Liszt: Mephisto Waltz No. 1

The Dance in the Village Inn (Mephisto Waltz No. 1), from Two Episodes from Lenau’s Faust

FRANZ LISZT 
BORN: October 22, 1811. Raiding, Austro-Hungarian Empire
DIED: July 31, 1886. Bayreuth, Germany

COMPOSED: 1860

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST— October 1922. Alfred Hertz conducted. MOST RECENT—September 2009. Michael Tilson Thomas led the SFS

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones (2 tenors and 1 bass), tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 12 mins

The tale of Faust traces its ancestry to Germany in the early sixteenth century, when a real-life Johann Faust claimed to have made a pact with the devil. Within a few decades, the stories of necromancy and alchemy that swirled in the wake of Johann Faust’s death were codified in a published Faustbuch (1587). Translated and disseminated throughout Europe, that volume inspired further developments of the Faust legend, including contributions by such figures as Christopher Marlowe, Gotthold Lessing, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. For most of us the general outline of the Faust story will be Goethe’s, particularly in his Part One. It deals with how the devil (Mephistopheles) seeks and receives God’s permission to try to corrupt Faust, a disaffected academic; of Faust’s dealings with Mephistopheles, which enable him to acquire knowledge and a girlfriend (Gretchen); and the consequences his actions have on others (his seduction of Gretchen brings her to ruin, though his turn of heart leads to her eventual redemption).

Many Romantic composers were swept up in Faust mania. In 1830, Hector Berlioz, who would go on to compose The Damnation of Faust, introduced Goethe’s Faust to his friend Franz Liszt, who also succumbed to its spell.

Liszt’s monumental Faust Symphony of 1854 was only the beginning of his infatuation with the legend, and he wrote more than a dozen further Faust-inspired pieces, among them the work that opens this concert. It was inspired not by Goethe’s Faust but by Faust: A Poem, an 1836 work by Nicolaus Lenau, an Austrian poet remembered by music-lovers mainly because his epic poem Don Juan would serve as inspiration for Richard Strauss’s symphonic poem of that name. In Lenau’s Faust story, the hero wanders through a life without meaningful values. Liszt’s Two Episodes from Faust are like brief tone poems, each inspired by a different moment encountered in Lenau. The first, the Nocturnal Procession, is a relative rarity. The second of the Episodes is as famous as the first is obscure. In Lenau’s poem, Mephistopheles coaxes Faust to a village inn, where they seek romantic pleasure. According to Liszt biographer Humphrey Searle, “The peasants are dancing, and Mephisto seizes the violin and intoxicates the audiences 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 concluding section follows the nightingale (a flute, of course) and a string of harp glissandos. Sacheverell Sitwell wrote that “the very tone of the music is haunted and evil,” but it is an evil of calculated seductiveness rather than of sinister threat.

This Second Episode will be familiar to many listeners in its better-known guise as Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1, the first and most famous of the four such piano pieces he would write.

—James M. Keller

(September 2018)