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