‘The time has come for me (Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita [Midway through the journey of life]—thirty-five years old!) to break out of my virtuoso’s chrysalis and allow my thoughts unfettered flight’, Liszt wrote, paraphrasing Dante’s Virgil, as he prepared to walk away from one of the most glittering concert careers in the history of music and move to Weimar—Goethe’s city—where he settled in 1848. For any Goethe-loving song composer, Faust
was an inevitable source of inspiration, especially when its characters sing. In the eighth scene (entitled ‘Evening’) of Part I, the village girl Gretchen sings Es war ein König in Thule
just before she discovers the casket of jewels that Faust and the diabolical Mephistopheles have left for her. ‘Ultima Thule’ was the legendary name for the ends of the earth, and this tiny ballad tells of a king faithful to his beloved beyond her death. Schubert had earlier told this tale in a pseudo-antique, starkly skeletal song (D367). Liszt’s second version, by contrast, tracks every twist and turn of the story in episodic ballad manner, complete with wistful reminiscences of folksong-like melody for the singer (although accompanied by progressive harmonies), pomp and circumstance for the king’s last banquet with his knights, and a dramatic descent into a watery grave.
from notes by Susan Youens © 2012