Sunday, December 11, 2011

Musical Settings of Faust

After performing "A Faust Symphony" by Franz Liszt with the American Symphony Orchestra last Sunday, I came to the realization that there sure are a lot of musical settings of Goethe's "Faust." It sure is a fascinating story, is it not? The story is completely fictional. However, it is based on a true story of a magician who lived during the fifteenth century in northern Germany. In the story, Faust is a scholar who is old and going through bitterness and despair. He calls the devil, the devil appears, then he sells his soul to the devil in exchange for power, and knowledge. In other words he gives up spiritual principles in exchange for what he thinks is happiness. Faust wants what he wants, and is oblivious to the consequences. Being damned is a pretty big consequence, I would say. Faust and the devil make a pact, in which Mephistopheles serves Faust for a certain period of time. Mephistopheles is full of tricks and deceptions, and Faust accomplishes very little while he and Mephistopheles are on adventures. In Goethe's version, Faust is saved by the grace of God. In the musical versions by Berlioz and Gounod, he is damned. Berlioz felt very strongly about that twist, because his version is called "The Damnation of Faust." He even invented his own hell language for this work. There are over thirty musical settings with parts of the story of "Faust" in them. Many famous and not so famous composers have set this legend to music. There is even a rock band called Faust. There are even six musicals based on this story. The term Faustian is even a psychological concept, meaning made or done for gain in the present without regard for future consequences or costs. The question I have been pondering lately is the question of why so many composers, rock musicians and whatnot set this drama. Why set it now if so many settings already exist? Well, it is a complicated story with a lot of different themes, so it does not get boring. Plus there are many musical sounds which can be thought of to set this drama. The versions by Gounod, Berlioz, and Liszt are completely different from one another. Take a text like Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis; das Unzulängliche, hier wird's Ereignis; das Unbeschreibliche, hier ist es getan; das Ewigweibliche zieht uns hinan. Everything transitory is only an approximation; what could not be achieved here comes to pass; what no-one could describe, is here accomplished; the Eternal Feminine draws us aloft. This text is set completely differently by Liszt and Mahler. The story of Faust is in part two of Mahler's 8th symphony. The text makes for a big ending. Whereas, with Liszt the setting is a lot simpler. By simpler, I do not mean unsophisticated, I mean smaller as far as volume, and the forces involved. The number of ways to set "Faust" never seem to run out. The production of Gounod's "Faust" which I recently saw at the Met, was set set during World War 2, and Faust was working on the atomic bomb. So, he was more a scientist than a scholar. Various directors can have all sorts of conceptions of the story. In addition, Faust does not always have to be the main character. In fact, Arrigo Boito wrote an opera called "Mephistophele" in which the title role is the devil. Mephistopheles is a favorite of composers in his own right. Liszt wrote the "Mephisto Waltz", Mussorgsky wrote "The Song of the Flea", and Beethoven wrote a song about Mephistopheles. The devil also appears in many different guises. Nick Shadow in Stravinsky's opera "The Rake's Progress" is satan. Tom Rakewell, is Faust, but under a different name obviously. He wishes for various things such as money and happiness, and magically Nick Shadow appears. He is acting the same way Faust does, in that he is missing life's big picture. There are settings with feature Gretchen also. The list of possibilities with "Faust" musically go on and on. I am sure there will be many more to come. It is a great story, which is hard for me to understand. However, I can appreciate the amount of great music which has been set to "Faust." The Gounod, Berlioz, Liszt and Mahler are awesome examples, and they are very different from one another. Several of these composers talked to each other about setting "Faust." In fact, Berlioz introduced Liszt to Goethe's story. The story of "Faust" is very important in the history of the world, not just in music. It is an all time classic, which I have no doubt will be set many more times.

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