The “Faust” Symphony, while it is a prominent illustration of program music, is unique in this respect, that it is not a program of scenes or situations, but a series of delineations of character. Liszt himself styles the three movements of the symphony “Charakterbilder” (“Character-pictures”), and has named them for the three leading dramatis personae in Goethe’s poem — Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. He gives us no further program.
The first movement, “Faust,” is intended to typify the longings, aspirations, and sufferings of man, with Faust as the illustration. Four themes are utilized in the expression of Faust’s traits of character. The first, Lento, clearly enough illustrates dissatisfaction, restless longing, satiety, and aspirations. Massive chords introduce it. It changes to a monologue, passing from instrument to instrument, and then develops into an Allegro impetuoso. The second theme, which is brighter and more vivacious in character, shows the dawning of hope. A brief episode passes, in which the old feeling appears in hints of the opening theme, but soon gives way to the third theme, introduced by the horns and clarinets. The fourth and last theme now appears, foreshadowing, with its trumpet calls, the stirring activity which has taken the place of doubt in Faust’s nature. After this the thematic material as set forth is worked up in genuine symphonic form.
There is as marked a contrast between the first and second movements of the symphony. After a short prelude the first theme of the Gretchen movement — a gentle, tender melody — is given out by the oboe, with double-bass accompaniment. The second theme, tells its own story of the love which has made Gretchen its victim. Between these are several charming episodes, one of them with its gradual crescendo evidently indicating her questioning of the daisy, “He loves me, he loves me not.” At last the horn sounds Faust’s love motive, which we have already encountered in the first movement, followed by the love scene, which is wrought out with fascinating skill, rising to the ecstasy of passion and dying away in gentle content.
The third movement, “Mephistopheles,” takes the place of the Scherzo in the regular form. It typifies the appearance of the spirit who denies, with all his cynicism and sneers. Liszt has indicated these qualities in a subtle way. Mephistopheles cannot withstand its pure influence. He leaves the field discomfited; and then by a sudden transition we pass to the purer heights. The solemn strains of the organ are heard, and a männerchor, the Chorus Mysticus, intones, à la capella, the chant (“All Things transitory”). A solo tenor enters with the Gretchen motive, and the symphony comes to its mystic and triumphant close.