963, p.109-110.

[15] Lynch, Cyprian J. “Francis of Assisi,” The Encyclopedia: Americana, International edition, vol. 11. Grolier Incorporated, 1829, p. 864.

[16] Liszt, Franz. Légendes. Dover Publications, Inc., 1990, p. 167.

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Liszt’s musicianship in his two legends, St. François d’Assise: La predication aux Oiseaux, and St. François de Paule: Marchant sur les flots
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Bo-Kyung Kim (Author)Myunghwa Jang (Author), 2013, Liszt’s musicianship in his two legends, St. François d’Assise: La predication aux Oiseaux, and St. François de Paule: Marchant sur les flots , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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