About this work
After first encountering Goethe's Faust in 1830, Liszt ruminated for years on the idea of creating a musical work based on the play. It was not until he heard an 1852 performance of Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust that he was inspired to begin serious work on what was to become his Faust Symphony. The first version of the work (1854), for a small orchestra without brass, was substantially shorter than its final form. Over the next three years, Liszt expanded the symphony, eventually adding the final chorus in 1857.
Unlike the more episodic and narrative Dante Symphony (1855-1856), the Faust Symphony is structured along more purely musical lines. Each of its three movements is a character portrait, of Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles, respectively; together, they were regarded by Liszt as three of his finest tone poems. The first movement, "Faust," is cast as a sonata-allegro. Faust's theme, consisting of broken augmented triads, uses all 12 tones of the chromatic scale, anticipating the rise of twelve-tone and other atonal techniques that were still decades in the future. In spite of the extreme economy of its material, the movement is nearly 30 minutes in duration, demonstrating Liszt's process of thematic transformation as it spans a remarkable variety of moods that evoke Faust's complex character.
"Gretchen," is slow, meditative and delicately scored. Liszt here continues the process of thematic transformation with material derived from the previous movement. Finally, in keeping with the negative and mocking character of Mephistopheles, the third movement is a grotesque parody of the first and uses only one new theme, appropriately borrowed from Liszt's own Malédiction, S. 121.
Liszt added the choral ending to the work only after having completed the Dante Symphony, which likewise has this feature. In the Faust Symphony, the text is the Chorus mysticus which ends Part II of the play.