The Faust legend preoccupied Liszt for much of his life, and Goethe’s rendering of it inspired his orchestral masterpiece, the Faust Symphony
. His other works on the subject were a response in the first instance to Lenau’s poem, although the late Mephisto Waltzes
2–4, the Bagatelle sans tonalité
and the Mephisto-Polka
do not specify the particular poetic source of inspiration. The Zwei Episoden aus Lenaus Faust
(‘Two Episodes from Lenau’s Faust’) for orchestra were completed by 1861, but Liszt’s piano version of Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke—[Erster] Mephisto-Walzer
(‘Dance in the Village Inn—[First] Mephisto Waltz’), which preceded the orchestral version, had already appeared. When the orchestral works were published in 1866, versions transcribed by the composer of both pieces for piano solo and for piano duet were announced. It appears that Liszt’s student Robert Freund prepared the solo version of the first piece: Der nächtliche Zug
(‘The nocturnal procession’) under Liszt’s instruction, and then Liszt took over, leaving his mark in every bar of Freund’s manuscript and adding numerous pasted-in alterations. The piece appeared as ‘Für das Pianoforte bertragen vom Componisten’ on the cover, with ‘übertragen von R. Freund’ over the first line of the music, but the final text is clearly Liszt’s. This is a work of frightening solemnity, as Faust is confronted with the dark mysteries of life and death, and the outer sections are bleak and almost atonal. The two central sections are in gentle contrast, the first purgatorial in its yearning and tonal flux, the second quietly and eventually grandly confident in its singing of the Easter plainsong ‘Pange, lingua, gloriosi corporis mysterium’. As many a writer on Liszt has observed, this is clearly one of his finest works, and its neglect in all of its guises is inexplicable, particularly in the light of the phenomenal success of its companion piece. The First Mephisto Waltz needs no introduction.
Now there is an opportunity to hear it in the context of the two Episodes together as Liszt conceived them, Mephisto’s mad whirl of earthly pleasures mocked a perfect foil for the awesome fatalism of Faust’s vision on his night ride. Humphrey Searle, in The Music of Liszt, cannot be bettered in his paraphrase of the episodes from Lenau’s poem:
(1) It is a warm spring night, dark and gloomy, but the nightingales are singing. Faust enters on horseback, letting his horse quietly saunter on. Soon lights are seen through the trees, and a religious procession approaches, singing … The procession passes on, and Faust, left alone, weeps bitterly into his horse’s mane. (2) Faust and Mephistopheles enter the inn in search of pleasure; the peasants are dancing, and Mephisto seizes the violin and intoxicates the audience with his playing. They abandon themselves to love-making, and two by two slip out into the starlit night, Faust with one of the girls; then the singing of the nightingale is heard through the open doors.
The solo piano version does not contain Liszt’s quiet alternative ending to the orchestral version depicting the company sinking ‘in the ocean of their own lust’, but has Mephisto laugh, dance, and the vision is abandoned.
from notes by Leslie Howard © 1996