The oratorios of Franz Liszt are probably the least well-known of all the composer's works, and yet to many they represent some of Liszt's finest achievements. Following his years at Weimar, Liszt moved to Rome, where he sought to revolutionize sacred music in much the same manner he had already revolutionized instrumental music. Although he fell rather short in this lofty endeavor, he did succeed in producing a series of massive choral/dramatic works.
The first of these, Die Legende von der heiligen Elisabeth (1857-62), was actually begun during the composer's time in Weimar. It therefore represents something of a "transitory" work that bridges two distinct compositional worlds. The idea to write a work celebrating the life and works of St. Elisabeth, a Hungarian saint born in 1207 and canonized four years after her death in 1231, was occurred to Liszt after he saw a collection of frescoes on that subject in the castle of Wartburg, where Elisabeth had lived for much of her life. The oratorio is comprised of an introduction (based on a recurrent plainchant melody) and six scenes, each of which corresponds to one of the frescoes in the castle. The oratorio is scored for a sizable group consisting of soprano, alto, three baritones, bass, chorus, and orchestra with organ.
The opening scene uses a lively Hungarian theme to portray the arrival of four-year-old Elisabeth at the castle of Wartburg, where she is betrothed to Prince Ludwig, future king of Thuringia. The second scene leaps ahead several years; Elisabeth, now married to King Ludwig, sells her royal possessions to buy food for her subjects during a famine. The third scene contains a rousing march that depicts the Crusaders departing for the Holy Land and employs the "cross" motif found in much of Liszt's sacred music. During the fourth scene, Elisabeth is banished from the castle by Ludwig's vicious mother; Liszt uses effective storm music to portray the divine anger at this injustice. The fifth scene, in which Elisabeth and her children take refuge from the storm in a hospital which she herself had founded, includes a choral rendition of an ancient hymn commemorating St. Elisabeth. After an instrumental interlude -- a kind of collage of the oratorio's principal themes -- the final scene portrays a massive ceremony following Elisabeth's death.