Work: Mephisto Waltz no 1 (Orchestral)
About This Work
Though Goethe's magnum opus informs and overshadows them all, several towering prehensions of the legend are testimony that Faust loomed larger -- a living, if elusive, presence in the Romantic imagination -- than any single poet or composer could
encompass. It was a heady mix of magic and Byronism (not least in Byron's drama Manfred) whose eponymous hero becomes, in the episodic 1836 Faust drama of Nikolaus Lenau, interchangeable with that other enduring legend, Don Juan. At their first meeting, the day before the December 5, 1830, premiere of the Symphonie fantastique, Berlioz had introduced Liszt to Part I of Goethe's Faust, sparking a potent recognition of that "something in the air" that would eventually issue in several of Liszt's most ambitious, enduring, and popular works. The Piano Sonata (1853) is plausibly thought to embody a Faustian program, while the character portraits of Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles make up the sprawling Eine Faust Symphonie (1854) -- Liszt's single greatest work -- seem to pronounce a last word on the subject. But through 1860 Liszt composed and orchestrated -- with dazzling virtuosity -- the Episodes (2) from Lenau's Faust. Curiously, the score order, however satisfying in following the slowly paced, evocative first episode with one of exhilarated animation, reverses the order of events in Lenau's play -- the first episode depicting Faust's remorse after encountering the pitiful, begging Hannchen, the girl he seduced on her wedding day, made pregnant, and abandoned, followed by the "Dance in the Village Inn," the stunning realization of the seduction itself. Faust and Mephisto enter as wedding festivities are in progress and Mephisto seizes a rustic fiddler's instrument to conjure demonic revelry -- a scene not unlike the "Lisztomania" provoked by the composer himself in his "Glanzzeit" -- in which Faust and the bride dance into the fields where they "sink into the sea of their ecstasy." What scholar and critic E.M. Butler noted of Lenau's verse is true a fortiori of Liszt's music -- "The wildness, the sweetness, the intoxicating and insidious glamour are there in the words, in the rhymes, in the headlong and heady rhythm, inciting, urging, compelling Faust to his first ruthless downward step into swirling sensuality." From the opening fanfare-like trial of the open strings, the crackle of excited élan relentlessly coruscates through the hectic dance, amoroso flirtation, and orgasmic explosiveness, to subside at last as a nightingale's call is heard. Liszt conducted the first performance of Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke with the Weimar Court Orchestra on March 8, 1861.
-- Adrian Corleonis
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