Philip Armstrong

The Liszt Paradox

This article examines how the composer Franz Liszt, at the peak of his powers as a composer, became aware of a contradiction between his values pertaining to music and those pertaining to religion, and the effect this had on his music composing after 1857.

By the mid-nineteenth century Franz Liszt had become a celebrated exponent of an innovative approach to writing music, the ‘Music of the Future’. In opposition to the traditionalists of the era who espoused the notion of ‘absolute music’, he became champion of the modernists’ position asserting the notion of ‘program music’. Combining his Catholic faith with these premises, he declared that not only is music a medium of narrative expression but subsequently it is also equivalent to God’s very nature. His convictions were challenged by a series of events that led him to the realisation that the orthodox doctrine of his faith posited that God’s nature is all-encompassing and accordingly has no distinguishing narrative or semantic program. Liszt was unable to resolve the paradox between the mereological structure of music and that of the divine. He explained the contradiction as a metaphysical mystery and sought to counter its significance by writing religious music characterised by narrative expression.