Liszt had originally conceived the work in three movements, Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Wagner talked Liszt out of writing a symphonic work that portrayed paradise, as he thought no composer could do paradise justice. Liszt agreed, and retained the first two movements and added a Magnificat in place of the Paradise movement. The first performance was held in Dresden in 1857 with Liszt conducting, and it was a disaster. Lack of rehearsal was the cause, but Liszt didn't give up on the work and conducted it again in 1858.
Faust Symphony (finished in 1854) these two works are more like groups of related tone poems than symphonies, at least in structure. The Faust Symphony to me is a more balanced work, the three sections having much more in common with each other in material and length. The Dante Symphony's strongest movement to me is the first one, Inferno. The second movement is also very good, but the very short Magnificat that follows it tends to throw the last two thirds of the work out of balance to my ear. That doesn't mean the Magnificat isn't good, it most certainly is and is very innovative in Liszt's use of the whole tone scale. Perhaps if Liszt had kept to his original plan for a Paradise movement the work many have been even better.
Inferno begins with a depiction of the gates of hell itself with a slow introduction for brass. Liszt repeats the motif 4 times, each time slightly varied and the first three lines and the ninth line written on the gates of hell are written over the notes in the score:
Through me is the way to the sorrowful city,
Through me is the way to eternal sorrow,
Through me is the way among the lost people.
Abandon all hope you who enter here.
I first hear this symphony more than thirty years ago, and Inferno has been one of my favorite pieces ever since, and it made me a ‘fan’ of Liszt. It was my introduction to Liszt besides the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 I heard Bugs Bunny play in the old cartoons. The power of the piece, the sheer visceral reaction from the loudness of the beginning and end coupled with the tenderness of the middle Francesca da Rimini section still sends chills up the back of my neck. And I do admit that it is the Inferno movement I listen to the most. The other two movements seem anti-climatic to me. I do better to listen to them without the first part