Franz Liszt was a complex man. He was a member of the musical and social avant-garde of his time, thus thought nothing of living with women and having children without being married, yet he was a very religious man of traditional Catholicism. How Liszt managed to account for his behavior within his strict religious views are a marvel. But there was always a priestly side to Liszt. Early in his life he had given serious thought to becoming a priest, only to cast aside the thought in favor of the life of a traveling piano virtuoso with everything that went with it. Liszt began drinking and smoking early in his life. No one really knows when his sexual exploits began, but if that was anything like the rest of his young life it started early too.
All of the travel, cavorting, drinking and such finally caught up with Liszt and he retired from the concert platform in 1847 at the age of 35. He had by this time left the mother of his three children, Countess Marie d’Agoult for another royal lady Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein,the wife of a Russian Prince. Both Liszt and the Princess wanted to marry, but the Princess’ husband (not to mention the Pope himself) would not grant her a divorce. The two never did marry, and while Liszt remained involved with her until her death, they no longer lived together after 1863 when Liszt began living in a small apartment near Rome. When Liszt’s son died in 1859 and his youngest daughter died in 1862, it had a profound affect on Liszt. He declared to his friends that he would live a solitary existence from then on. He took minor orders and was occasionally called the Abbé Liszt. From then on, he divided his time between Rome, Budapest and Wiemar and composed, taught and participated in music festivals.
It was about this same time that Liszt wrote St. Francis of Assisi Preaching To The Birds for piano. The piece was one of a pair of what Liszt called Legends. This piece hears the piano in imitation of birdsong with chains of trills and tremolos until St. Francis himself begins to preach to them and the birds that are in the trees silence their singing and listen to him and the birds on the ground walk up to the saint and circle him to listen. According to the legend, St. Francis preaches to the birds that they have much to be thankful to God for and that they should sing their praises to Him every day.
The music is one of Liszt’s greatest works. Gone is the Liszt of technical fireworks and brilliant passage work. Replacing it is a Liszt that has the technique serve the musical idea with the result being a gentle, spiritual piece of musical story telling.