” . . . here I am, a wretched fool, no wiser than I was before . . .”
Who among us hasn’t uttered similar words after a mistake or an error in judgment, in business or personal affairs? These are the words of the jaded scholar Faust. The Faust legend is one of those archetypes that transcend cultures and languages. The story of the man who sells his soul to the Devil in return for earthly pleasure responds to something deep within people.
The actual scholar/alchemist was alive in the early sixteenth century. Fantastical “biographies” of him appeared in Frankfurt and London around 1587. Marlowe, Shakespeare’s rival and contemporary, wrote the first drama about him, which crossed the Channel and became known in Germany through puppet theater shows, the way Goethe (1749-1832) encountered the story as a young man. His two-part epic, worked and reworked over 60 years, has provided countless opera libretti, song texts, even instrumental music without words.
The Faust story has special resonance for musicians for at least two reasons:
First, Mephistopheles (the Devil) is portrayed as a virtusoso fiddler, creating musical sound-orgies that drive the local tavern goers into frenzies. Liszt’s celebrated “Mephisto Waltz” for piano solo is the most famous version of that scene. (By the way, Liszt wrote more than one Mephisto waltz, not just the “one” we know, and they were inspired by Lenau, not Goethe.)
Second, the “bargain” that Faust makes with Mephistopheles is that if any moment of his earthly enjoyment or intellectual achievement gives him such pleasure that he says to the moment: “Stay, for you are so beautiful!” then the deal is over and he will have to go to Hell. As a performer, I have often taken these words as a cautionary against lingering too long over a musical moment, interrupting the flow.
The poignancy of music is that it moves through time, the beautiful moment is gone, passing on to the next moment. It acquires its beauty in retrospect.
Goethe added the story of Gretchen, the innocent girl who gets seduced, pregnant, then abandoned, to the Faust legend (Part One). Heartbroken, shamed, and embarrassed, she kills the child, repents, and is drawn up to Heaven by angels. Gounod’s opera “Faust” (1859) is a French take on this story. It was wildly successful at the Paris Opera, premiering in 1869, and having its 1000th performance by 1905.
Part Two of Goethe’s drama is a lengthy philosophical meditation on creativity and antiquity. Faust meets legendary beauties Cleopatra and Helen of Troy in his quest for sensation. In the end, he is saved from damnation and drawn upwards by the “eternal Feminine.” The second movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (1904, “Symphony of a Thousand,” referring to the huge performer requirements) is a musical setting of parts of this material.
Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel), written when he was 16 (!) is probably the most famous of the hundreds of song settings inspired by Faust.
Musical treatments of Faust:
Other operas include Spohr’s “Faust” (1813), Boito’s “Mefistofele” (1868), Busoni’s “Doktor Faust” (1925), and Alfred Schnittke’s “Historia von D. Johann Fausten” (1995).
Berlioz wrote a hybrid oratorio/opera “La Damnation de Faust” (1845/46).
Lili Boulanger’s prize-winning cantata “Faust et Helene” (1913) made her the first female ever to win the Prix de Rome.
Liszt’s “Faust Symphonie” in three “character pictures” (1857), and the “understood” program behind his masterpiece, the Sonata in B Minor for piano.
Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 1 in D Minor (“After reading Faust”) (1920).
Adler/Ross’ “Damn Yankees” (1958) Broadway musical.
Literary treatments (post-Goethe):
Ivan Turgenev “Faust: A Story in Nine Letters” (1856
Paul Valery “Mon Faust” (1940)
Mikhail Bulgakov “Master and Margarita” (1940), a hilarious, subversive critique of Soviet Russia
Thomas Mann “Doktor Faustus” (1947), the story applied to a modern musician
An countless movie adaptations (or “inspired by) from the silents to the present day. So, have a listen, a look, a read, and beware of suave musicians making offers of eternal youth.
Copyright 2009 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs