Liszt – Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (Khatia Buniatishvili)

Georgian classical pianist Khatia Buniatishvili plays Mephisto Waltz No. 1, Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke (The Dance in the Village Inn), the best-known of the Mephisto Waltzes ( four waltzes composed by Franz Liszt in 1859-62, 1880–81, 1883 and 1885). Recorded during the 2011 Verbier Festival.

Mephisto Waltzes Nos. 1 and 2 were composed for orchestra, and later arranged for piano, piano duet and two pianos, whereas 3 and 4 were written for piano only.

Mephisto Waltz No. 1 is the second of two short works he wrote for orchestra. While the work preceding it, Midnight Procession (“Der nächtliche Zug”), is rarely given (though both works have been recorded together), the waltz has been a concert favorite, with its passion, sensuality and dramatics generating an emotional impact. The American art, book, music, and theater critic James Huneker (January 31, 1857 – February 9, 1921) described the work’s “langourous syncopated melody” as “one of the most voluptuous episodes outside of the Tristan score.”

The Mephisto Waltz No. 1 is a typical example of program music (a type of art music that attempts to musically render an extra-musical narrative), taking for its program an episode from Faust, not by Goethe but by the Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau (25 August 1802 – 22 August 1850). The following program note, which Liszt took from Lenau, appears in the printed score:

“There is a wedding feast in progress in the village inn, with music, dancing, carousing. Mephistopheles and Faust pass by, and Mephistopheles induces Faust to enter and take part in the festivities. Mephistopheles snatches the fiddle from the hands of a lethargic fiddler and draws from it indescribably seductive and intoxicating strains. The amorous Faust whirls about with a full-blooded village beauty in a wild dance; they waltz in mad abandon out of the room, into the open, away into the woods. The sounds of the fiddle grow softer and softer, and the nightingale warbles his love-laden song.”

Liszt intended to publish the Waltz simultaneously with the Night Procession: “…The publication of the two Lenau’s Faust episodes… I entrust to Schuberth’s own judgement; as to whether the piano version or the score appears first, makes no difference to me; the only important thing is that both pieces should appear simultaneously, the Night Procession as No.1 and the Mephisto Waltz as No.2. There is naturally no thematic relationship between the two pieces; but they are related nonetheless by all the contrasts of emotions. A Mephisto of this kind may only arise from such a poodle!…” Liszt’s request was not fulfilled and the two episodes were published separately.

The waltz was conceived as both an orchestra and a piano work. Three versions, orchestral (S.110/2), piano duet (S.599/2) and piano solo, (S.514), all date more or less from the same period (1859–62). The piano duet version is a straightforward transcription of the orchestral version, while the solo piano version is an independent composition. Liszt dedicated the piece to Carl Tausig (4 November 1841 – 17 July 1871, the Polish virtuoso pianist, arranger and composer), his favorite pupil.

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