Music and the Legend of Faust Part 1

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Music and the Legend of Faust

Music and the Legend of FaustFaust 1

Some subjects simply appeal to artists more than do others. We have symphonies inspired by Spring, the forest, the sea, mountains, rivers, the stars, and the planets. From fiction, there are Romeo and Juliet, Cleopatra, Macbeth, and jolly fat old Falstaff. Somehow, however, the shadowy figure of Faust seems to hold some sort of record. And it is this record that I would like to examine for this new series of articles.

To start, there may or may not have been a Doctor Johann Faust who died in 1540, leaving behind him a reputation for having sold his soul to the Devil, most probably by being too educated in areas that even today lie under suspicion in the eyes of certain groups with mind-sets that do not approve of any one except themselves knowing the unknowable. But the pattern for the man who probed matters best left alone became set and led the way to so many similar tales. Why how many old Universal horror films can you name with that very message?

In 1587, there appeared a “Volksbuch” that included the moralistic story of Faust. It went through over a dozen editions very quickly and was read all over Europe. His sin was that of “speculative ambition”: desiring to enjoy the cardinal sins with impunity. You see, Faust-as-modern-man or Faust-as-Prometheus had not yet been conceived. An expanded edition came out in 1590 and had Faust performing all sorts of magic tricks; but the trickster is of course tricked by the Supreme Trickster in the end and the moral pretty much remains the same.

220px-Faustus-tragedyLike the mass-media of today, a best-selling idea was quickly seized upon and Faust books by the dozens were popping up all over the continent, not to mention hundreds of puppet shows that told this and that version of the story—all of them the true version, of course—and it is very likely that many authors were influenced directly by any one or several of these. Christopher Marlowe’s  Doctor Faustus (1588) is a very uneven play, starting and ending grandly and suffering from a mid-section that is as silly in parts as any puppet play. But the message has something of a new element.

After seeing how useless it is to study the “allowed” material—theology, metaphysics, and so on—Faust turns to the forbidden books to call upon Infernal assistance. Once he has made his pact with Mephistopheles, this Faust seems content with practical jokes until he realizes the enormity of the consequences. “Cut is the branch that might have grown straight” is how the Epilogue describes the result; and we are left to feel how he wasted his opportunities rather than feeling sorry for his fate. Whether or not this is what Marlowe had in mind is not to be known, but the play seems to suggest such a non-moralizing message: if you are going to do bad, at least do it well!

What is certain is that of the several operas based on the Faust legend, only one of  them draws upon material from the Marlowe version—and that is the one the least known of the lot. (Is there a moral in that somewhere?) Since the German translation of this play was available only after Goethe had begun his more epic version of the story, scholars believe it had no influence on his whatsoever. This is neither here nor there, because Goethe’s version is entirely different and its influence on music is immense.

14706First of all, Goethe’s earlier version called the “ur-Faust” and the expansion known as “Faust, the First Part” were products of the Romantic Movement, not the Middle Ages. The philosophy of this stage in European thought could be summarized baldly and therefore badly thus: the Age of  Faith did not eliminate human misery, nor did the Age of Humanism or did the Age of Reason—therefore we must return to and trust in Nature for all solutions. Since Nature seems to be in a constant state of Sturm und Drang, it follows that a Man should be in the same state of striving for the unattainable. It is clearly stated in the “Prologue in Heaven” that while Mephistopheles scorns the useless striving of Faust, the Lord sees that as Man’s noblest characteristic. So it is part of the double bet that the Devil has to make with first God and then Faust that he can (1) turn Faust’s energies down the garden path to Hell and (2) give Faust a “moment of contentment” in which he can stop trying .  That he fails on both accounts is what separates this version from the earlier ones, for it is Heaven that greets the old scholar at the end of the Second Part as he is drawn on high by “the Eternal Feminine.”

Faust 4
Faust and Wagner being stalked by a devil of a dog

Now all I have left out of this account is the marvelous poetry, the complex philosophical problems, the hundred or so minor characters, and most of what makes Goethe’s Faust one of the greatest achievements of Western literature. On the other hand, that is pretty much what the most popular musical form, that of Gounod, does. So what I would like to do in this series of articles is trace the different musical treatments of the Faust story, mostly the Goethe version, and see how it has been trivialized here and treated reasonably there.

Music and the Legend of Faust, 6

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Music and the Legend of Faust

IMG_20150603_0004_NEWFaust: Getting Away from Goethe

The year 1816 saw the opening night of what one might call today an “offbeat” operatic version of the Faust legend. Titled simply “Faust,” the not very well constructed libretto by Joseph Karl Bernard stands as an example of the Sturm und Drang mindset of Germany at that time and has little enough to do with any popular version of the story.

Without going into much detail, we find Faust already “in charge” of his servant Mephistopheles at the start of the work and wanting to use his powers to do good. Needless to say, the Devil does not have that same agenda and uses two women to work Faust’s downfall. After a lot of Gothic castles and not very interesting love interest and intrigue, Faust is dragged to hell in the final moments of the opera. Now considering the state of the opera libretto back then, a good deal of the dialogue is quite good, although the story line is hackneyed and confusing.

What is of interest to any modern listener is the music. Every reference to Louis Spohr always leads one to think of the Mikado’s line about “Spohr and Beethoven and classical Monday pops”; but the man was quite instrumental in bringing German music out of the Italian influence and into the 19th century. Though I doubt if we will ever see this opera performed in this country, there is at least one recording of it you might find worthwhile on Capriccio label. Otherwise Spohr’s version will remain a rare curiosity.

Far more powerful dramatically and musically is Ferruccio Busoni’s “Doktor Faust,” which came in the first decade or so of the next century. Here the composer-librettist describes his work as “a poem for music in two prologues, an intermezzo and three principal scenes.” He wrote that he had in mind the episodic puppet shows on the Faust theme and claimed that an unrealistic spectacle is the best way to present a supernatural series of events.

The plot, such as it is, recalls Marlowe more than Goethe, with the Duchess of Parma playing a major part–and indeed having the only solo that approaches an aria in this work. Faust does die at the end, but there rises from the spot where a dead baby lies a “naked half grown youth with a flowering branch in his right hand”; after which an epilogue tells us that using the experiences of the past, we shall find heaven at last. A strange, powerful and brooding version that deserves a lot more attention than it gets on this side of the Atlantic.

To move even further from the Romantic movement and its respectful treatment of the Faust legend, I must mention here what some might call “a Faust for our times.” It is called (hold on to your earplugs) “Faust: die Rockoper.” Thankfully I am not required to review the recordings of this 1997 work, one in German and one in English, both of which might or might not be available over here. What Rudolf  Volz did was simply to take chunks of dialogue from Goethe and set them verbatim to a heavy rock score. From what I can make of the photographs included with the CDs, I think Busoni would have approved of the staging.

Being a musical snob, I must confess that I cannot listen very long to the music, which I find utterly indistinguishable from song to song. And yet I do see some sort of poetic justice in having the Devil belt out his lines to a musical form that has made fortunes for countless performers who substitute volume, light displays and costumes for the ability to sing or play an instrument. Possibly if I was paid to sit through a performance, I might find it more tolerable. But again, this is my personal prejudice at full tilt. On the other hand, this might be a very good way to introduce the Faust story to recalcitrant youngsters who might very well accept it in this form. At any rate, a big production is at the time of this writing being planned in Munich for August 28, Goethe’s birthday. I hope he appreciates it!

For lack of room, I will stop here and devote my last article to possibly the best of the non-Goethe Faust versions. But if any of you out there know of any musical versions I have missed, please let me know.