The demon Mephisto has a bet with an Archangel that he can corrupt a righteous man’s soul and destroy in him what is divine. If he succeeds, the Devil will win dominion over earth.
The Devil delivers a plague to the village where Faust, an elderly alchemist, lives. Though he prays to stop the death and starvation, nothing happens. Disheartened, Faust throws his alchemy books in the fire, and then the Bible too. One book opens, showing how to have power and glory by making a pact with the Devil, who will manipulate Faust and make him dependent on his power and will. The character of Faust is one of a disappointed alchemist, whose lifelong reasearch has led him to nothing but the verge of suicide. He is facing his existential failure and a pact with the Devil would be his last chance to end up his earthly journey in fulfillment. The consquences of that of course are huge, as he promises his soul in exchange. This German legend echoes topics that are close to Liszt, such as the perpetual fluctuation of the human soul between good and evil, light and darkness, God and the Devil, and redemption through faith.
The final scene sees Faust running towards Gretchen – who is sentenced to death – through the assembled mob, and throwing himself into the fire to die with his beloved.
Gretchen recognizes Faust and as the fire consumes them together, their spirits rise to heaven. The angel reveals to Mephisto that he has lost the bet because Love has triumphed over all.
“Music is never stationary; successive forms and styles are only like so many resting-places – like tents pitched and taken down again on the road to the Ideal.”
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, FAUST ( 1749 – 1832 )
A perpetual quest
Liszt, just like Faust, was dissatisfied and in constant doubts and rethinking. This is why it took him over twenty years to compose his concertos and his Totentanz. Even once they were published, the works constantly evolved, and Liszt, admitting to having ‘the mania of variants’, traced measures, added notes, and thereby showed us that the path never ends. It is plausible that adopting the Franciscan habit (his “mantle of renunciation”) at a riper age testifies to his hope of eternal life through faith and devotion. The topic of victorious love was also particularly close to his heart and in a way probably rather painful, since he never was granted an « earthy » marriage, the catholic church stubbornly refusing the hand of Carolyn von Wittgenstein. Only a celestial and mystical marriage would seal their two destinies, and the love he had for her towards the end of his life was more fantasy than real, him being between the walls of a Roman convent and her being lost to the world, writing confused theology treaties.