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All The Good Tunes

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
03/09/2003 -  
Hector Berlioz: The Damnation of Faust
Petra Lang (mezzo)
Stuart Neill (tenor)
Alastair Miles (bass)
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

In breaking free of the restrictions of formalism and established religion, the Romantic movement in literature incorporated some cautions of its own. Characters free to challenge man’s previous limits were inevitably brought up short when they ventured to go too far. Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, in daring to create life and thus preempt the province of the deity, is forced to realize the evil nature of his imperfect creation. Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab causes his own death and the destruction of all but one of his crew when he dares to approach the white whale, the symbol of the Puritanical God, too closely. And Goethe’s magician, Faust, makes a deal with the Devil, not for personal gain (a twentieth century idea), but rather to acquire the sum total of the knowledge and beauty of the universe and become in the Promethean process a godlike creature (a quintessentially nineteenth century concept). The musical Romantics were fascinated by the tale of Faust and, while emphasizing the conjurer’s ultimate downfall (and some his transfiguration), reveled in vicarious depiction of Satanic rites. In many other works of the nineteenth century Faust may not be a participant but witches, devils and ghosts carry on the tradition of the unholy marriage of Romantic music and the black arts.

Goethe’s Faust differs significantly from Marlowe’s. In Goethe there is a Prologue and two parts. In the Prologue, which takes place in Heaven, the Lord gives Mephistopheles permission to make a deal with Faust because he is confident that Faust’s essentially good nature will prevail. In Part One the deal is delineated. Faust will be exposed to all of the wonders of the universe, but must become the devil’s slave if he wishes to linger at any point. The main story is Faust’s seduction of Gretchen (or Margaret) and her ultimately miserable death and Faust’s guilt and shame. Part Two explores the pure world of beauty with Faust forming a union with Helen of Troy, the symbol of complete pulchritude. Their son, Euphorion, is the emblem of poetry and the union of the classical and the romantic. He vanishes in a flame and is meant to be a portrait of the great hero of the Romantic movement, Lord Byron. Faust does good works in this part, finally reclaiming some land from the grasp of the sea. At his wanting to linger over these noble projects he dies and Mephistopheles tries to claim him, but he is spirited away by a band of angels.

As its title implies, Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust deals only with Part One. In treating such a phantasmagorical subject, Berlioz creates an entirely new musical form, the closet opera. Based on the closet dramas of Byron and others of the Romantic period, Berlioz’ Faust is not meant to be staged with sets and costumes, but is rather an opera of the mind, performed only in concert versions which leave the fantastic scenes to the imagination of the listener (modern staged versions notwithstanding). In this work the focal point of the story is Marguerite, whose haunting song of The King of Thule is one of the most memorable arias in all of opera (it was written years earlier and was part of Berlioz’ first published work, Eight Scenes from Faust). After her seduction Mephistopheles summons the will-o-the-wisps and bids them dance the maiden to her doom. Here Berlioz is faithful to Goethe’s concept of the good fairies actually being kin to the devil. In the Goethe play (often also performed as a closet piece) the first gathering of the spirits (or Walpurgisnacht) is subtitled Oberon and Titania’s Golden Wedding and is purportedly about the “good” fairies, but their gathering is seen as similar to the later Walpurgisnacht of the evil forces of the underworld. The most exciting part of Damnation is the Pandemonium scene when Mephistopheles gathers all of the fiends to witness his ride with Faust down the crevices of a mountain pass in a violent storm. He describes the horses as “swift as thought”, suggesting a link between Faust’s intellectual hunger and his ultimate damnation (and, in the process, a nod to the closet form). As the Pandemonium increases the air is filled with dancing skeletons, shrieking phantoms and monstrous birds. Faust and his companion fall into the Abyss.

Berlioz introduced his good friend, Franz Liszt, to his musical treatment of the story. He had already composed his Eight Scenes and was beginning to develop the idea of the full opera. Liszt reciprocated by suggesting the music of the Hungarian Rakoczy March for the beginning act. He brought the piano part of the Eight Scenes to Zurich and played it for his friend and future son-in-law Richard Wagner, who was in political exile there. Wagner was inspired to write an exciting overture on the tragic theme of Faust. Brahms was also inspired by the Goethe play and composed his “Tragic” Overture for a performance of it in Vienna. Liszt, who had recently invented the symphonic poem as a way of describing in purely orchestral terms the essence of a scene or character, took the story of Faust and fashioned three character sketches which he published as his Faust Symphony. The first movement, entitled Faust, is a mercurial sketch of a Romantic thinker, frequently changing its intense mood and constantly striving towards an ideal of beauty. It is legitimate to think of this movement as a sketch not only of the necromancer but also of the volatile composer himself. The second movement, Gretchen, is devoid of the Sturm und Drang of the first sketch. Here she is portrayed as a calm symbol of virtue and beauty and, after the reprise of the Faustian heroic theme from the first movement, Liszt depicts the purity of their union. The third movement, Mephistopheles, emphasizes the devil’s obsessively frustrating inability to create and his penchant for destruction. Liszt brilliantly makes the music of Mephistopheles consist of parodies of the Faust themes from the first movement (cf. the Witches’ Sabbath from Symphonie fantastique) and ends the piece with a sung rendition of the poem, the Chorus Mysticus, which ends the Goethe original (cf. Mahler’s Eighth Symphony). Gretchen’s theme is intoned by the solo tenor and the ending of the poem, with its belief in the “eternal feminine” as the salvation of mankind, leaves the listener with the impression of Faust’s apotheosis and an uplifting sense of the future of the universe.

As a fitting conclusion to his 200th birthday festival, Sir Colin Davis led a performance of Berlioz’ towering work at Avery Fisher Hall. This afternoon’s performance was certainly a fine one. The London Symphony, for the second concert that I attended (I jettisoned the Romeo and Juliet in favor of the Vienna Philharmonic), played flawlessly, an increasingly rare phenomenon in modern orchestral life. The soloists were all above the adequate level and were several notches ahead of their counterparts who assisted in the Montreal version of this rarely heard work earlier this season at Carnegie. Stuart Neill was a strong-voiced Faust with more courage than precision in the high range, Alastair Miles was a secure Mephisto, and Petra Lang an impressive Marguerite, her King of Thule the highlight of the event. But the real star was the LSO chorus, exact and majestic, producing a sound actually pleasing to the ear (many local New York ensembles are a challenging mix of hesitant and unsteady nasalities). Only a disconcerting homogeneity emanating from Sir Colin’s platform kept this from being a superb experience. Not prone to adjust the score to his own proclivities today, he led a standard reading that satisfied but never thrilled. The more exciting parts, obviously included by Berlioz for their dramatic qualities, were simply intoned broadly, accurate as far as they went, but never raising the back of the neck hair. The Marche hongroise would stir no patriot, the descent into Hell arouse no fiend. Apparently, Davis’ deal with his personal devil was for clarity, and in this he was remarkably successful; the sacrifice of pity and power, however, was a very high price to pay.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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