About this work
Franz Liszt's personality was complex: the wildest possible extremes of both behavior and philosophy were as natural as breathing to this man who lived as a flamboyant virtuoso, sired a number of illegitimate children, and yet took minor orders in the Catholic hiararchy. His intense devotion to the Christian faith was perhaps the cause (or more appropriately, the foil) for Liszt's preoccupation with the legend of Faust, and the character of Mephistopheles in particular (whom he seems to have revered). Perhaps this is because of his boyhood idol, the great virtuoso Nicolo Paganini, who was popularly rumored to be in league with the devil; however, motivations aside, "Mephisto" provided Liszt with a great deal of musical inspiration. In all, he composed four Mephisto Waltzes (the fourth of which was left incomplete), as well as a Mephisto Polka, which is of less interest.
The first Mephisto Waltz is actually the second of Two Episodes from Lenau's Faust, S 110, entitled "The Dance at the Village Inn." Composed sometime during the final months of 1860, it is by far the best known of the four waltzes, and is invariably the piece that comes to peoples' minds upon hearing the title "Mephisto Waltz." Liszt created two versions of the piece at nearly the same time -- one for orchestra (S110/2) and one for piano (S514) -- and both are frequently heard in the concert hall. It is a powerful, well-crafted piece, noteworthy not only for its own powerful dramatic impact, but also for the striking chromatic harmonies which point the way to the future of European music.
The piece begins as Faust and Mephistopheles enter the Inn; during the song and dance which follows Mephistopheles begins to play the violin (there is an extraordinary passage during which the devil "tunes his violin"). His music has an intoxicating, seductive effect on the townsfolk (one is reminded again of Paganini), who disappear, two-by-two, into the night. Liszt provides two endings for the work. The more commonly performed of the two has the music building to a frantic, rage-filled climax at the end. In the alternate ending, which follows Lenau's text more faithfully, but lacks the musical appeal of the original ending, the music is allowed to fade away. Under the second ending Liszt noted, emphatically, "they sink into the sea of their own lust."
Curated by Chanda VanderHart, Pianist and Musicologist