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La Damnation de Faust, Op. 24

About the Work

Hector Berlioz
Quick Look Composer: Hector Berlioz
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano Fri., Jan. 23, 2004, 8:00 PM
© Richard Freed
Several composers have been attracted over the years by the legend of Faust, and by the Goethe version in particular. Beethoven, who knew Goethe, considered composing an opera on the subject; Wagner wrote a dramatic overture; Liszt wrote music on the legend as treated by both Nikolaus Lenau and Goethe; Schumann composed a setting of Scenes from Goethe's "Faust”— and so, a bit earlier, did Berlioz, who, like Schumann but in a far different way, was a personification of the Romantic Era. Berlioz read Part I of Goethe's drama, in the French translation by Gérard de Nerval, in 1828 and was mesmerized by it. He at once composed a choral setting of Eight Scenes from Goethe's "Faust,” which he designated his Op. 1. He sent a copy to Goethe in the spring of 1829, but never heard from him: it is known that Goethe's reactionary musical adviser Friedrich Zelter denounced the work as "an abortion.” But Berlioz and Faust were made for each other, and in 1846 Berlioz revised portions of the Eight Scenes for use in one of his grandest, most ambitious and most thoroughly characteristic works, La Damnation de Faust. Almire Gandonnière supplied the libretto, based on Nerval's translation, in 1845, but Berlioz himself revised and expanded the text, which in the end was his own. He composed the music during an extended conducting tour in 1845-46 (which took him through the region associated with the Faust legend). He spoke of this work as "mon grand opéra de Faust,” but labeled it "opera de concert en quatre actes.” The premiere, given in concert form at the Opéra-Comique five days before his 43rd birthday, was a fiasco, and Berlioz's idea of staging the work in London the following year (under the title Mephistopheles ) failed to materialize. The work's final designation, as published, is simply "Légende dramatique en quatre parties” ; it is essentially a large-scale dramatic cantata.

Sometimes this two-and-a-half-hour work is staged, or "semi-staged” nowadays, but complete performances, staged or not, are infrequent. The three orchestral excerpts that open this evening's concert, however, have been familiar concert fare since Berlioz's own time, simply because they transcend their stage context to bewitch the ear in their own right. The most celebrated of the three, in fact, was not even written for Faust, but was inserted into the work simply because Berlioz liked it and wanted to give it wider circulation.

As is customary in concert presentations, the three excerpts are presented here in reverse of the order in which they appear in the work from which they are drawn. The M INUET OF THE W ILL-O'-THE- W ISPS occurs in Scene 11, near the beginning of Part III. Mephistopheles has summoned the spirits of fire to help him cast a spell on Marguerite for Faust's benefit, and commands them to dance: "Capricious sprites, your wicked gleam must bewitch a maid and lead her to us! Dance, in the Devil's name! And, you minstrels of hell, mark well the rhythm or I'll snuff you out!”

The Dance of the Sylphs takes place in Scene 6, the penultimate scene in Part II. Faust has been magically transported by Mephistopheles from the noisy revelry in Auerbach's cellar in Leipzig to a wooded slope on the banks of the Elbe, where he is lulled to sleep by a chorus of gnomes and sylphs, and his dream brings him his first vision of Marguerite. The sylphs dance their exquisite waltz as Faust sleeps on. "The spirits of the air hover awhile around the sleeping Faust, then vanish one by one,” according to a note in the score.

Since it was Berlioz who introduced Liszt to Faust (by giving him a copy of Nerval's translation shortly after they first met at the premiere of the Symphonie fantastique ), it might be assumed that Liszt (who was then 19 years old) reciprocated by introducing Berlioz to the famous Hungarian tune known as the Rákóczy March , for Liszt had performed it with some frequency and was to compose his own settings of it, but it was left for Berlioz to discover it on his own, at an especially propitious moment.

The march is named for Ferenc Rákóczi, a Hungarian military leader, politician and diplomat who joined with the French in the War of the Spanish Succession in 1703 and won a brief period of independence for his country after the defeat of Austria. He was elected Prince of Transylvania in 1705, but six years later some of his commanders made deals with the Austrians and he was deserted by the French, whereupon Hungary became an Austrian province. The famous tune bearing his name (the inconsistency in spelling reflects certain changes in Hungarian orthography ca. 1800) is attributed to the prominent Hungarian Gypsy violinist and composer János Bihari (1764-1827); it is uncertain whether it was based on a folk tune from Rákóczi's time or invented by Bihari, but it was Bihari who made it known to the world, in 1810, and the eleven-year-old Liszt perfomed it, with other pieces by Bihari, in 1823. Liszt subsequently composed settings of the march, both for piano (Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15) and for orchestra, but Berlioz made it his own, and he came to it almost by accident.

In his Memoirs Berlioz recalled that early in 1846, when he was on the aforementioned tour and about to proceed from Vienna to Pest (it was not until 1873 that Pest, Buda and Obuda were merged to form the single municipality known as Budapest), he was contacted by an amateur musician well versed in Hungarian lore who brought him a collection of old Hungarian airs and counseled him, "If you want the Hungarians to like you, write a piece on one of their national tunes.” Berlioz chose the Rákóczy March . He composed his arrangement on the eve of his departure from Vienna and conducted it in Pest on February 15, 1846, under the title Marche hongroise ; the Hungarian audience, feeling the stirrings of the revolutionary fervor that would erupt two years later, responded so tumultuously that the coda was drowned out in the cheering and shouting, in both the first performance and the demanded encore.

Back in Vienna, the man who had brought the march to Berlioz's attention begged him to keep his identity secret. Because of its incendiary effect in Budapest, he explained, "if it became known here that I had anything to do with your composing the piece, I should be severely compromised and could get into serious trouble. Berlioz kept his secret, but he was so elated by the stunning effect the piece made that he provided himself with an excuse for incorporating it into his Faust by adding a scene that has nothing to do with Goethe. It is near the opening of the work: the brooding Faust watches any army pass in review on "a plain in Hungary,” and remarks to himself, "With such fire their eyes blaze! Every heart thrills to their song of victory—mine alone stays cold, indifferent to glory.”