The Music Criticism of Hugo Wolf

By Henry Pleasants; Hugo Wolf | Go to book overview

78. The Damnation of Faust

March 21, 1886

Dramatic Legend in Four Parts by Hector Berlioz.

Among the multifarious musical compositions inspired by Faust, Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust, along with Wagner's Faust Overture and Liszt's Faust Symphony, must indisputably be awarded pride of place. Granted, Berlioz failed to achieve an organic work of art, congruent in terms of form and substance, such as the two compositions of Wagner and Liszt. His Faust is a fragmentary mosaic, a haphazard structure replete with the most beautiful details, but without a clearly conscious aim. The Faust idea, in its purely human features an inexhaustible source of artistic inspiration, is dissolved with Berlioz in an idle play of capricious fantasies, admittedly ingenious and admirable in themselves, but destructive of the unity of poetic intention, and inhibiting any full enjoyment of the totality of the work. This criticism can be made of Schumann's Faust, too. Inner incoherence is common to both, and if Schumann's Faust adheres with greater sensibility to the Goethe model, Berlioz's work surpasses it in musical substance. However one may feel about Berlioz's approach to the Faust idea, one thing is certain: almost every number in this work excites our most fervent admiration. Let us examine this remarkable opus more closely.

The Introduction places Faust -- oddly enough -- in a Hungarian plain. Justifying this curiosity in a preface to The Damnation of Faust, Berlioz says: "Why, some may ask, does the composer have his hero wandering through Hungary in the first part? Very simply because he wanted to introduce a piece of music based on a Magyar theme. He confesses it with utter candor. He would have taken his hero anywhere, and have given the matter not another thought if prompted to do so by the slightest musical motif. Did not Goethe himself, in the second part of his Faust, take him to Menelaus's palace in Sparta?"

Well, the reference to Goethe's "arbitrary" procedure is truly naive. Berlioz obviously lacks a proper understanding of the profound symbolism of the classic Walpurgis Night and the bond of love between Faust and Helen. Nor does Berlioz's frank admission of willingness to transport his hero anywhere for the sake of a musical motif speak well for his dramatic intentions in dealing with Faust.1 The concept of a symphonie descriptive, in any case, occupied him more intensively than that of a "grand opera," just as the légende dramatique, despite its outward appearance, is closer to the symphonie de

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