Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2023

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



Liszt’s relationship to St. Francis of Assisi was an integral part of the composer’s identity. His devotion to the saint, cultivated from an early age, served as a constant source of spiritual guidance that only grew stronger over time. Texts by St. Francis and anecdotes from the saint’s life provided the artistic incentive for a number of important works, which form the core of the present study. By examining several of these works together, with full analyses and within a broader cultural framework, this dissertation aims to arrive at a true understanding of the messages Liszt took from this figure with whom he identified, and Franciscan spirituality more broadly. The dissertation is organized into five sections. By way of introduction, Chapter 1 reexamines Liszt’s relationship to Franciscanism, including the issue of the composer’s alleged membership in the Third Order of St. Francis, the branch of the Franciscans traditionally associated with lay penitents. Although there is no verifiable evidence that Liszt ever became a Tertiary, this chapter entertains that the title may still have been conferred on him, without a written pronouncement, on account of the composer’s stature. Whether or not Liszt formally enjoyed Tertiary status, evidence shows that he viewed himself as a member of the Third Order, asserting his status to individuals in private correspondence. Each of the central chapters is devoted to one of Liszt’s major Franciscan compositions. Chapter 2 examines Cantico del Sol di San Francesco (1862; rev. 1877-81), the first modern musical setting of St. Francis’s famous Canticle of Brother Sun. Relying on close readings of the scores and informed by surviving manuscripts, I argue that Liszt’s musical treatment reflects his interpretation of the text, revealing which lines bore greatest significance for the composer. Crucially, the setting omits the poem’s final verse, which reminds humankind of the inevitability of death and judgement. Through a grand final climax, Liszt instead foregrounds the poem’s penultimate verse and its message about the promise of life everlasting. Chapters 3 and 4 are respectively devoted to the two Legends for piano, Saint Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds, and Saint Francis of Paola Walking on the Waves (1862-3). My analysis proceeds from the premise that, in both works, Liszt deliberately employed musical techniques and devices that signal narration, aiming to establish a one-to-one correspondence between events described in the program and musical passages meant to depict them. He also moves beyond simple musical representation, revealing the deeper spiritual meaning of each work. In the case of the first Legend, I demonstrate how the work’s narrative dimension is a function of Liszt’s use of topics, the delineation of discrete musical agents, and the tension arising from a story/discourse dichotomy. It is the interplay between these elements that generates an intelligible, plot-driven musical narrative. Although Liszt relies on similar devices in the second Legend, he does so to a different degree. Drawing on Michael Klein’s work on Liszt’s music, my analysis argues that the second Legend employs specific harmonic devices—including a particular third-related progression, and the “arrival six-four chord”—to signify moments of transcendence in the narrative. Liszt consistently pairs these exalted moments with overtly virtuosic material, heightening the sense of transcendent breakthrough. Through the use of recognizable signifiers of struggle and transcendence, as well as mimetic musical devices connoting natural phenomena, Liszt renders intelligible a complex musical narrative. The final chapter of the study presents a summary of findings and conclusions. This dissertation offers the first in-depth examination of Liszt’s Franciscanism in more than fifty years. It also constitutes the first systematic study of three particular compositions by Liszt that share a conceptual connection related to St. Francis and Franciscanism. As such, it contributes to a broader understanding of the composer’s identity, the influence of his religious convictions on his music, and his compositional practice at large.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Dolores Pesce

Committee Members

Jay M. Hammond, Craig A. Monson, Robert Snarrenberg, Alexander Stefaniak,