Saturday, October 21, 2023

Liszt - A Faust Symphony

When Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886) gave up the life of a traveling piano virtuoso to devote himself to composition in 1847 it was with the encouragement of the woman in his life, Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein.  He spent one winter with the Princess before he accepted a long-standing offer to go to Wiemar as Kapellmeister at the court there.  It was during his tenure there that he wrote many of his most well known compositions for orchestra.

While Liszt had a total command of the piano, he knew little about orchestration and instrumentation. He learned quickly, and became a master of the orchestra as well as the piano. He hired musicians that knew how to orchestrate and would have them orchestrate his piano versions of works. He would then use them as examples and then re-orchestrate the piece himself, using what he had learned.   A Faust Symphony was the first work the Liszt orchestrated without any help, and even felt well versed enough to write out the 'Gretchen' movement of the work straight out into full score without a piano sketch.  He completed the score in 1854.

The legend of Faust dealing with Mephistopheles for knowledge at the price of his soul, and of the love he had for Gretchen, attracted many Romantic era composers. Berlioz wrote a cantata/opera on the theme, Wagner an Overture, and the popular opera by Gounod .  Liszt had sketched some ideas for a piece of his own based on Goethe's story as early as 1840 while he was still a traveling virtuoso.

Liszt used a technique in this, as well as most of his other large works, called thematic transformation or metamorphosis.  Simply put, it is basing an entire work on a theme or themes that appear at various times in the composition and are changed for dramatic effect. It is essentially a type of theme variation as used by many composers earlier, but it is done with more freedom and the altered theme no longer has a connection with the original, but has a life of its own.

The complete title for this work is A Faust Symphony In Three Character Portraits (after Goethe) .  The three 'characters' Liszt portrays are Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles.  In the opening movement  Liszt uses 4 primary themes to portray Faust. The very opening notes of the movement is the first Faust theme, stated in cellos and violas.  The theme itself is tonally ambiguous as it uses all 12 notes of the chromatic scale. This ambiguity lends a great amount of flexibility to this theme within the movement, within the Gretchen movement where the love and purity of Gretchen transforms the themes into warm and tender music, and also in the Mephistopheles movement where Liszt turns the themes into the sarcastic, sardonic themes of Mephistopheles himself.

In Liszt's musical telling of the tale, Faust is a combination of the other two characters. He has a warm loving side and a dark, satanic side that is willing to do anything for knowledge, including selling his soul to the devil.  In some ways, the piece can be looked at as autobiographical. Liszt himself was a very complex personality. A great artist not above showboating for the crowd to please them, a pious and deeply religious man that lived the bohemian life, a man who late in life took minor orders in the Catholic church that also enjoyed the luxuries of good food, drink and cigars, an exceedingly generous man with so many others that could also be selfish and self-serving.  The complexity of Liszt's personality mixed with his rare talent and genius make him one of the most interesting and original of the Romantic era composers.

Liszt's A Faust Symphony: