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8.553304 - LISZT: Faust Symphony
English 

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
A Faust Symphony: Three Character Pictures, Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles, after Goethe

 

Franz Liszt was born in 1811 at Raiding (Doborján) near Ödenburg (sopron) in a German-speaking region of Hungary. His father, Adam Liszt, was a steward in the employment of Haydn's former patrons, the Esterházy Princes, and an amateur cellist who had played for Haydn and for Beethoven and enjoyed friendship with Kapellmeister Hummel at Eisenstadt. The boy showed early musical talent, exhibited in a public concert at Ödenburg in 1820, followed by a concert in Pressburg (the modern Slovak capital Bratislava). This second appearance brought sufficient support from members of the Hungarian nobility to allow the family to move to Vienna, where Liszt took piano lessons from Czerny and composition lessons from the old Court Composer Antonio Salieri, who had taught Beethoven and Schubert. In 1822 the Liszts moved to Paris, where, as a foreigner, he was refused admission to the Conservatoire by Cherubini, but was able to embark on a career as a virtuoso, displaying his gifts as a pianist and as a composer.

On the death of his father in 1827 Liszt was joined again by his mother in Paris, where he began to teach the piano and to interest himself in the newest literary trends of the day. The appearance of Paganini in Paris in 1831 suggested new possibilities of virtuosity as a pianist, later exemplified in his Paganini Studies. A liaison with a married woman, the Comtesse Marie d'Agoult, a blue-stocking on the model of their friend the novelist George Sand (Aurore Dudevant), and the subsequent birth of three children, involved Liszt in years of travel, from 1839 once more as a virtuoso pianist, a role in which he came to enjoy the wildest adulation of audiences.

In 1844 Liszt finally broke with Marie d'Agoult, who later, under her pen-name of Daniel Stern, took her own literary revenge on her lover. Connection with the small Grand Duchy of Weimar led in 1848 to his withdrawal from public concerts and his establishment there as Director of Music, now accompanied by a young Polish heiress, Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, the estranged wife of a Russian nobleman and a woman of literary and theological propensities. Liszt now turned his attention to new forms of composition, particularly to symphonic poems, in which he attempted to translate into musical terms works of literature.

Catholic marriage to Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein had proved impossible, but application to the Vatican offered some hope, when, in 1861, Liszt travelled to join her in Rome. The couple continued to live separately in Rome, starting a period of his life that Liszt later described as une vie trifurquée (a three-pronged life), as he divided his time between his comfortable monastic residence in Rome, his visits to Weimar, where he held court as a master of the keyboard and a prophet of the new music, and his appearances in Hungary, where he was now hailed as a national hero.

Liszt's illegitimate daughter Cosima had married the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, whom she later deserted for Wagner, already the father of two of her children. His final years were as busy as ever, and in 1886 he gave concerts in Budapest, Paris, Antwerp and London. He died in Bayreuth during the Wagner Festival, now controlled by his daughter Cosima, to whom his appearance there seems to have been less than welcome.

The symphonic poems of Liszt caused some controversy. One of the most influential critics in Vienna, Eduard Hanslick, a champion of Brahms, wrote in 1857 of the impertinence of such an attempt: "He fancies his music capable of fiddling and blowing the most magnificent phenomena of myth and history, the most profound thoughts of the human mind." Hanslick's objection was not to music with some extra-musical association, but to the vastness of the subjects tackled and what he saw as a reliance on an external programme to justify an absence of musical content.

The first attempt at what was, after all, a daring new form, came in 1848 with a musical interpretation or translation of Victor Hugo, Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne. The work was orchestrated largely by Joachim Raff, employed by Liszt for the purpose, since his own skills were at the time rudimentary. This was followed by Les Préludes, described as a symphonic poem after Lamartine. The following year he wrote Tasso, lamento e trionfo, based on the poem by Byron. Orchestration this time was by August Conradi, who had served Liszt intermittently as a copyist. A series of symphonic poems followed, the descriptive title newly coined, the last return to the form in 1881-2 with Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe (From the Cradle to the Grave).

Liszt wrote his A Faust Symphony in 1854, adding a choral finale three years later, when it was first performed in Weimar. Further revisions took place, with changes introduced even as late as 1880. The subject of Faust, the scholar who sold his soul to the Devil in return for youth and power, had a particular attraction to artists in the nineteenth century, when Faust might appear as a human hero, an opponent of ancient tyrannies, political and religious, and the Devil himself might seem to have similar attractions. Where the Elizabethan version of the story by Christopher Marlowe brought Faust to a medieval Hell, Goethe's monumental and influential poetic treatment of the subject ended in the final redemption of Faust through the power of love and of the woman he had wronged, Gretchen. Liszt based his symphony on the literary work of his great predecessor in Weimar, Goethe, and returned to the subject of Faust in later compositions based on Lenau's Faust, including the Mephisto Waltzes.

Liszt's A Faust Symphony opens with a picture of Faust himself. This first movement is in traditional symphonic structure, with a slow introduction that leads to a long exposition, with its own developments, a short development section and an abridged final recapitulation. The opening theme, played by muted violas and cellos and using all twelve semitones of the octave, is said to represent the mysterious studies of the old scholar, capped by a theme of feeling from the oboe, marked dolente, of which a derivative provides an opening to the second subject group, representing Faust as a lover. The Allegro, marked agitato ed appassionato, starts with the strings declaration of a theme associated with Faust's struggle and goes on to a descending motif, expressive and passionate, introduced by oboes and clarinets and representing the yearning of Faust. The theme of Faust's heroic endeavour is introduced by the trumpets as a part of the second subject group, now marked Grandioso. All this thematic material forms the exposition, followed by a development introduced by the excited theme associated with Faust's struggle, coupled with the ominous opening motif, now heard in canon. This material appears in its original form, remarkably developed, and leading to a shortened recapitulation. The movement ends with cellos and double basses recalling briefly the theme representing Faust's feelings.

The second movement, Gretchen, starts with a gentle passage for flutes and clarinets, followed by the main theme, played by oboe accompanied by solo viola. Most of the movement is scored for a small orchestra in a texture of great clarity. A second theme is introduced by flutes, with clarinets and bassoons and in the central section of the movement Faust's theme of love is heard first, entrusted to the French horn. The cellos offer the descending melody associated Faust's yearning, leading to a passage of full orchestration. The agitated theme of Faust's struggle re-appears, now mollified in a gentler mood. This leads to a re-appearance of the Gretchen themes, now rescored, with the theme of Faust's heroism now utterly transformed in conclusion.

The third part of the Faust Symphony is devoted to the devil, Mephistopheles. Marked Allegro vivace, ironico, it transforms the thematic material of the earlier pictures, in a remarkable scherzo of great power, twisting the material associated with Faust, but allowing Gretchen to overcome the power of evil, when her theme appears in all its simple purity, after the violence of a fugue, based on a version of the theme associated with the emotions of Faust. The complexities of the movement and the transformation of earlier thematic material defy succinct explanation in a picture that includes only one extraneous thematic element, the 'pride' theme from Liszt's Malédiction for piano and orchestra. The added final chorus and tenor solo offers a final song of serene triumph over evil, in the words of Goethe:

Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis,
das Unzulängliche, hier wird's Ereignis,
das Unbeschreibliche, hier wird es getan,
das Ewigweibliche zieht uns hinan.

(All transitory things are but a likeness;
what is insufficient, here becomes a true event;
what is unwritten, here is accomplished;
the eternal feminine draws us upwards.)

Keith Anderson

 


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