Anybody who has had but the slightest involvement with the musical life of his church, be he so high as music director, master of all he surveys (in theory, at least), or but a lowly bass, propping up the sopranos’ antics, will be keenly cognisant of the key question: what on earth do we perform next?

The active repertoire of parish churches across this country is limited to 50, perhaps 100 at a push, Mass settings and anthems. Depending on your priest’s proclivities you will, if lucky, be fed a steady diet of Palestrina, Monteverdi, Byrd and Tallis, with iridescent splashes of Haydn and Mozart on feast days. Should you be exceptionally lucky, which in this instance means being possessed of a fine organ, finer choir and yet finer still attention span, one of Bruckner’s sublime Masses will enter your liturgical life and become embedded firmly. There is, it must be admitted, a sigh-making inevitability to our musical accompaniment each Sunday morning. As my colleague Damian Thompson has noted before, it can be yet another reason for one’s heartiest response being to Ite, missa est.

The name Franz Liszt will, for most, conjure up several images – flamboyant virtuoso, leaving a trail of broken pianos and hearts from London to Lvov; champion of Berlioz, Wagner and the New German School; venerable sage sipping brandy throughout masterclasses in Rome, Weimar and Budapest. But few, I’d wager, would bring to mind a picture of l’Abbé Liszt, cloistered in a small, bare cell at the monastery of Madonna del Rosario just outside Rome, writing piece after piece of sacred music.

Difficult though it may be for some to imagine, this is indeed how he spent a great deal of his last 30 years, composing around 100 pieces of sacred choral music alone, in addition to many piano miniatures with religious themes. While Liszt’s Catholicism is fairly well known, people are far less aware of how the depths of despair he suffered in the last third of his life led him to take minor orders and funnel his creativity into sacred music.

At its foundation was the thwarting in 1861, by an unlikely coterie of the Russian Tsar, a Polish prince and an Austrian cardinal, of his desire to marry Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. Liszt had first been introduced to the princess, a fantastically rich Polish noblewoman married to a fantastically dull German prince in Russian service, during his tour of Russia in 1847. Within a year, they were living together at Weimar (the Princess was long estranged from her husband).

Liszt had been a devoted but wayward Catholic since childhood; under the Princess’s influence, it became the focal point of his life. On June 23, 1857, Liszt joined the Third Order of St Francis. Following the deaths of his 20-year-old son, Daniel, in 1859 and his 26-year-old daughter, Blandine, in 1862, Liszt became determined to take Holy Orders, and was duly tonsured by Cardinal Hohenlohe on April 25, 1865, receiving the four minor orders of porter, lector, exorcist and acolyte on July 31 that year.

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