Liszt had intended to compose his symphony, based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, in three movements, Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Wagner, however, persuaded him to do away with the third movement, arguing that Paradise was impossible to render in music. Eventually, Liszt added to the second movement a setting of Magnificat for female or boys’ choir. The work comprises numerous innovations in harmony, rhythm and orchestration well ahead of his age. In a letter, the composer actually points out the whole-tone scale employed in the closing passage of his setting.
In the first movement, Liszt renders Dante’s Hell in a chillingly unsettling character, with the episode of Francesca da Rimini falling in sinful love with her brother-in-law as the middle section. The original title of the second movement (Purgatory) was Vision. The setting of the Magnificat begins with the choir intoning the first two lines of the canticle of the Song of Mary: “My soul doth magnify the Lord. / And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.”