The Kennedy Center

Mephisto Waltz No. 2, S. 515

About the Work

Image for Liszt Composer: Franz Liszt
© Peter Laki

Franz Liszt (or, in Hungarian, Liszt Ferenc) was born in Doborján, Hungary (now Raiding, Austria), on October 22, 1811, and died in Bayreuth, Germany, on July 31, 1886. 

Liszt completed the First Mephisto Waltz as the second of Two Episodes from Lenau's "Faust" in 1860.  The "Mephisto Waltz" separately was performed on March 8, 1861, in Weimar, with Liszt conducting. 

This work runs about 10 minutes in performance.  Liszt's score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbals, triangle), harp, and strings.

As he grew older, Liszt was drawn more and more strongly toward the Catholic religion.  Yet as a quintessentially Romantic artist, he could never conceive of Heaven without Hell, and the diabolical fascinated him as much, if not more, than the sacred.  It is interesting in particular how often he associated negative spiritual forces with dance movements:  it is enough to think of Totentanz and such late piano works as Csárdás macabre and Csárdás obstiné to realize that Liszt's favorite way of visualizing the Devil was as a dancing master (to say nothing of his later Mephisto Waltzes Nos. 2-4 for piano, of which the second one was also orchestrated).  No doubt, he was profoundly marked by the medieval tradition of the Dance of Death.

Of all the incarnations of the Devil in Western literature is Mephistopheles of the Faust legend is one of the most sophisticated.  Mephistopheles offers a pact to Faust, an old scholar who has spent his entire life among books yet feels that he has learned nothing.  Mephistopheles shows Faust limitless possibilities for self-realization, only to take his soul as payment.  The most famous literary treatment of this old legend is Johann Wolfgang Goethe's monumental dramatic poem.  Although Liszt based a grandiose three-movement symphony on Goethe's Faust, we know that in his heart he preferred the version by Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850), a poet who used to occupy a respectable seat in the German literary pantheon but who doesn't seem to be read very much any more.

Lenau was not the only German poet to tackle Faust after Goethe -- a fact that is often forgotten.  The Romantic generation was not comfortable with the Goethe's Olympian optimism.  In the second part of his drama, Faust had, after all, reached happiness through working for the good of his fellow humans; and even the pact with the Devil is overturned in the end as his soul moves on to the highest spiritual realms, drawn by the "eternal feminine."  Such a happy ending was unacceptable to Lenau, the deeply troubled son of a Hungarian aristocrat, who had wandered aimlessly through America and who would end his days in an insane asylum.  Lenau's Faust, written in 1836, is an entirely negative take on the legend.  As one commentator has put it, this "Faust has signed away his soul without knowing for what.....He is never shown obtaining truth or even pursuing it."  He goes wherever the Devil takes him and follows his orders, yet he never seems to derive any kind of benefit from his actions.  In the end, he commits suicide.

Lenau's Faust-which made a considerable impression on a generation that thrived on Weltschmerz ("life-weariness")-is very loosely organized; its "scenes" often have very little connection with one another, and while some are scenes in a theatrical sense, with dramatic dialog, others are simply lyrical poems.  Liszt was inspired by two of these episodes, which are self-contained to some extent, and while he insisted that the two should always be performed together, he was the first to break that rule when he performed "Mephisto Waltz" without its companion piece, "The Night Procession" (in which Faust sees a religious procession at night and is deeply moved by the singing). 

There was, in other words, a "heavenly" counterpart to the "Mephisto Waltz"; yet the pious song of the pilgrims is no match for Mephistopheles's fiddle.  Lenau's "Dance in the Village Inn" takes place during a wedding in a little tavern where Faust dances with a village girl and finally runs off with her into the forest.  No idealized, transcendent love experience for this Faust!

The first thing Mephistopheles does when he takes the fiddle is to tune it:  the open fifths, piled up on top of one another, result in sonorities that were radically new at the time.  After the "tuning," an energetic theme emerges, followed by a second, more languid waltz melody, which becomes in turn whimsical, fiery, and, finally, unabashedly erotic.  The flute solo near the end clearly represents the nightingale who witnesses (and indeed, symbolizes) the passionate love scene concluding both Lenau's poem and Liszt's music.