Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust

Hector Berlioz, exhibiting ennui.

I’m currently listening to the live radio broadcast of the St. Louis Symphony and SLSO Chorus (along with a couple of children’s choruses) performing Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust. Thinking about it made me remember that I actually wrote about this oratorio in 2015, for the Dallas Symphony, and since none of my old links here seem to work, I will cut and paste my program notes for your perusal. I do love Berlioz, both as a composer and as a prose stylist and music critic-slash-theorist. Wagner, who ripped him off flagrantly, named a rooster Berlioz and did not mean it to be a compliment (more like a joke about Berlioz’s appearance, as if old Dick were one to talk). But I digress. Here are my notes from 2015.

Finding Faust

Fausts abound. Whether in literary accounts by the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe or the German Romantic icon Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; or in musical works by Liszt, Schumann, Gounod, and Wagner; or in legends surrounding the virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini and 20th-century blues master Robert Johnson, the stories vary only in the particulars. A desperate man sells his soul to the devil in exchange for something he craves. Centuries later, we can’t stop wondering: Would we make that deal? 

Like most young men of his cultural milieu, Hector Berlioz came to Faust by way of Goethe, whose Faust he read in 1828, shortly after Gérard de Nerval’s French translation was published. The 24-year-old aspiring composer, who had recently dropped out of medical school to study at the Paris Conservatoire, became obsessed with the German master’s verse drama. As Berlioz later wrote in his Memoirs, “I could not put it down. I read it incessantly, at meals, in the theatre, in the street.”

In a fit of inspiration, he composed what he would briefly call his Opus 1: “Eight Scenes from Faust.” He sent a copy of the score to Goethe, who never replied. Soon thereafter, Berlioz tracked down every published copy of “Eight Scenes” that he could find and destroyed it. He assigned Op. 1 to his next composition, as if this Faust attempt had never happened.

Until 1845, that is, when Berlioz—by now 41 years old and a successful composer—returned to the Faust project during a concert tour of central Europe. With some textual assistance from Almire Gandonnière, Berlioz wrote most of La Damnation de Faust on the road, recycling some of the material that he’d sent to Goethe years earlier. The Faust he completed in 1846 wasn’t so much an ingenious riff on the source text as a radical revision of it. Berlioz wanted “neither to translate nor to imitate Goethe’s masterpiece,” he explained, “but simply to take my inspiration from it and extract the musical essence it contained.”

In previous versions of the Faust story, including Goethe’s, the particulars changed, but not the broad outlines. In Berlioz’s Faust, the hero goes to Hell, eternally damned. On one level, he sacrifices himself because he wants to save his beloved Marguerite. On the other, less noble level, he winds up in Hell because he, like so many of us, neglected to read the fine print of a contract. Yes, he should have been more suspicious—the spooky-looking stranger is named Méphistophélès, for pity’s sake—but then again, you’d think a heroine worthy of music as sublime as Marguerite’s two arias wouldn’t be so idiotic as to accidentally poison her mother. It’s better not to delve too deeply into these logical inconsistencies. As W. H. Auden famously noted, “No opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.”

What Is It?

The Damnation of Faust isn’t quite an opera. Nor is it exactly an oratorio. First dubbing it a “concert opera,” Berlioz finally settled on “légende dramatique,” or “dramatic legend.” Whatever you call this hallucinatory pastiche of scenes, settings, and sounds, it’s quite literally all over the place, with at least 20 changes of location and a cast of thousands. In the opening scene alone, Berlioz jump-cuts from the solitary Faust, despairing tunefully on a windswept Hungarian plain; to hard-partying peasants, singing in a frenetic round; to an army marching by. The peasants and soldiers are the first of many chorus-embodied characters. The chorus members also portray demons, will-‘o-the-wisps, soldiers, students, drunkards, gossipy neighbors, sylphs, and gnomes. Although a filmmaker could execute Berlioz’s vision, the technology wouldn’t be invented for at least another half-century. Even a 21st-century director might be discouraged by the budgetary considerations of this epic and kaleidoscopic story. The composer understood that his Faust, which he called “an opera without décor or costumes,” could come to life only in the listener’s imagination.

A Closer Listen

Plot aside, the real appeal of Berlioz’s Faust is the music. The startling array of musical styles exists because the drama requires it. In this story of emotional upheavals, life-altering choices, and radical transformations, form follows content because music is an expression of character. In the first two scenes from Part 1, consider the way that Faust’s despair is pitted against the hilarity of the peasants, with their delirious round of ha-ha-has and tra-la-las. Next, the orchestra interrupts Faust’s angst with a Hungarian march that, when performed in Pest some months earlier, caused revolution-ready audiences to go wild with delight. In fact, Berlioz set the opening scene in Hungary because he wanted to insert the piece, and who could blame him? Today the “Hungarian March” remains a staple of the orchestral repertory.

The score is studded with such jewels. Méphistophèles may be an evil trickster, but Berlioz gives him his due in the form of gorgeous arias, such as the incantatory “Voici les roses” in Part 2. Also in Part 2, the drunkard Brander’s song about an unfortunate rat culminates in a savagely sacrilegious fugue, preparing us for Méphistophèles’s equally earthy “Song of the Flea.” Marguerite doesn’t get nearly as much time as many of us mezzo-soprano fans might hope, but Berlioz did grace her with some of the most arresting music in his canon. In Part 3 the exquisite medieval faux-folk of “Autrefois un Roi du Thule” is an art song manqué, as transparently lovely as its hapless singer. Her sublime duet with Faust anticipates those of Wagner’s similarly enchanted and doomed lovers, Tristan and Isolde. Another unforgettable moment is the “Pandemonium” chorus in Part 4, as an assortment of damned souls spew menacing gibberish.

A Synopsis of Berlioz’s Faust

Part 1: As the sun sets over the plains of Hungary, the aging scholar Faust decides that he much prefers the solitary contemplation of nature over social engagement, with all its struggles and disappointments. No reveling peasants nor triumphantly marching armies can distract him from his apathy and isolation. 

Part 2: Alone in his study, in Northern Germany, Faust despairs over his failure to take pleasure in life. About to end his misery by drinking poison, he hears an Easter hymn from a nearby church. The music evokes happy childhood memories of his pure faith and joy in nature, and he exclaims, “Heaven has won me back!” Suddenly, Méphistophèles appears, promising to restore his youthful vitality and fulfill his desires. All he has to do is follow Méphistophèles out of his study so that he can “learn about life and leave the rubbish of philosophy.” Faust agrees, and they leave. Their first stop is a Leipzig basement bar patronized by boisterous drunks, one of whom sings a song about a rat. Méphistophèles offers a song about a prince’s pet flea. Disgusted, Faust asks to leave, and Méphistophèles brings him to a river bank, where he and a chorus of gnomes and sylphs cast a spell that causes Faust to fall asleep and fall in love with the girl in his dream, Marguerite.  After waking, he begs the demon to take him to her. 

Part 3: The two hide in Marguerite’s room. Thanks to a similar enchantment, Marguerite is in love with Faust. She sings a melancholy tune about a faithful king. Méphistophèles and his will-o’-the-wisps leave, and Faust and Marguerite declare their love. The demon returns to inform them that the neighbors are gossipping about the man in Marguerite’s bedroom. Faust and Méphistophèles leave before Marguerite’s elderly mother can discover them. 

Part 4: Alone in her room, Marguerite laments her absent lover, who has apparently forgotten her after several nights of lovemaking. Alone in a forest, Faust communes with nature, apparently unconcerned about the woman he seduced and abandoned. Méphistophèles appears to tell him that Marguerite has been sentenced to death because she accidentally poisoned her mother by administering too much of the sleeping potion that Faust had recommended to facilitate their illicit lovemaking. Distraught, Faust demands that Méphistophèles save her, and the demon demands in turn that Faust sign an employment contract. They gallop away on black horses, but instead of leading him to save Marguerite, Méphistophèles escorts Faust to hell. Meanwhile, Marguerite, the “simple soul that love misled,” is welcomed into heaven. 

Copyright 2015 by René Spencer Saller

A marital collaboration

This is what happens when they let long-married, refrigerator-sharing people have magnetic poetry sets. We move the words around a lot, between the two of us, usually when we are waiting for our geriatric feline hospice patient Hodiamont to finish eating one of the six to eight meals that he must eat daily to maintain his wraithlike corporeal substance. (He eats a special food for cats who have thyroid disease but who are allergic to the standard medication, which Hodiamont is.)

Anyway, I liked this one, so I thought I’d take a snapshot of it with the iPad to preserve it. The authorship breakdown is five lines by Mr. Christian Saller, four lines by Mrs. Christian Saller, but I will leave it to you to guess who wrote what.

And yes, the little word magnets, which are more than a decade old now, could use a good scrubbing. They don’t look nearly that dirty when they’re not blown up, but still that is no excuse for the filth. I will leave it here as a chastening exercise (as well as a reminder to bust out the Dr. Bronners, stat).

Crow Ingratiation Strategy

So far this week, I have rewritten some notes* about a contemporary composer for a major new client—some notes that may well end up translated into French when the piece is performed in Paris—and I have also reviewed numerous proofs and edited several performer bios, among other satisfying duties associated with my various music-related freelance jobs, but my most exciting achievement by far is the progress I just made befriending the neighborhood murder. I don’t care if my neighbors think I’m crazy (although I can’t help hoping they didn’t overhear my shrill endearments to the uppermost branches of the silver maple) because I’m certain that the crows understood and are beginning to associate me with the corn and other seed. Once I’m sure they trust me, and possibly as soon as tomorrow, I’m going to make them some hardboiled eggs. Share your corvid inducements in the comments section if you have wisdom to share! (I hear they like roadkill, but I’m not prepared to acquire or handle it.)

*I will share them once they’re in print. I’m too superstitious to say much more until then.

Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony


(Gustav and Alma Mahler)

Tonight Xian and I are going to Powell Hall to hear the SLSO and SLSO Chorus, conducted by new music director and all-around swell fellow Stéphane Denève, perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”). Although I didn’t write the notes for that concert—or any notes for the SLSO since the beginning of last season—I did feel inspired to post my program notes (dsopn121317 ) for Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, originally published for a 2018 concert by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra at the Meyerson in Dallas.

I’m  going to be thinking about resurrections and rebirths (René means reborn, not that I chose my own name or anything), and possibly updating this site more regularly than every several months. I do have a lot of new chamber music writing that I could add, for a Tippet Rise concert season that just ended. Tonight, at Powell Hall, I’m going to be enjoying the dulcet tones of my friend Patty Kofron and her peerless colleagues in the SLSO Chorus. Patty also helped me purchase my tickets, with the usual stipulation that I’d much rather hear well than see well. She’s a gem, and I love talking with her about music as much as I enjoy dishing the musical dirt with her.

Since this is my personal blog I should probably take the opportunity to muse more about Mahler and bring up all the Mahlerian matters that I can’t discuss in the genre of Professional Notes I Get Paid For. If I were more of a Lester Bangsian annotator, I might bring up a decades-past experience involving an illicit psychedelic substance and a recording of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s staggering interpretation of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. I might mention, or even reproduce, a minutely handwritten letter to a friend that I was writing while listening to this Children Death Songs cycle, over and over again, in the company of the aspiring composer I was living with, co-captain of our extremely boring-to-recount-and-yet-harrowing-to-experience trip). For several consecutive hours, neither of us wanted to listen to anything else except this song cycle about dead children, and I must thank the unnamed aspiring composer (and indirectly his professor) for hooking us up with the good stuff, that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recording, still my favorite, which was that night branded into my brain forever and ever amen. This is my favorite song in the cycle, the one I couldn’t quit hitting repeat on: “Nun will die Sonn so hell aufgehn.” If the link doesn’t work (I won’t seem to spring for the premium plan, all you profiteering WordPress executive scoundrels), just search Youtube or your favorite streaming service for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing it, and you won’t regret it.

My mind was already primed for the over-the-top intensity verging on kitsch sentimentality of the dead-child concept, thanks partly to the great Dolly Parton and her vast canon of ballads about victimized children. Listen to a lot of classic country music (Dolly and the Louvin Brothers and Leadbelly and the Carter Family and George and Tammy), as I was doing at the time of my primal, hallucinogen-enhanced Mahler encounter, and the theme of dead kids is going to come up again and again, the same way it does in Renaissance poetry and my daily newspaper (St. Louis City, my heartbreaker of a hometown, maintains a high tally of murdered children, among them my husband’s recently murdered coworker’s recently murdered 10-year-old daughter). The details change, but the acute and particular grief of surviving a child is eternal. The pain of that loss barely seems endurable, and yet millions and millions have endured it or are enduring it right now. They can’t go on, they go on.  Mahler and Dolly and the Louvin Brothers and Shakespeare and Dickens and Beckett and Morrison, so many unsung others, turn our constant sorrow into a tribute, a consolation, a promise. A grief-stained joy almost seems possible.

A Gift Repaid with Interest


Five years and a couple of weeks ago, I assembled a box of gift records for my best friend’s son, on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah ceremony. And then yesterday, completely out of the blue, I receive a link to a performance by said Bar Mitzvah, who is now 18 years old, of a song that appears on one of the albums I gave him. My best friend, his mother, made the video animation. She has him singing on Delmar, as he is wont to do. He turned out even more wonderful than we imagined, and here is the proof.

Along with the box of LPs that I gave him, a copy of this letter. I had never been to a Bar Mitzvah ceremony before, and I haven’t been to one since.

Letter to a Bar Mitzvah


Dear Adam,

I don’t know much about Judaism, and yours is the first Bar Mitzvah that I have attended, but a bit of Internet research yields the following fun facts:

  • You are now responsible for your own actions. (Uh oh!)
  • You may be legally married by Jewish law (Uh oh again! Please wait a few more years at least, because 13 is awfully young to settle down.)
  • You may possess personal property. (Finally: something that doesn’t warrant an “Uh oh!”)

Obviously, I don’t know anything about the many religious rituals and ceremonies in which you are now eligible to participate, so I won’t presume to hold forth about those. I’m going to talk about your rite of passage in more general terms. I wasn’t brought up in any faith, and I have never been a religious person, but I did survive adolescence. What got me through, what jump-started me into puberty and ushered me into adulthood, what made the whole dreary enterprise seem worthwhile and sometimes even magnificent was rock & roll. When I was confused, or frustrated, or pissed off, or in love with some boy who barely knew I was alive, I could always rely on my music. No matter what I was feeling, I could always find an album that would make me feel understood, less alone in the world. My human friends disappointed me sometimes, but my record friends never let me down. Do you know the Beach Boys song “In My Room”? It goes, “There’s a world where I can go and tell my secrets to/In my room, in my room/In this world I lock out all my worries and my fears/In my room, in my room.” My room mattered to me because that’s where I kept my records and my record player. Nothing could touch me there. My room is where I was my best and truest self.

Most kids these days have iPods, and they can carry their “room” around with them wherever they go, but I think they’re missing out on the magic that comes with having a personal sanctuary filled with sonic totems: a turntable, LPs, dust jackets, real speakers. Vinyl records, unlike mp3s, have an odor, a life force, a physical presence, a past. They crackle a little when they get worn, skip when they’re abused. If you treat your LPs right, they will outlive you. When all the CDs and mp3s have died their little unmourned digital deaths, the vinyl will abide. I own many records that belonged to people who are dead now, and it comforts me to think that my record collection will be dispersed among future generations when I’m gone.

I took good care of my records when I was a teenager (invest in a Discwasher cleaning system, if you don’t have one already—when records are free of dust and debris, they’re much less likely to get scratched—and make sure to replace your needle fairly regularly, about every 6 months if you use your turntable every day), and I hope you’ll do the same so you can bequeath yours to a worthy recipient someday. I still have records that were given to me by my grandparents, parents, ex-boyfriends, and old friends. Some of my albums, I know, are worth a lot more on eBay than I originally paid for them, but their monetary value means nothing to me. How could I put a price on a friend, on a memory? Whatever I paid for the albums in my collection, my investment was returned to me a millionfold. I paid stupid meaningless money for them, money that I might otherwise have blown on Diet Coke and nail polish, and they gave me knowledge, experience, passion. They helped me make sense of it all: the hormonal maelstrom, the endless hurdles, the darkness and doubt.

The albums I’m giving you today aren’t supposed to be comprehensive, some kind of starter kit for a young collector. I picked out 18 from my personal stash because Wikipedia told me that the number 18 has special significance for the Bar Mitzvah; supposedly, it represents the Hebrew word for life or something. (Also, given the fact that several of the albums I gave you are doubles, that was the maximum number I could fit in the box.) These 18 albums are not at all representative of a well-rounded person’s taste. The only thing these records have in common is that they meant something to me when I was a teenager, and I know they have something to do with the adult I am today. Here’s a truth that adults never seem to mention when they’re lecturing you about growing up: The Teenage You never goes away. All those lyrics you pore over now will be imprinted on your consciousness forever. You’ll forget your wife’s cousin’s name, your license-plate number, your grocery list, countless appointments and passwords, but the songs you love now will be seared into your soul until you die. They’ll matter to you in a way that songs you’ll love later never will. I can’t guarantee that these albums are going to have the same significance for you that they did for me, but I do know that the Future You will be shaped by everything you love now. So love widely, love deeply, and love well.

Won’t you let me walk you home from school?

Won’t you let me meet you at the pool?

Maybe Friday I can

Get tickets for the dance

And I’ll take you.

 Won’t you tell your dad, “Get off my back”?

Tell him what we said about “Paint It Black.”

Rock & Roll is here to stay

Come inside where it’s okay

And I’ll shake you.

 Won’t you tell me what you’re thinking of?

Would you be an outlaw for my love?

If it’s so, well, let me know

If it’s no, well, I can go

I won’t make you.

(from “Thirteen,” by Big Star, on one of the albums I gave you)






Nietzsche, Strauss, Dylan

Among other things, Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra is the 19th-century version of  “Subterranean Homesick Blues”:

“Verily,” says Zarathustra to his flock, “I counsel you: go away from me and resist Zarathustra!…. Perhaps he deceived you. The man of knowledge must not only love his enemies but also be able to hate his friends…. You are my believers—but what matter all believers… All faith amounts to so little. Now I bid you to lose me and find yourselves.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

(From Digressions I Must Omit from my Program Notes, a work in progress)



I had the good fortune of interviewing Shannon Wood, St. Louis Symphony Principal Timpani, for Playbill. We met in his percussion studio/rehearsal space, across the street from Powell Hall. We talked about Kraft’s Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra, No. 2, his mallet business sideline, and lots of other fascinating stuff.

You can read it here if you like:


Romantic Projections


The St. Louis Symphony performs Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Glanert’s Frenesia (in its U.S. premiere!), and Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (with pianist Emanuel Ax) on Saturday, April 25, and Sunday, April 26, 2015. My program notes start on p. 26.