Thursday, June 19, 2014

Liszt - Mephisto Waltz No. 2

Franz Liszt was quite taken with the Faust legend, as were many artists of the Romantic era. He composed a Faust Symphony based on Goethe's version of the legend, but the 4 Mephisto Waltzes were inspired by Nikolaus Lenau, an Austrian poet that also wrote a version of the Faust legend.

Liszt wrote two works for orchestra that were inspired by Lenau, collectively called Episodes From Lenau’s “Faust.” One of these pieces is the famous The Dance in the Village Inn, also known as Mephisto Waltz No. 1.  Liszt also wrote a version of the first waltz for piano four hands and a version for solo piano which has enough changes in it from the other versions that it is considered an independent work.

It took Liszt twenty years to revisit Lenau's version of the legend and he wrote the Mephisto Waltz No. 2 between 1880 and 1881. The original version was for orchestra, and like the first waltz Liszt made versions for piano four hands and solo piano, with the solo version being substantially different from the other ones.

The work was dedicated to the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, a composer that Liszt knew very well. Liszt had transcribed Saint-Saëns' tone poem Danse Macabre for piano a few years earlier which perhaps had inspired Liszt to write another Mephisto Waltz. Liszt was 70 years old and was in his last productive period as a composer.

Nickolaus Lenau
The beginning of Liszt's waltz uses the interval of the tritone, which since medieval times has been considered a dissonance and was avoided by composers. It grated on the ears of earlier composers so much that it was called diabolus in musica, or the devil in music. Late in the Romantic era, the tritone was used by composers to represent evil and, in Liszt's case, Mephistopheles. Saint-Saëns had used the interval of the tritone in his tone poem also by instructing the concertmaster to tune his violin so that the open strings would play a tritone. Modern music has pretty much removed the stigma from the interval and it no longer has the same strong effect it had on earlier audiences. But it is still a restless interval that if used too much can grow tiresome on the ear.

Liszt loosely follows the program he used in his first waltz as the opening can be thought of as Mephisto tuning his violin. After the introduction, the music turns into an intense dance that is sprinkled with dissonance. The character of this waltz is more aggressive and more violent than the first waltz.  There is new material introduced roughly half way through the piece that is more quiet and reflective, but still there remains an underlying tension. Passion builds until the dance of the beginning returns. The dance grows more hectic until the entire piece collapses into the interval of the tritone as in the beginning. The ending of the piece is written in E-flat major, but builds to an unresolved ending on the interval of the tritone B-F. The piece actually doesn't end so much as stops on bare B natural octaves.

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