Music and the Legend of Faust, Part 2

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series Music and the Legend of Faust

IMG_20150605_0001_NEWThe Symphonic Treatments of the Faust Legend

It is interesting to note that German composers tacitly agreed not to set their countryman’s version of the Faust story into an opera, thereby leaving the field open as it were to other nationalities. We will examine the route taken by Berlioz in the 1840s in the next essay. What is important here is the influence of La Damnation de Faust on Liszt and Wagner  .

Liszt had set upon a course of popularizing the piano as a substitute for an entire orchestra—and himself as the prodigy who could play his pieces as they were meant to be played—and in giving us a series of tone poems that have been criticized as being a bit too literal.

(To digress for a moment, while so many of us old timers associate The Lone Ranger with the fourth part of the “William Tell Overture,” not too many are aware that during the program much of Liszt’s “Les Preludes” was used as a mood-setter.)

Liszt’s Faust Symphony is a welcome exception in that the composer wanted to express the mood of the work by doing a musical character study of its three main characters: Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. He was at once face to face with the problem that confronted Beethoven before that composer decided to bring a chorus into a symphony: music cannot be specific. It can portray grief or joy or pomp and circumstance, but it is at a loss to specify in purely musical terms who is feeling these emotions and what is causing them. Of course one can give the work a title such as “By a Waterfall” or “Falstaff: a Symphonic Synthesis” or “The 1812 Festival Overture” or whatever. But that is cheating, as is the use of “God Save the Queen” and “Marlborough se va-t-en guerre” in Beethoven’s noisy “Wellington’s Victory.”

Therefore Liszt gave his “Faust” movement two important themes that are supposed to show the two sides of the old philosopher’s personality, and then several other subsidiary themes that are presented in a turbulent fashion (Faust’s inner struggles?), and then there is a final falling away of the second theme (which may or may not be interpreted, as I read somewhere, as Faust’s self doubts).

Then Gretchen is given her more childlike motifs, full of innocence and love (one of which might be the “he loves me, loves me not” business from the Garden Scene). Then the horns suggest the presence of Faust himself, whose themes are interwoven with hers in a sort of love duet.

But what is one to do with the Devil? Well, this is where the genius of the composer saves the day. “I am the Spirit that denies” is Mephisto’s self description in Goethe; “and all things called forth from the Void deserve to be destroyed.” So here is a gigantic character that cannot create—in which case he cannot have his own themes—but can only destroy. So a good deal of the third movement is a distortion of what we heard in the Faust movement. The themes are taken up, distorted (think of Berlioz’ treatment of the “Beloved” theme in his “Symphonie Fantastique”), and twisted into a diabolic fugue (what else?). But twice the Gretchen theme is heard, untouched by Mephisto’s influence, to show the limits of his power and what Faust is missing.

Now this is wonderful enough, but Liszt felt the need to append the last eight lines from Goethe’s epic, the last two of which are the famous “Das Ewig Weibliche/Zieht uns hinan” (The Eternal Feminine draws us onward). These are assigned to a male chorus and towards the end to a tenor who is given the Gretchen theme with which to sing the words.

It is all very impressive and wonderful. Although I will not recommend any particular recording of this work, be sure the one you do get has the chorus at the end to enjoy the full effect.

Now the Liszt work runs a little over an hour and it would seem almost anti-climactic to hear an eleven-minute work on the same subject. But the one I have in mind is Wagner’s Faust Overture, and it is certainly worth consideration. It was originally planned to be the first movement of a full symphony, but it was put aside and Wagner was motivated to return to it when he learned about Liszt’s treatment of the concept. He never meant to publish it in its original or revised form, but there are several recordings of it and it is worth comparing what he did in about one-seventh the time it took Liszt.

It opens, naturally enough, in a somber mood, followed by a peaceful one (salvation?), and then again by heavy Beethovenesque crashes from the orchestra. We next hear a tender theme that reminds us perhaps of the heroine of “Lohengrin,” then some more tension, and a final resolution not unlike that at the end of the “Lohengrin” Prelude. Such brevity is quite atypical of Wagner (his first act of “Gotterdammerung” is longer than the entire “La Boheme”), and this Overture should be required listening to any one interested in the problems of translating Literature into Music.

In our next article, we will take a look at the Gounod version.

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