Damned If They Do

Music is the perfect medium to deal with Goethe's Faust because of its focus on the human condition

Jessica Duchen

To explore the musical legacy of Faust  is to discover a treasure-trail rich beyond imagination. This legend has permeated more compositions than any other beyond the Bible. In the mid-19th century, it was so all-pervasive that it even affected musical language and performance style, making an indelible impression upon the following century.

Goethe’s version of the traditional story concerns an ageing scholar who sells his soul to the devil, Mephistopheles, in return for regained youth and sensual pleasures. He seduces a young girl, Gretchen, who bears his illegitimate child, kills the baby and is sentenced to death, but her soul is spared from Mephisto’s clutches. In Goethe’s Faust, which inspired a dazzling network of composers, this is part of an extended philosophical adventure. Ultimately, Faust’s soul is saved too, for his “endless striving”. The book is a “closet drama”, a play that is unstageable. This peculiar genre partly explains why different composers took such a variety of approaches to it, sometimes overt, sometimes not.

Ironically, Goethe, for whom Mozart was the ideal composer for Faust, loathed romanticism, regarding its excesses as a “disease”. But it was another child prodigy who became closest to him in person: in 1821 the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter brought his pupil, 12-year-old Felix Mendelssohn, to stay with the poet in Weimar. The boy wrote home: “Every morning I receive a kiss from the author of Faust and of Werther, and every afternoon two kisses from Goethe, friend and father.” 

Mendelssohn wrote his Octet four years later. Goethe’s Faust includes a “Walpurgis Night’s Dream”, a satirical episode showing an amateur cast performing a masquerade, with members of a Witches’ Sabbath, a Kapellmeister, an orchestra of insects and frogs and a bagpipe that blows soap bubbles. Mendelssohn’s sister, Fanny, wrote that the scherzo secretly portrayed a stanza from this scene while the Mendelssohn scholar R. Larry Todd has detected links to Faust throughout the Octet, with the climax representing the struggle for Gretchen’s soul — which would explain the quote from Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. 

By contrast, Mendelssohn’s friend Schumann kept Goethe to the fore in his Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (1844-53), in which he followed the poet beyond Gretchen’s story to explore Faust’s reflections, whether visionary or deluded, on the creation of a new world. By 1853, Schumann’s deteriorating mental condition rendered him prone to delusions. This lent his Faust extra personal significance — it constantly preoccupied him after he went to the asylum at Endenich, where he eventually died.

Goethe’s ideal Faustian opera was Don Giovanni. In the 1830s, he started a bizarre “tradition” that claimed a “demonic” element in Mozart’s creativity. He wrote: “How can one say Mozart has composed Don Juan? Composition! As if it were a piece of cake or biscuit…It is…pervaded by one spirit and by the breath of one life; so that the producer…was altogether in the power of the demonic spirit of his genius…”

Why this, years after Mozart’s death? When Niccolò Paganini toured Germany between 1829 and 1831, Goethe met and heard the great violinist, whose playing sparked a popular parallel with the devil and his traditional violin. Paganini had brought the myth of music’s demoniac side into the ascendant. 

A young, rather directionless Hungarian musician, Franz Liszt, attended Paganini’s 1831 Paris recital. At once, he resolved to become the Paganini of the piano and subsequently transformed himself into the first superstar concert pianist. Unsurprisingly, he tackled the Faust theme several times, writing four Mephisto Waltzes inspired by another Faust poem by one of Goethe’s successors, Nikolaus Lenau. And listen to his B minor Sonata of 1852-53 associating its themes with Faust, Mephistopheles and Gretchen: the story is crystal-clear, culminating in a mighty struggle before Gretchen’s soul rises to heaven and Mephistopheles vanishes in a pianistic puff of smoke. 

Liszt was introduced to Faust in 1830 by Hector Berlioz, who was already obsessed with it. The book made a “strange and deep impression” on Berlioz: “I read it incessantly,” he wrote, “at meals, at the theatre, in the street…The translation…contained a num-ber of ballads, hymns and other pieces in verse. I was unable to resist setting them to music [Eight Scenes from Faust, which he later tried to destroy]. “Immediately after…still under the influence of Goethe’s poem, I wrote my Symphonie fantastique…” And in La Damnation de Faust, Berlioz created perhaps the ultimate Faust — yet the furthest from Goethe’s tastes, positively embodying the “excesses of romanticism”.

Wagner approached Faust in a concert overture finished in 1844 and in some respects presaging Liszt’s A Faust Symphony. The overture is no masterpiece — but significantly, Faust’s “endless striving” is embodied in the chromatic harmonic language that Liszt and Wagner developed. If “endless striving” is the essence of Faust, then Faust is the essence of Wagner — and the approach that broke down tonality in the early 20th century.

Liszt composed his Faust Symphony in the 1850s after much procrastination: initially he disliked the character of Faust, finding him “bourgeois”, dissipated and cruel. But living in Weimar, he could not escape the shadow of Goethe-everything pointed him towards Faust. His symphony was premiered in 1857. Three years later he added extra brass and a Chorus Mysticus. The footprints of Berlioz’s Witches’ Sabbath from the Symphonie fantastique are all over the “Mephistopheles” scherzo. 

The work’s Faust motif is worth an extra glance. In Thomas Mann’s later novel Doktor Faustus, the central character enters a demoniac pact through which he creates a new type of music suspiciously akin to Schoenberg’s 12-tone system. Liszt’s Faust motif is a tone-row, including all 12 notes, each played once. 

But why exactly did Faust spark such musical obsession? Sir Sacheverell Sitwell heard the Faust Symphony conducted by Ferruccio Busoni (like Liszt, the greatest pianist of his day, and composer of yet another complex Faust opera). He wrote: “Both [Liszt and Busoni], with their exceptional, magical powers, were for ever searching for a secret that was never revealed to them, or was only suffered to live in flashes before their eyes for the space of a few moments.” 

In Goethe, Faust and Mephistopheles agree that Faust’s damnation will be triggered when he experiences one moment so perfect that he begs it not to pass. That notion is the essence of the human condition — and the essence, too, of music, which exists only in real time. That’s why music is the perfect medium for Goethe’s Faust. And maybe it’s why musicians are never free of its ghosts. 

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