For centuries, the Faust legend has been the central myth of Western civilization, the story that provides our most clear and compelling allegory of the modern condition. This was not always so. When Christian doctrine was unchallenged and a feudal class system severely limited individual freedom, the kind of existential rebellion represented by the Faust story was unthinkable.
But with the progressive erosion of ecclesiastic authority since the end of the Middle Ages, and with the crises of faith brought on by the advance of science, Western man has turned increasingly to humanistic pursuits — to the accumulation of knowledge, to artistic expression and to romantic love — for fulfillment and a sense of purpose. Those pursuits have, on one hand, brought glimpses of what can seem almost godlike powers in our ability to master nature and create intricate and deeply affecting works of art; and on the other, have given us ecstatic, albeit ephemeral, experiences of wholeness and delight through love and sensuality.
Yet these powers and experiences have been accompanied by a growing feeling of existential malaise: a suspicion that, for all we have gained, we may have lost our moral bearings and our collective soul in a devil’s bargain that has purchased only an illusion of omnipotence and contentment. The history of destruction and atrocity in recent centuries, the emergence of pessimistic strains of existentialist philosophy, the persistence of conflict in human affairs, the evident imperfectibility of society: these and much else testify to the spiritual quandaries of the modern era. Still, for all our failings and sense of futility, we cling to the hope of redemption — if not through our own capacities, then perhaps through some greater power — as witness the growing popularity of both exotic spiritual practices and fundamentalist religions in the West, as well as an enduring fascination with the supernatural. All this resonates strongly with the Faust story.
Folk tales about the historical Georg Faust, an alchemist and alleged sorcerer at several German provincial courts, began circulating shortly after his death, in 1538. While differing in certain details, these stories shared the essential situation of a disillusioned scholar who buys worldly power at the price of his eternal soul. They were soon written down and published in popular Faustbuchen (“Faust books”), which circulated throughout central Europe and beyond. By the end of the century the English playwright Christopher Marlowe had written The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. This was the most literate telling of the Faust story to have appeared thus far, and it remained so for more than two centuries, until the appearance of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s verse drama Faust.
Goethe’s masterpiece appeared in two parts, the first published in 1808, and proved by far the most influential literary work of its age. It gripped the imagination of practically every thinking European for the next century and became the poetic touchstone of the Romantic movement. One measure of the importance of Goethe’s Faust is the great number of musical treatments it engendered. Throughout the 19th century, composers of widely disparate styles and temperaments were drawn to the story. Beethoven considered writing an opera based on Goethe’s dramatic poem. Ludwig Spohr, Charles Gounod and Arrigo Boito, each a composer seemingly less suited to the task, completed such works, though their operas focused on only certain aspects of the drama. Gounod’s, for example, centers on Faust’s tragic romance with the young Gretchen, or “Marguerite,” as she is called in French.
Other major composers who wrote music inspired by Faust include Schubert, whose song setting of Gretchen’s famous spinning-wheel lament became one of his most celebrated works; Wagner, who early in his career wrote a Faust Overture; Liszt, who composed a dramatic symphony based on Goethe’s poem; and Mahler, who set Goethe’s final scene as the second half of his massive Eighth Symphony.
In certain ways more interesting than either the operas or the symphonic works inspired by Faust are those compositions that straddled or combined the two genres. Robert Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust is something more than a concert piece but not quite an opera. Similarly, two related compositions by Hector Berlioz, his Eight Scenes from Faust and La damnation de Faust, fall outside any conventional musical genres. The latter work, which the Seattle Symphony performs at Benaroya Hall on June 21 and 23 (click here for tickets), is one of the most ambitious and exciting musical treatments of the Faust story.
Although the Faust legend loomed large in thought and ethos of 19th-century Romanticism, it continued to attract musicians in the ensuing era. The Italian-German composer Ferruccio Busoni wrote both the libretto and music for his Doktor Faust, an opera that brings several fascinating original touches to the story and its telling. Busoni completed this opera in 1925, after nearly a decade of work. Meanwhile, Igor Stravinsky had written his musical theater piece L’histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale), one of two compositions in which he touched on the Faust theme, the other being his opera The Rake’s Progess.
While these works by Busoni and Stravinsky are the best-known musical tellings of the Faust story to appear in the last century, they are hardly unique. Sergei Prokofiev’s opera The Fiery Angel (1927) is steeped in the Faust legend; Doctor Faust and his nemesis, Mephistopheles, even appear in it as characters. Subsequent treatments of the tale include operas by the English composer Havergal Brian, the French avant-gardist Henri Pousseur, and the late Russian composer Alfred Schnittke. The Faust story even made its way onto Broadway in Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’s 1955 musical Damn Yankees — which, as it happens, just completed a month-long run at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater.
The mythic significance of the Faust legend all but guarantees that musicians will continue to explore its many layers of nuance and meaning. It seems doubtful, though, that they will feel the story as intensely as their forebears in the 19th century, for whom the tale seemed to speak symbolically of their own desires to transcend mundane reality and find ecstasy and fulfillment through their art. For this reason, the great 19th-century expressions of the Faust tale in music will surely retain their special authenticity and fervor. And among them, Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust will always rank among the very greatest.
By Paul Schiavo
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