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A mistress, a monsignor, and a musical wellspring for Liszt

Franz Liszt’s portrait, painted by Henri Lehmann in 1839.
Franz Liszt’s portrait, painted by Henri Lehmann in 1839.

On Monday, pianist Yameng Huang makes her Boston recital debut with a program featuring a musical wellspring: Franz Liszt’s 1877 “Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este” (“The Fountains of the Villa D’Este”), composed at the Villa itself, a 16th-century palace built by the once-powerful d’Este family. The Villa’s distinction was, and is, its extraordinary network of stonework fountains, captured by Liszt in impressionistic, burbling passagework that heavily influenced subsequent water music. But Liszt goes beyond the pictorial: His waters are both a secular, sensual stream and a sacred, absolving font.

Liszt’s connection to the fountains emerged from a web of Vatican politics surrounding his long-term mistress, Princess Carolyne Sayn-
Wittgenstein. Carolyne’s marriage to a Russian prince had collapsed early on. Her Protestant husband granted a divorce, but Carolyne, a devout Catholic, was determined to get an annulment so she and Liszt could marry in the church.

That quest was complicated by another wedding, that of Marie, Carolyne’s daughter — and, practically, Liszt’s stepdaughter — to Prince Konstantin zu Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst. The Hohenlohes’ nobility was long-established, but their wealth was sustained largely through advantageous marriages. Little wonder Konstantin’s older brother, Monsignor (later Cardinal) Prince Gustav Adolf Hohenlohe, a Vatican official, opposed Carolyne: Her remarriage might well have undermined the family finances.

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But the annulment was granted, the wedding scheduled for October 1861. Liszt traveled to Rome. And then, at the last minute, under murky circumstances, the ceremony was canceled — and everyone involved moved on with surprising alacrity. What’s more, four years later, Liszt famously was received into minor orders of the Catholic Church, becoming, in essence, low-level clergy. His sponsor? Gustav Adolf Hohenlohe.

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There’s evidence that Liszt was not that eager to get married, anyway. There’s also evidence that Hohenlohe dangled a chance for Liszt to realize a long-held goal: reforming Catholic church music along up-to-date lines. Maybe Hohenlohe offered Liszt a convenient quid pro quo: cancel the wedding in return for Vatican musical influence.

His ordination notwithstanding, Liszt fell back into the social whirl of salons and adulation; his piety and sybaritism always were equally strong. But he acquired an escape — again, courtesy of Hohenlohe. In 1850, the prelate had leased himself a Tivoli palace: the Villa d’Este. Now, he set aside an apartment in the Villa for Liszt’s exclusive use, whenever needed. The quiet, chilly Villa became Liszt’s refuge, where he could concentrate on composition — and, perhaps, spiritual improvement. In the score of “Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este,” Liszt quoted, from John’s gospel, Jesus’s image of “a fountain of water, springing up into life everlasting.” In palatial isolation, surrounded by cascades, Liszt dreamed of being washed clean.

Yameng Huang performs music of Liszt and Beethoven Oct. 2, 8:30 p.m., in the Marshall Room, Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, 855 Commonwealth Ave. Free. www.bu.edu/cfa

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.