Franz Liszt, Faust Symphony

By Peter Laki

Written for the concert Parallel Lives: Liszt & Busoni, performed on Dec 11, 2011 at Carnegie Hall.

The unknown authors of the broadside The History of Dr. Johann Faust, written around 1580 immortalizing a real-life figure, never suspected they had created a true modern myth—a story that was open to being recreated and reinterpreted in virtually endless ways. In the hands of Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749–1832), whose involvement with the subject spanned some 60 years, the Faust theme had grown from the original pact-with-the-devil story to a vision of extreme complexity, encompassing the material and the spiritual, the trivial and the sublime, philosophy and poetry. One could hardly overestimate the importance of Goethe’s Faust in the history of literature. It is a work from which most educated Germans can still quote long stretches from memory, and many of its lines have become common turns of phrase.

It wasn’t long before composers began to draw inspiration from this gigantic dramatic poem. One of the most original of these was Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust (1846). Here Berlioz offered a highly original take on Goethe, with a quasi-operatic presentation of selected scenes and a very un-Goethean ending where Faust goes to hell instead of heaven.

The French composer dedicated his work to his friend Franz Liszt, who conducted parts of it in Weimar, where Goethe had lived, and where Liszt served as the music director of the Grand Duke’s orchestra from 1848 to 1858. Soon after performing Damnation, Liszt produced his own Faust-Symphony, which he dedicated to Berlioz, returning the favor. But his Faust could not have been more different from his friend’s. Instead of a dramatization of (parts of) the story, Liszt presented a set of three “character pictures,” with each of the three movements based on one of the drama’s protagonists: in turn, Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. In other words, we get nothing of the plot, only the composer’s thoughts and feelings “after reading” the poem (similar to what we find in his piano sonata Après une lecture du Dante).

To Liszt, Faust is a tormented Romantic artist who struggles with fate, initially triumphs, but is finally defeated. The fundamental idea underlying the piece is that Mephistopheles is nothing but a reflection of Faust: he represents the dark side of Faust’s soul but has no real existence independent from him. For this reason, the themes of the third movement are all variants— distortions, even caricatures—of those of the first; only the central movement—the pure and angelic Gretchen—represents a separate entity.

This basic concept allowed Liszt to reconcile the literary program with the dictates of classical symphonic form: we have a traditional fast-slow-fast sequence, but the motivic connections between the first and last movements unify the piece in a way that has no precedent in earlier symphonies. Harmonically, the brooding opening is one of the most innovative passages Liszt composed prior to his visionary later works. Liszt, who earlier had to enlist younger colleagues to help him orchestrate his tone poems, here appears in full command of his craft.

The symphony was originally fully instrumental. Yet three years after completing it, Liszt added an “appendix” with tenor solo and men’s chorus setting the “Chorus mysticus” that concludes lines of Faust, Part II, extolling the spiritual power of Das Ewig-Weibliche (“the eternal feminine”).

Mr. Laki is a Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard College since 2007 and has also taught at Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, amongst other universities.