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La Damnation de Faust Op.24
 Composed by Berlioz, Hector
 Work Notes
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Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

La Damnation de Faust (Légende dramatique en quatre parties Op.24)

Berlioz discovered Goethe’s Faust in 1828 when he was still a student at the Paris Conservatoire, and he fell at once under its spell. ‘Another landmark in my life’ was how he described the experience, adding: ‘I could not lay it down, but read and read – at table, in the streets, in theatres.’ Though he was not then technically equipped to meet all the demands made by setting such a work to music, his passion for it insisted on an immediate outlet. The first result was the publication a year later (at his own expense) of Eight Scenes from Faust. He soon regretted his haste and destroyed as many copies as he could recover. But the idea of a large-scale work on the subject lay in his mind for many years, reaching fruition in 1846 as La Damnation de Faust.

Much of the earlier work was transferred to the new one, and although Berlioz altered details of phrasing, rhythm and orchestration, he had no need to change the shape of the strikingly original melodies. His young man’s imagination in 1828 had created melodies exactly right for each situation. The rest of the work took shape during a European tour. He composed one melody in the middle of the night in Prague, another by the light of a shop lamp in Budapest and still another while sitting on a Paris milestone.

Paris heard the first two performances. Berlioz took the Opéra-Comique on a Sunday afternoon, 6 December 1846, for the premiere, which he conducted. But the weather was snowy, his previous music was thought difficult, romanticism was out of fashion and Berlioz no longer had even sensation value. The hall was half empty and the concert a financial disaster. The second performance a fortnight later was no more successful. It was the worst disappointment of the composer’s life. Ironically, only eight years after his death La Damnation became popular in Paris, as it has been ever since.

Like Roméo et Juliette, which appeared seven years earlier, La Damnation de Faust is a combination of vocal and orchestral music not exactly described by a conventional label. Berlioz called it a ‘dramatic legend’. He later considered adapting it to the stage, but although it has been given a number of stage productions, the action is too static for the theatre, and producers and designers cannot match the vivid images the music conjures up in the mind’s eye.

The work is in four parts, the first being set on the plains of Hungary, partly because Berlioz had arranged a Hungarian March for another occasion and wanted to use it again but also because this device suits his philosophical purpose. This is a drama of human isolation. Its theme is the loneliness of mankind amid the vastness of nature and of the egocentric dreamer set apart from the mass. Faust is first discovered contemplating the beauty of a spring dawn, but the human activities that follow are not for him. He can share neither the joy of merry-making peasants nor the death-or-glory spirit of soldiers, who pass to the sound of the Rákóczi March, Berlioz’s grand arrangement of an old Hungarian tune.

Goethe’s opening, which shows the despairing Faust in his study, begins Part II. Mephistopheles appears and offers to show him marvels beyond the reach of philosophy. He is transported to Auerbach’s cellar in Leipzig, where students are carousing. One drinker, Brander, sings a song about a rat. His companions round off the song with a blasphemous Amen fugue. The appearance of Mephistopheles temporarily sobers them, but they respond enthusiastically to his Song of the Flea. Mephistopheles whisks Faust away to the banks of the Elbe and lulls him to sleep. Sylphs, spirits of the air, dance above the sleeping man, who sees Marguerite in a dream and awakes to ask his mentor where he may find her. They join soldiers and students making for that town.

The third part concerns Faust’s seduction of Marguerite. Evening retreat is sounded. Faust is alone in Marguerite’s room. Mephistopheles enters and tells him to hide. Marguerite comes in, musing on the lover she has seen in a dream. As she unplaits her hair, she sings the ballad of the King of Thule. When she falls asleep, Mephistopheles summons spirits to bewitch her. From the courtyard he sings a serenade to lure her into Faust’s arms. Marguerite, awakening, recognises Faust as the man in her dream, and the two declare their passion. Mephistopheles interrupts to warn that Marguerite’s mother has been roused and neighbours are at the door. The lovers hastily part and Mephistopheles exults that Faust will soon be his.

Part Four opens with Marguerite’s D’amour l’ardente flamme (Love’s burning flame), in which she gives way to grief at Faust’s desertion. With its cor anglais obbligato this is arguably one of the greatest laments in all music. Faust, far away, invokes nature as the only power that can offer him mental peace. Mephistopheles brings news that Marguerite has been sentenced to death for killing her mother with sleeping draughts she had administered nightly in the hope that Faust would come to her. Faust agrees to serve Mephistopheles in exchange for her life. They mount horses and gallop furiously away. Mephistopheles calls in triumph to the legions of Hell and Faust falls into the abyss, a departure from Goethe’s version in which Faust is saved. Marguerite, redeemed, is received into Heaven by the Seraphim.

Berlioz’s music displays every facet of his art from exquisite delicacy in the Dance of the Sylphs to thunderous tumult in the Ride to the Abyss. Deeply expressive vocal parts are accompanied by orchestral writing of great subtlety and economy. The malevolence of Mephistopheles is instantly established by the trombone chords that mark his appearance, and later his serenade, ostensibly an innocuous love-song, is in a rhythm which makes clear the vicious irony of his words. In the last section of Part II, when Mephistopheles lulls Faust to sleep with Voici des roses, the smooth, sweet melody is contradicted by deep chords on trombones and cornet. Often in the music for Mephistopheles all sense of an established metre and key is lost. Here, surely, is the perfect musical representation of the Spirit of Denial. Faust’s ennui is first expressed by the flattened sixth that intrudes into the work’s opening melody. In the last part he finds some appeasement of his longing in his invocation, Nature immense. For this number Berlioz composed words as well as music. Passionate, melancholy, nature-loving romantic that he was, he was seized here as throughout the creation of this work by the affinity between the condition of Goethe’s romantic philosopher and his own.

© Eric Mason


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