Welcome to Hell – Liszt’s musical gates into the netherworld

All hope abandon, ye that enter here!

Franz Liszt: Après une lecture du Dante (Alfred Brendel)

A known fact among the pianists who’ve studied Franz Liszt’s Dante Sonata, or Après une lecture du Dante (eng. After a Reading of Dante) as the title goes, is that the opening passages of the work depict the opening of the gates of hell. The literary work Liszt is dealing with is Dante’s Divine Comedy, whose characters and central motifs Liszt puts into musical use. The composition starts with a manifestation of terrifying glory, the passage of descending octaves proposing majesty and the following brief chorale suggesting gloom. Together they quite literally reflect a section from Dante’s Comedy by presenting, side by side, a rendering of the gates themselves and the “gloominess” caused by the famous inscription.

These words of gloomy color I beheld
inscribed upon the summit of a gate;
whence I: “Their meaning, Teacher, troubles me.”

Dante Alighieri: The Divine Comedy – Inferno

Later on Liszt offers for instance a theme portraying Lucifer, that appears in the realm of F-sharp Major (F-sharp is the dominant key of B Minor, which many, including Beethoven, have called the black key. F-sharp, on the contrary, is arguably the brightest of keys and thus appropriate for the bearer of light, which Lucifer was before his breakup with God) and another one alluding to the three-headed Satan by use of three simultaneous themes.

Let’s move on to the second gate, listen to the next fragment, the opening phrase of Liszt’s Faust Symphony:

Franz Liszt: Faust Symphony (Leipzig Gewandhausorchester & Kurt Masur)

Faust: Ah! Now I’ve done Philosophy,
I’ve finished Law and Medicine,
And sadly even Theology:
Taken fierce pains, from end to end.
Now here I am, a fool for sure!
No wiser than I was before:
Master, Doctor’s what they call me,
And I’ve been ten years, already,
Crosswise, arcing, to and fro,
Leading my students by the nose,
And see that we can know – nothing!

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Faust


The text above is a fragment of Faust’s monologue in the outset of Goethe’s play Faust. Actually his outcry goes on and on, but already the very first sentences give you the idea: Tireless assembling of knowledge hasn’t lead the poor chap to happiness.

Liszt’s rendering of the scene in the beginning of his Faust Symphony nails the point brilliantly. The 1861 version of the work opens with a full-blown twelve-tone theme–half a century before Schoenberg, mind you! A sequence of chromatically descending major-third triads runs until all twelve chromatic notes have been heard. At that moment the melodic line turns upward giving room to expressions of Faust’s frustrations. The passage, especially the descending piles of Major thirds, is a treat no lesser musician would ever have created. Liszt in fact puts forward a sheer show-off of compositional brilliance and a testimony of musical knowledge par excellence, that brilliantly reflect the bits of wisdom Faust himself lists as a no-good way to happiness.

Pitches of the opening passage of the Faust Symphony


But my favourite of Liszt’s gates is yet to come. That one appears in the beginning of the Sonata in B Minor: 

Franz Liszt: Sonata in B Minor (Emil Gilels)

The downward scale opens a path into some unspecified netherworld. Contrary to the Dante Sonata and the Faust Symphony, this composition is laconically titled Sonata, although many have argued that it too has models in literature. A popular belief is that the Sonata is in fact a musical stage for Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles to act Liszt’s version of the Faust legend.

The downward scale in the opening is intriguing. It is not Major nor Minor, yet it strangely sounds familiar. That is because, in fact it is an identical mirror of an upward Major scale. By this I mean that an interval of Major second up in the Major scale becomes a Major second down in this scale, and similarly a Minor second up in the Major scale becomes a Minor second down in this one (look at the graph below). As for the musical effect, the murkiness of the descent triggers in the listener a sensation of a descent into subconsciousness (from consciousness) or into the netherworld (from the real world).

Interestingly the scale refers to something that was becoming a serious topic in the realm of music theory at the time. To be sure, the time of the eminent theorists Hugo Riemann (1849–1919) and Arthur von Oettingen (1836–1920) was still to come, but in 1850, the time of the Sonata’s composition, their work was already around the corner. In 1866, the gifted theorist Arthur von Oettingen published his theory of musical topography, which included a presentation of the Phonic scale in relation to the Tonic Major scale, as he put it. Oettingen’s Phonic scale is, in fact, the very scale Liszt used for the opening of the Sonata in B Minor.

Arthur von Oettingen’s Phonic scale


The opening passage of the Sonata in B Minor


Liszt has laid the path and the gates are open: enjoy the journey!


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