Liszt is far better known as a composer of piano music than for his orchestral output, but that's not an indication of quality so much as his life's focus, as Liszt may well have been the greatest piano player in history. He's certainly on my short list of musicians I would strive to track down and hear were I to gain access to a TARDIS or Doc Brown's Delorean or Bill and Ted's phone booth or...you get the idea. Liszt was so great a pianist that his life took on a rock star quality. He used his performing fame to fuel a full and complete musical life, as a composer and a conductor and essayist. Franz Liszt was the total package as a musician. Falling squarely in the Romantic era, you can hear in Liszt a great deal of the connecting tissue that led from Beethoven to Wagner. His music looks back and forward, and though he can be long-winded, his works invariably have moments of searing incandescence.
Years ago, when I was studying music in college, I attended a recital put on by the faculty, which they did once or twice a year. This particular recital ended with one of the piano professors, Dr. Reuter, playing one of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies. It was a showpiece that, among us music students, pretty much brought the house down. I'd love to be able to hear Liszt himself, at the height of his powers, working that magic on the keyboard.
As for today's symphony, A Faust Symphony is something of a hybrid, combining the symphony with the idea of a tone poem (or "symphonic poem", as Liszt would call it). The full title of the work is actually A Faust Symphony in Three Character Sketches after Goethe: (1) Faust, (2) Gretchen, (3) Mephistopheles. It is not intended as a musical telling of the Faust story, but as a depiction of the characters themselves. I've never read Faust, and my only real familiarity with the story comes from the large number of musical works I've heard, most from the 19th century, that were inspired by it. (Chief among these is Berlioz's amazing La Damnation de Faust.) The story of Faust had quite a hold on the imaginations of the Romantic era's great artists, and Liszt was no exception.
This symphony employs typical symphonic construction, particularly in its opening movement, before becoming a cyclical work of tremendous drama in the third, after the lyrical and tender second. In this work Liszt does something quite Berliozian, while anticipating the musical language that would later be called "Wagnerian". It's a fine, fine work, atmospheric and brooding and dramatic...it's Romantic, with all that the word entails. Here is A Faust Symphony by Franz Liszt.
Next time, we return to France for one of two symphonies written by a composer who achieved immortality by writing one of the most popular operas of all time!