Backing up a bit in our chronology, we can see Berlioz becoming fascinated with setting to music scenes from Goethe’s Faust as early as 1840. His idea was simply to adapt rather than adopt the German poem and the net result was his Damnation de Faust, which played to a half empty house on its opening night and then attracted even less the night after.
He subtitled it “A Dramatic Legend in Four Parts” and proceeded to indicate such elaborate stage directions that no theater could do it justice. Let the requirement of two men on horses galloping over a dark landscape and then falling into Hell suffice as an example of the problems. Therefore it could be and has mostly been given as a concert piece, a cantata, with great success in our day.
With the coming of computer wizardry, however, staging the special effects that Berlioz could only have dreamed of became possible, as one saw in the Metropolitan Opera production of just few years ago.
Faust hears happy peasants and watches an army pass over a plain in Hungary. [The first scene is set in Hungary, the composer explained, so he could write in a Hungarian March!] Back in his laboratory, he tries suicide but a hymn from a nearby church stops him. Mephisto comes to offer a chance at high adventures. They see the low life at a tavern, where we get to hear the entire “Song of the Rat” that is cut short in the Gounod opera and a grand fugue on the word “Amen.” After this, Faust is lulled into a dream of Marguerite on the banks of the Elbe. Marguerite (a Berlioz mezzo) sings of the stranger she has met (off stage). Mephisto sings with his demons a mocking serenade, the lovers sing an extended duet, and mocking neighbors pound at the door in moral indignation.
The abandoned girl sings of her grief, Faust in the woods communes with Nature. Told that his beloved is condemned to die, Faust signs a pact, gallops off with Mephistopheles to save her, but finds himself plummeting into Hell, where he is delivered into the flames. The soul of Marguerite, restored to its “pristine purity,” is welcomed into heaven.
Well, this is less than a Monarch Notes version of the original; therefore its popularity must lie in the music alone (although the “Invocation to Nature” sticks closely to Goethe’s text and is quite powerful). You must have heard the symphonic passages played in concerts or over the radio: the Hungarian March, the Dance of the Sylphs, the Dance of the Will-o’-the-Wisps. Many bass-baritones are sure to add Mephisto’s “Song of the Flea” and “Serenade” to their recordings, while mezzos will pounce upon Marguerite’s two lovely solos. The sequence in Hell is really upsetting, what with the infernal babble that librettist Berlioz gives the demons to sing. There are many recordings, none of which are entirely successful but the one on London (now Decca) conducted by Solti comes closest. Well worth the hearing.
It was not until 1853 that Schumann’s Faust was completed (he had started it around 1845) and the first performance took place after his death. Even more episodic than the Berlioz version, this one is in three parts. After an overture, there are three scenes concentrating on Gretchen: in the Garden, before the Mater Dolorosa, in the Cathedral. The second part brings us into the complexities of the Second Part of the Goethe work: Ariel and sunrise, Midnight, and the Death of Faust. The third part is called the Transfiguration of Faust and sets to music the final pages of Goethe’s poem. (Here the reader is urged to compare Mahler’s treatment of the same text in his Symphony No. 8 with the Schumann rendition.)
As for the texts, while Berlioz wrote his own paraphrases and translations of the original German into French, Schumann was able to take Goethe’s lines as written. It is a pity that this work is so seldom (if ever) performed. The old London set is now out of the catalogue and a newer recording is available but I have not yet heard it. There is now a DVD, which I find quite impressive.
In the next installment of this series, we will consider two very strange versions of Faust, both in German and both…never mind. You shall see.