Berlioz: The Damnation of Faust

November 12, 1977, 08:30 PM
Roger Wagner, Conductor
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
TITLE COMPOSER/ ARRANGER GUEST ARTISTS
La damnation de Faust (The Damnation of Faust) Hector Berlioz
Beverly Wolff , Mezzo Soprano
Harry Theyard , Tenor
Paul Plishka , Bass/Baritone
Douglas Lawrence , Baritone

NOTES BY ROBERT STEVENSON

LA DAMNATION DE FAUST
 
La Damnation de Faust, long recognized as one of Berlioz's mightiest masterpieces has also for more than a century been rated as one of his most genuinely popular creations. Two numbers, the Rakoczy March ending Part I and the Sylphs' Dance in Part II, even belong to the hit parade class- if their being included in James J. Fuld's The Book of World-Famous Music (1971) properly measures such success. When first performed at Pesth, February 15, 1846, the Rakoczy March based on a Hungarian air named after Francis Rakoczy II, leader of a seven year revolt (1704-1711) against the Austrians, drove the Pesth public wild with enthusiasm. By 1886, the Sylphs' Dance, which pictures grace and lithesomeness, had become so universally known that Saint-Saens could tickle his audiences that year with a parody of it in Elephants (Carnival of Animals).
 
Ironically, in view of the present universal acceptance of the whole as well as individual parts, La Damnation when first produced entire December 6, 1846, at the Opera-Comique, Paris, proved too novel and heterogeneous a work to win immediate favor. Berlioz who classed it as a legende dramatique in 1846, had first considered calling it an opera de concert. After its cool reception at the Paris premiere he later on thought in December 1848 of expanding it into a full-fledged opera entitled Mephistopheles with libretto by Scribe, for premiere at Drury Lane, London. Fortunately he desisted. After only minor changes, he finally published the entire work, as we now know it, in 1854. Among the critics' complaints that Berlioz tried to forestall in the preface published in 1854 was the locale of Part I. Goethe's Faust never visited Hungary. Yet Part I of La Damnation opens with Faust alone at sunrise in Hungarian fields enjoying solitude and welcoming the return of spring. Hungarian peasants enter to enliven the scene. Next enter soldiers, greeted by Faust as a "proud and joyful sons of the Danube with fire in their eyes." The theme of the Rakoczy March, to which the soldiers now triumphantly step forward, is according to Berlioz's own note in the published libretto "very old, by an unknown author; it is the battle song of the Hungarians." Modern research summarized in Apel's Harvard Dictionary of Music credits the march theme to Janos Bihari (1764- 1827) who composed it in 1800.  Only in Part II of La Damnation does Berlioz begin setting episodes from Goethe- and even then with frequent license. Faust's boredom with books leads him to the brink of suicide, from which he is saved by sounds of the Easter Hymn.  Mephistopheles materializes out of nothingness inviting the aged philosopher to enjoy delights Faust never dreamed of. At this juncture Goethe's Faust makes his pact with the devil, but Berlioz's Faust waits until much later. They visit Auerbach's wine cellar at Leipzig and hear Brander sing the Rat's Song.  Poisoned by the kitchen maid, the rat scurries about as if in heat and then dies. Brander's drinking companions ridicule the rat's "rest in peace" requiem with a mock heroic Amen fugue based on the first notes of Brander's Rat Song. Mephistopheles follows this with a Song of the Flea, satirizing political sycophants who will bow before even a biting insect dressed in court velvet. Faust remains unmoved by all this roistering. Mephistopheles decides next to lure him with a beautiful maiden, preparing him with a dream sequence on the banks of the Elbe. After beautiful airy spirits have enticed him, Marguerite appears. By her window pass soldiers and students. Part II ends with the soldiers' and students' songs riotously combined- an idea suggested to Berlioz by Monsigny's adroit combination of two folkish songs at the close of Act II in Le Deserteur (1769).
 
Part III begins in Marguerite's bedroom, into which Faust has crept. Upon her entry he hides while she sings first of a handsome lover whom she has never met and then the ballad of the King of Thule who remained faithful to his lady a lifetime after her death. Mephistopheles conjures up dancing will-o'-the-wisps to distract Marguerite. He then mocks her with a moralizing serenade. "Never trust any lover until the wedding ring is on your finger," he advises her in a song all the more cruel because already he is encompassing her ruin. He withdraws so that Faust and Marguerite can bill and coo. But all of a sudden Faust rushes out while gossiping neighbors tell her mother what was afoot in the bedroom.
 
At the start of Part IV Marguerite alone in her room bewails her abandonment. Faust meantime consoles himself by communing with Nature in the great out-of-doors. Mephistopheles interrupts his musings to announce that Marguerite is in a dungeon sentenced to death for having poisoned her mother with a sleeping potion left her by Faust. "Save her," Faust begs Mephistopheles, who agrees, but only on condition that Faust deed his soul to hell. Away they gallop, supposedly to save her, until suddenly they both plunge headlong into the abyss. Faust is now devoured by flames amid the general pandemonium of hellish jabberwocky. In an epilogue, Marguerite ascends on high to join the angelic host.
 
Because La Damnation ends thus, some critics have contended that Berlioz should have called it "The Apotheosis of Marguerite." So far as the text goes, Berlioz wrote some of Part IV himself, commissioned Almire Gandonniere to write some of the first three parts, and used Gerard de Nerval's translation of Goethe (1827) for the rest. Already in Huit Scenes de Faust (composed in the autumn of 1828), Berlioz had used Nerval's same translation for "eight scenes" that in revised form and different order reappear in La Damnation (Easter Song, Peasants' Dance, Sylphs' Dance, Song of the Rat, Song of the Flea, King of Thule, Marguerite's Soliloquy, Mephistopheles's moralizing serenade). The work as now known  herefore represents the combination of eight scenes that were originally conceived for a ballet never produced- scenes that were then published at his own expense as opus 1 and only much later incorporated with revision into a work of vastly greater scope. To justify the lengthy time span for the gestation of La Damnation Berlioz could invoke Goethe himself, whose first draft of 1773-1775, and Fragment of 1790 were not followed by the publication of Part I of Faust until 1808 and of Part II until 1831.

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