The Devil’s Music: Franz Liszt’s Musical Representation of Mephistopheles

The 12th-century Christian prophetess, poetess, and composer Hildegard of Bingen wrote a letter to the church hierarchy at Mainz protesting the interdiction against performing the sung Office laid upon Bingen and the members of her convent as punishment for Hildegard’s alleged involvement in the burial of an excommunicate in consecrated ground. Song, she argued, is our strongest connection to the voice of the living Spirit. Indeed, she asserts, it was only when Adam became somehow disconnected from his “concourse with the voices of angelic praise” that he was susceptible to the cunning malevolence of the Devil.

However, in His divine wisdom, God did not forever deprive man of song. The early Christian prophets instructed by the Holy Spirit, composed psalms and canticles so that their followers might “be educated in interior matters.” The Devil despised and feared this heavenly musical praise and did all within his power to disrupt it (the implication that the interdiction from Mainz is ultimately the work of the Devil must have been painfully obvious to the recipients of Hildegard’s letter). For Hildegard, the Devil has no access to song; song is the province of the holy. In her musical play, Ordo virtutem, she dramatizes the Devil’s total alienation from song by making his the only speaking role; the Devil shouts, cajoles, and is ultimately reduced to inarticulate screams but he never sings.

Recommended Recording

Franz Liszt, A Faust Symphony, Danmarks Radiosymfoniorkester conducted by Thomas Dausgaard (Chandos, 2000)
This may not be the easiest recording to find. However, while there are many good recordings of this piece I must insist that this is one of the few truly great recordings. The tempos are, in my opinion, perfectly chosen and the performance is crisp where it should be and terrifyingly flamboyant when necessary (read: during Mephisto’s movement).

If at least one musician of the 12th century believed that the Devil was bereft of music, the composers of the 19th century had no such qualms, particularly when it came to the musical presence of the Devil’s most famous literary representative: Goethe’s brilliant creation, Mephistopheles. During the century, Mephisto appeared in opera (Gounod, Boito), and oratorio (Berlioz) but perhaps his most intriguing musical instantiation comes in the form of the third movement of Franz Liszt’s remarkable A Faust Symphony.

Undoubtedly one of the central texts of German literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust was composed over the course of what nearly amounts to the poet’s entire career. Once the book was published, the figure of Faust — a man obsessed with knowledge, steeped in Romantic fervor, and given to the contemplation of his inner state — was quickly proclaimed the ideal representation of the essence of the German character. Herbert Spengler went even further, asserting that Western culture as a whole was a “Faustian culture”. Faust is an alchemist and a scholar who has not derived satisfaction from his studies. He finds no more pleasure in earthly delights — at least not those that are within his reach. Indeed, he yearns for something that is always beyond his grasp, thus embodying ETA Hoffmann’s definition of the Romantic as that which is caught up in “infinite yearning”.

And yet, for all of the existential yearning and dissatisfaction with which most of us can undoubtedly relate, it is not the character of Faust that has continually fired the imaginations of readers over the course of two centuries, but rather Goethe’s incarnation of the trickster devil, Mephistopheles. It was a bold move on Goethe’s part, to create the embodiment of all evil (or, at the very least, its representative and propagator) and yet imbue him with so much wit, humor, and charm.

Mephisto marks an important turning point in thought that took place toward the end of the Enlightenment when many thinkers (Goethe himself foremost among them) were reconsidering the place of evil within the Universe. No longer did they think of evil as simply the absence of Good as did many earlier Enlightenment figures. Rather Evil was a necessary and eternal antipode to Good. Mephisto, when introducing himself to Faust, defines his role:

Part of that force which would/ Do evil evermore, and yet creates the good… I am the spirit that negates. And rightly so, for all that comes to be / Deserves to perish wretchedly; ‘Twere better nothing would begin. Thus everything that your terms, sin, Destruction, evil represent / That is my proper element… I am part of the part that once was everything, Part of the darkness which gave birth to light, That haughty light which envies mother night. (Goethe’s Faust, translated by Walter Kaufmann [Doubleday], 159-161.)

Darkness precedes Light. Light comes out of Darkness, not the other way around as Newton had proposed and as the early Enlightenment thinkers read moralistically. Whereas Hildegard marked out the space of the devil as the absence of music, Goethe insists that that Evil folds into and indeed serves as the necessary foundation for the harmony of the cosmos itself.

For all his attempts toward the diabolical, Mephisto turns out to be quite correct in the end. Through his attempts to damn Faust (most specifically, by allowing him to have an illicit affair with the pure Gretchen) he ensures Faust’s salvation. He is indeed the spirit that “would do evil evermore, and yet creates the good.” Offering Faust the opportunity to secure earthly pleasure in order to lure the man into forfeiting his soul, Mephistopheles ends by involving him with the virtuous woman who will prove to be his redemption.

Indeed, there is little more that Mephistopheles could do inasmuch as he seems to have very little agency per se. What motive force he displays he derives from those he tempts. He never actually leads Faust astray; he does not lead at all. Rather he allows Faust to wander in whatever direction Faust himself chooses. It is Faust who desires youth, sexual encounters, power, and knowledge. Faust chooses these things without prompting and of his own free will; Mephisto merely makes it all possible. Far from interceding on the behalf of evil, Mephisto turns out to be something of a malevolent facilitator. In this manner, Mephisto becomes wholly intertwined with Faust. He becomes the embodiment of Faust’s own overriding lust, desire, and dissatisfaction. Faust had always already carried an element of Mephistopheles around within him but at the moment of Faust’s temptation, Mephisto becomes externalized.

But now Mephistopheles begins to take on the characteristics of Freud’s notion of the uncanny. We often take the notion of the uncanny to encompass that which is utterly foreign, strange, fantastical. However, this understanding of the term (meant to translate Freud’s more apt unheimlich) is misleading. “Unheimlich” can be taken to mean “unhoused.” Freud intended the term to connote not that which is utterly unfamiliar but rather that which is central to one’s own condition but that appears at an inopportune moment or in a hideous, disturbing form. It is the return of the repressed, in classic Freudian terminology. The archetypal example is the double — for instance, the reflection that takes on a life of its own and often threatens the “owner” of the reflection with destruction. The uncanny, in Freud’s sense, is the appearance of an aspect of ourselves that we would rather altogether disavow. This is what is so disturbing about the uncanny; it is the familiar (the all-too-familiar) made unfamiliar by its unexpected and unbidden coming.

If Mephisto as the uncanny return of the repressed is somehow implicit in Goethe’s play, it becomes one of the central characteristics of Liszt’s symphonic representation of the devilish tempter. However, the road to Liszt’s wonderful realization of the character was not straightforward. Liszt always maintained an ambivalent stance toward Goethe’s masterpiece. On the one hand, he claimed that it was one of the three books that he always kept near him along with Dante’s Commedia and Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. On the other hand, Liszt did not always seem comfortable with Goethe (“The worst Jesuit is dearer to me than the whole of your Goethe” he once stated) and felt that the character of Faust was less than desirable, proclaiming him a “decidedly bourgeois character… [his] personality scatters and dissipates itself; he takes no action, lets himself be driven, hesitates, experiments, loses his way, considers, bargains, and is only interested in his own little happiness.” However, despite such ambivalence (perhaps even owing to that ambivalence), it is no overstatement to say that A Faust Symphony remains Liszt’s finest composition for orchestra.

The symphony is in three movements, one for each of the characters depicted: the first movement represents Faust; the second presents Gretchen (the ill-fated object of Faust’s desire); and the final movement concentrates on Mephistopheles. Although these are three discrete movements, they are connected by shared melodic material. Several themes introduced in the first movement return (often in some altered form) in the other two movements while a theme from the second movement also appears in the finale. This is Liszt’s technique of “thematic transformation”. In accordance with this technique, Liszt establishes a few basic themes that represent some person, concept, etc. He then returns to those themes, varying them in order to demonstrate the change in those characters or concepts. Such a process allows the melodic entities to directly contribute both to the unity of the entire composition and to demonstrate progress and change. This is Liszt’s solution to the conundrum that faced so many Romantic and post-Romantic composers: how does one create a musical form that continually and progressively unfolds and yet manages to hold together, to be all “of a piece”?

Furthermore, since this is a piece of so-called “program music” (music meant to represent a story, painting, or some other “extramusical” idea), thematic transformation provides an ideal musical link to Goethe’s narrative structure. The unfolding structure of the music serves as a homologue to the unfolding of the narrative itself. That being said, it is important to note that there Liszt does not, strictly speaking, attempt to portray the actual story of Faust; rather, as the full title — A Faust Symphony in Three Character Sketches (After Goethe) — proclaims, these are three different character sketches that reveal a deep understanding of each of these three figures.

This distinction is vital to a fuller understanding of Liszt’s fascinating dramatic conception. The reader is entitled to some puzzlement here. After all, why would Liszt develop a compositional technique (thematic transformation) so utterly suited to an almost literalist depiction of narrative development and then choose to present three “character sketches”, musical portraits that conceptually threaten to reduce these characters to complete stasis, or at least a rather less-than-dramatic musical list of character traits? One might argue that this is a reflection of Goethe’s play, which is, after all, by and large a theater of thought.

However, there seems to be something more profound in the offing here. It is true that there is little in the way of overt representation of linearly unfolding action in this symphony. The only episode that broaches such a “stagy” form of mimetic music is in the second movement where several commentators hear Gretchen pulling the petals from a flower (“He loves me; he loves me not”) just before Faust catches her up for what will become their first kiss. The majority of the music presents a series of themes that attempt to grapple with the essential character of the three figures; but inasmuch as the characters are defined by their actions and the consequences of those actions, the narrative becomes folded into Liszt’s musical character sketch. That is to say, Liszt takes as his subject not the actions pursued by the characters but rather the underlying emotional structures that make those actions necessary and inevitable. In a sense, Liszt’s work is a musical act of literary criticism.

Thus, the first movement comprises musical themes designed to reveal the contradictory nature of Faust’s soul (and perhaps more broadly, the contradictory nature of the German soul). The first theme, performed by the dark sonorities of the cellos and violas, portrays the scholarly ambitions of Faust. It is the first consciously devised twelve-tone theme ever composed within the Western tradition; that is, the theme employs all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. This “tonal alchemy” perfectly describes the ponderous and thorough (perhaps pedantic) nature of Faust’s studies; the melody presents a deceptively simple sequence outlining a series of dissonant chords that “go nowhere” just as Goethe’s Faust decries his endless pursuit of knowledge that he can never attain. A new theme immediately follows in the oboe articulating, with its precipitous downward melodic leap of a seventh, Faust’s Romantic longing. These two themes serve as the main material for this movement and as they develop through thematic transformation we bear witness to the different aspects of Faust’s nature, his restlessness, his instability.

Gretchen’s movement exudes an idyllic calm disturbed only momentarily by the intrusion of Faust’s second theme. Her music is redolent of the precious, evanescent nature of innocent youth. And yet there is more here. She provides the stability and spiritual grounding that Faust lacks. It is within the space of Gretchen’s movement that Faust finds a true sense of identity, of Being and permanence as opposed to the constant suffering associated with the vicissitudes of Becoming.

Mephistopheles’s movement is another matter altogether. It contains almost no original melodic material. Instead, Mephisto transforms (perhaps “deforms” is a more appropriate term) the music of Faust’s movement. Mephisto twists Faust’s themes so that they become a monstrous version of what they were — Liszt’s technique of thematic transformation taken to a diabolic extreme. In a sense, Mephisto abuses Faust’s music but that is not exactly the point. The point is that Mephisto’s movement be felt to do violence to us, to assault our ideas of order. It is not in a form nor is it formless. It is designed to demonstrate that all design is arbitrary. Mephisto’s movement possesses Faust in two (here related) senses of the word: 1) Mephisto takes possession of Faust in the way that demons will; he inhabits his body so that all of Faust’s earlier gestures become exaggerated and grotesque; 2) he takes possession of Faust’s music and, for a time, Faust’s very soul.

In the end, perhaps, we come to see that Hildegard and Liszt’s musical visions of the devil are not so far apart after all. Hildegard believed that the devil had no music whereas Liszt presents a devil without any music of his own. For Hildegard, music is harmony and the devil, as the very embodiment of the disharmonious element of chaos in the cosmos, has no access to harmony. For Liszt, the devil may have the best tunes but they are all pilfered.