Faust – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s most famous work. How I hated it. How I loved. it. As a teenager I had to confront Part I at school. I loved the poetry, I loved the plot, but the work contained so many ideas, allusions, allegories that I would have needed the assistance of Mephistopheles himself to understand it all. But I wasn’t ready to sign the devil’s deal with my own blood and I am not ready for that today, so I guess I will read it once more and hope for the best. If I can’t grasp the forces that hold the universe together – well, there are legions of unafraid scientists to get to the bottom of things.
Faust and Mephistopheles however have not lost any of their fascination for me. I adored Thomas Mann’s novel “Dr. Faustus” and I love Franz Liszt’s “Mephisto Valses”. Four solo piano works, written between 1856 and 1885, albeit Liszt was not able to finish the last piece. It was completed by the pianist and Liszt expert Leslie Howard in 1978. Although Howard has recorded the four valses, I prefer the recording by Cyprien Katsaris.
Liszt did not have to strike a deal with the devil to write these pieces despite some devilishly beautiful dissonances, empty fifths, awkward scales and chords, daring shifts in tonality and rhythm. Liszt needed only to be Liszt, he just had to discard conventional composer’s wisdom for he was no conventional composer. He would perform these late pieces if at all exclusively for his students, and most of the time they reacted with incomprehension and bewilderment.
A reluctant performer
One of his pupils, Lina Ramann, is quoted by the Liszt biographer Michael Stegemann: “I was unable to feel it, that Mephisto mood, that I wish to keep far away from the sunset of life. Depressed I remained silent. ‘Première fraîcheur’ (First freshness), he [Liszt] said again. ‘I understand the accolade, dear master, but, forgive me, I don’t enjoy such moods’, I replied. He understood what I meant, the angry expression left his face and he sadly sighted: ‘You are right,’ and silently we cried”. Liszt’s sorrow about the death of Richard Wagner coupled with own dark brooding about his fate is a recurrent theme of his late works.
My ongoing fascination and unabated appraisal of Liszt may surprise you, but I think the general public has a gross misperception of the composer. The majority of his works are never performed, some of his piano works are used training material for pianists, but his life achievement is not fully recognized. Liszt is so much more than the brilliant pianist, the husband of Wagner’s daughter Cosima and the composer of a few well-known sonatas, mazurkas and concertos.
Liszt is the personification of German Romanticism, of extreme musical passion, the heroic life in the realm of music. He was living a life on the edge in the 19th century, always sharp, always trying to remain on top of things, worn down by inner conflicts, propelled forward by a great idea. He was ambitious, just like Faust, and he certainly knew a great deal about the trappings of an ambitious career, the temptation of power, the collateral damage, the painful compromises it takes. Still he never lost his humanity, his empathy, his wish to promote young talents and to encourage them to live their dream.
Whenever I listen to these four magical works, I imagine Franz Liszt, torn, embittered, depressed but still proud, unbroken, true to his creative ideas right to the end.
© Charles Thibo