Faust in Music: In His Survey, Hugo Shirley Foregos Song Settings of Poems from Goethe's Play in Favour of Broader Dramatic and Symphonic Settings Composed in Response to One of Western Literatures Most Important Figures

By Shirley, Hugo | Gramophone, December 2017 | Go to article overview

Faust in Music: In His Survey, Hugo Shirley Foregos Song Settings of Poems from Goethe's Play in Favour of Broader Dramatic and Symphonic Settings Composed in Response to One of Western Literatures Most Important Figures


Shirley, Hugo, Gramophone


The importance of Faust as a literary figure is difficult to overestimate, as is the importance specifically of Goethe's Faust in European culture of the last two centuries. The story of the scholar who strikes a deal with the Devil has its roots far back in literary history, but Goethe raised material that was often treated comically on to a new plane of seriousness, as, arguably, did Mozart and Da Ponte with the story of Don Juan.

Faust spanned more than half a century of Goethe's life: he worked on the earliest version, the so-called Urfaust, in the 1770s; the completed Faust consists of two parts, published in 1808 and 1832 respectively. Faust I offers a relatively taut treatment of Faust's pact with Mephistopheles and tragic seduction of Margarete (or Gretchen). The freewheeling Faust II, often deemed unstageable, is a more elaborate exploration of Goethe's own personal beliefs and philosophy, taking the reader on an imaginative tour through time and space and culminating with the character's richly allegorical redemption.

For Goethe, Faust embodied eternal striving, an awareness of humanity's inability to master knowledge and the world: he is scientist, thinker and artist. The tragic consequences of this drive were explored by Thomas Mann in his novel Doktor Faustus (1947), where the story became an allegory for musical creativity specifically, the shady pact leading the protagonist to discover 12-note serialism--much to the chagrin, in real life, of the system's actual 'inventor', Schoenberg.

Goethe reportedly believed that setting his play to music was impossible. Composers of many different nationalities and aesthetic outlooks have nevertheless tried. For some, it's an excuse for grand opera excess, an opportunity to give the devil some of the best tunes. For others, however, Faust was a lifelong obsession, a character central to their own struggles with creativity and strivings for artistic fulfilment.

Spohr

Faust

Michael Vier bar Eelco von Jordis bar Diane Jennings sop William Pugh fen et al; Bielefeld Op Chor; Bellefeld PO / Geoffrey Moull

CPO (8/94)

Based on earlier sources rather than Goethe, Spohr's Faust skims the surface of the material and sets it to easy-going melodic music that sounds Incongruous today. It was a hit in the early 19th century, though, and an important work in both operatic history and the history of Faust in opera. Weber conducted the premiere of the first version (1816), which Spohr expanded for this 1852 revision.

Boito

Mefistofele

Norman Treigle bass Placido Domingo ten Montserrat Caballe sop et al; Wandsworth Sch Boys' Ch; Ambrosian Chor; LSO / Julius Rudel

Warner Classics (6/74)

Though best known as a librettist, Boito was also a fine composer. Mefistofele is hugely ambitious, attempting to condense both parts of Goethe's play into an evening's opera. So here, Faust gets to witness Walpurgis night and fall In love with not just Margherita but also Helen of Troy. Highlights include Margherita's 'L'altra notte' and the grandly stirring prologue (in Heaven) and epilogue.

Gounod

Faust

Nicolai Gedda ten Boris Christoff bass Victoria de los Angeles sop et al; Paris Op Chor and Orch / Andre Cluytens

Warner Classics (1/60)

Long referred to as Margarete in German-speaking countries (to distance it from Goethe), this opera (premiered in Paris, 1859) cherry-picked elements from the drama and tacked on a piously Catholic redemption in order to appeal to a Second Empire audience. Full of memorable arias and ensembles, it was a hit, and although it fell out of fashion in the 20th century, it is well represented on disc.

Berlioz

La damnation de Faust

Thomas Moser ten Jose van Dam bar Frederic Caton bass Susan Graham sop

Lyon Op Chor and Orch / Kent Nagano

Erato (11/95)

Nearly 20 years elapsed between Berlioz first discovering Faust and completing his legende dramatique based upon Goethe's work in 1846. …

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