Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

The "Individual" in Johann Friedrich Overbeck's and Franz Liszt's Seven Sacraments

Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

The "Individual" in Johann Friedrich Overbeck's and Franz Liszt's Seven Sacraments

Article excerpt

On 17 November, 1878, Liszt explained to his friend Olga von Meyendorff that he felt compelled to write a musical setting of the Seven Sacraments, alluding, with great admiration, to Johann Friedrich Overbeck's 1862 visual representation of the subject:

Overbeck's admirable cartoons treat these great mysteries of the perpetually active life of Christianity with genius steeped in piety; the Nazarene artist con- ferred on them a development rich in edification. His drawings in the margins and on the base of the cartoons render witness to the holy concordance between the Old and the New Testaments. Had St. Thomas Aquinas been able to paint, he would not have done better than Overbeck.1

In the preface to his finished score, which Liszt submitted unsuccessfully for publication in December 1884, he added more detail about the relationship of his work to Overbeck's:

When Overbeck explained to me his Seven Sacraments frescoes in which he had housed so many symbols, allusions, historical and mystical events, a com- plete concordance between Old and New Testaments, I was filled with admi- ration for his work and promised him to reproduce the same subject in my art, music. Because he seemed delighted about my decision, I refrained from telling him that my manner of treating the subject would be diametrically opposed to his. He made visible the workings of divine grace and of the human participation in these heavenly gifts. I intended to give expression to the senti- ments the Christian experiences in partaking of the graces that lift him above earthly life and make hint aspire to the divine atmosphere of heaven.2

Although he had promised Overbeck to create a musical analogy to the visu- al artist's renderings, Liszt acknowledges he has approached the subject "in a diametrically opposed" manner. Whereas Liszt clearly states that his own work conveys the human experience of receiving the sacrament, his wording about Overbeck's approach is somewhat ambiguous. This essay explores what Liszt likely meant by his and Overbeck's diametrically opposed approaches and spec- ulates on why the composer nonetheless acknowledged the artist's work.


Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1789-1869) was a member of the Nazarenes, a small group of artists who in 1810 settled in a Franciscan convent in Rome and lived a communal lifestyle dedicated to producing sacred art after the model of early Renaissance artists up through Raphael. Known as the "monk-artist," Overbeck continued to cultivate that image after the group disbanded by pursuing a solitary lifestyle in Rome until his death in 1869.3

Liszt adopted his own pious image by dressing in clerical robes after he received Catholic minor orders in 1865. Like Overbeck, Liszt wished to con- tribute to the sacred art of his time; he likewise aligned his goal with those of a current artistic movement, in this case the German Cecilians, founded in Bamberg in 1868 by Franz Xaver Witt ( 1834-1888).4 Pius IX sanctioned the Cecilians in 1870. In essence, the movement promoted the idea that music should serve the liturgy and downplayed artistic individualism. Like the Nazarenes in the visual arts, the Cecilians engaged in nineteenth-century historicism and adopted the old masters of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as models for their own compositions. In music, Palestrina held the most favored position.

In addition to their shared holy image and allegiance to an artistic movement in the service of the Church, Overbeck and Liszt both enjoyed papal favor. In 1847 Pius IX appointed Overbeck in a private audience to design an ambitious decoration scheme for his residence, the Palazzo del Quirinale. Roughly ten years later, the Pope visited Overbeck's studio to see the Seven Sacraments and received the cycle warmly.5 Pius IX visited Liszt in 1863, within a month after the composer had moved into the monastery of Madonna del Rosario outside of Rome, then a few days later received Liszt in audience at the Vatican. …

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