Franz Liszt – Faust Symphony (Leonard Bernstein)

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1. After reviewing an 80-minute and action-based Mahler symphony, I think it’s appropriate to turn to an almost equally long Liszt symphony. This one draws heavy inspiration from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, and while Liszt doesn’t portray the “action” of the play per se, he does portray Faust’s internal strife.

2. I came to this symphony and performance of years ago when I was still wetting my big toe in symphonies (having then only heard Beethoven’s 5th and 9th), and I chose this one based purely on the reputation, not of the symphony itself, or the man who wrote it, but after reading about the Lisztomania phenomenon.

I didn’t think much of it then, and wouldn’t touch anything else by Liszt for years until a friend of mine showed me his piano pyrotechnics – the stuff he was known for. Watching YouTube performances of Evgeny Kissin pouring sweat and losing hair while his fingers blurred across the keys or Valentina Lisitsa more calmly blazing her way through “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” – and this might seem hyperbolic – redefined sexuality for me; that it’s not about looks, not necessarily, but it’s about the way that someone can command someone else’s attention entirely.

In between trying to learn the harmonically impossible “Ave Maria” and the 16-minute marathon of “Ballad in B Minor” on the piano, I revisited this one a lot and while my appreciation for it grew, there’s still a rift.

To put it into perspective, Goethe’s Faust, and also, Dante’s The Divine Comedy (which Liszt has also made based a symphony on) are both classics high-school me borrowed and purchased, respectively, because of their reputations as classics and their omnipresence in art (ie. Hannibal’s third season both references Faust early on and then quotes Goethe near the end of the season; “Two souls are dwelling in my breast / And one is striving to forsakes its brother”). And I didn’t enjoy either enough to finish them – maybe too cerebral instead of enjoyable (not that the two are mutually exclusive, mind you), and both left me cold. This symphony is the same way – and, adoration aside, that goes for a lot of Liszt things.

3. A question: does Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony stand on its own without the knowledge of what inspired it?

A half-measure: context does certainly help increase my appreciation of the symphony. For example, the opening measures employing all twelve tones of the octave don’t interest me, either in its melody nor its influence (this is the first published use of twelve tones used outside a chromatic scale). But knowing that it’s supposed to represent a man on the metaphorical precipice? Well, it becomes much more than simply stage-setting – it becomes character creation as well. (And if that’s the edge, then perhaps the descending string motif soon to come is the push off that edge.)

4. Which brings me to the symphony’s greatest weakness. Much has been made of Liszt’s fascination with Faust – that he identified with Faust’s struggle between temptation and religion. And of course, Liszt’s fascination with Mephistopheles and his other incarnations is well-documented in his repertoire: the Dante Symphony, the Mephisto Waltzes, the Dante Sonata, etc. So, perhaps his fascination with the two opposing characters would explain why the second movement of the symphony – representing Gretchen, the love interest – feels so relatively uninspired? I mean, there are some nice moments: the springtime-evoking plucked strings, like flower pedals flowing to the wind of the legato melody and arpeggios. But it doesn’t sustain interest for nearly 23 minutes.

5. This is especially in comparison to the Faust movement. His theme (at the 11:10 mark) is resoundingly triumphant (especially when punctuated by the drums) such that when they slow it down near the end (at the 23:50 mark) or invert it for the third movement (more on that soon), it’s still immediately recognizable. (And if you think that’s triumphant, check out what happens around 26 minutes in, where after a transition of crescendoing plucked strings the theme returns, even larger before, this time to be punctuated by cymbal smashes.

6. Appropriate to creation vs. destruction, Liszt’s Mephistopheles has no theme of his own, instead, transforming Faust’s theme as his own but distorting it (around 6 or 11 minutes in), while the overall structure of the movement mirrors that of Faust’s. Meanwhile, Gretchen’s theme here remains intact and unchanged, which in combination with the words of the vocal conclusion, suggests Faust’s victory over the devil.

7. All-in-all, flawed if influential; cerebral if enjoyable – in parts, anyway.

B+

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One response to “Franz Liszt – Faust Symphony (Leonard Bernstein)

  1. I am giving this review an A+, because you wrote from the gut, because you were connected to the work and informative as well, and because you’ve just made me want to find a copy of this ASAP so I can hear for myself. Yes!

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