Saint Elizabeth of the House of Árpád was born the daughter of Hungarian King Andrew II and Gertrude of Merano in 1207. At the age of four she was engaged to marry the then nine-year-old Louis, son of the Thuringian Marquis Hermann, and was sent to Wartburg castle to be raised in her new country. In the event Louis came to be a good husband, but in 1227 he went on a Crusade and during the journey he fell ill and died. Elizabeth then left the castle with her children and spent her remaining years in poverty, caring for sick people and doing other charity work. She died at the age of 24 in 1231.
Liszt was inspired to compose Legend of St Elizabeth by a series of frescoes by Moritz von Schwind in Wartburg castle, depicting episodes in the life of the saint. Written between 1857 and 1862, the oratorio received its premi?re under the baton of the composer at the Redoute (Vigadó) in Pest in 1865. The work is in two parts with three scenes each. 1. The arrival of Elizabeth in Wartburg. A Hungarian nobleman hands over the little princess to the Marquis Hermann. Elizabeth and Louis meet for the first time. 2. Marquis Louis. The central event of the scene is the famous “miracle of the rose”, in the version Liszt knew it from Montalembert’s biography of Elizabeth. Returning from a hunt, Louis sees Elizabeth coming down from the castle. Asked where she is going alone, his frightened young wife first says she has been picking roses, but then admits she is taking food for a sick person and, lo and behold, the bread and wine turn into sweet-scented roses in the middle of winter… 3. The Crusaders. Louis and Elizabeth say goodbye. 4. Marquise Sophie. In keeping with a nineteenth-century Romantic conception, Elizabeth’s mother-in-law is an Ortrude-like evil character displeased with the behaviour of Elizabeth who often goes against thirteenth-century social conventions. Receiving news of the death of her son, she drives her daughter-in-law from the castle out into the stormy night. In the terrible storm the castle is struck and burns, and one of its towers collapses. 5. Elizabeth. The holy woman dies in a small hut surrounded by her grateful poor people. 6. The grand funeral of Elizabeth. Elizabeth is buried by Hungarian and German bishops in the presence of Roman Emperor Frederick II, the people and Crusaders.