The Faust Bargain
Posted On April 23, 2020
Well, our topic this week is Faust…Yikes, there’s sooooo many possible musical choices – I can only scratch the surface with this playlist! There’s probably no other single story/myth/legend that has inspired more artistic reactions; from plays, to concert music, to art song, to opera, to Broadway musicals, to film – writers like Christopher Marlowe, Goethe and both Thomas and Klaus Mann, to virtually every major composer in the 19th Century, to composers in our recent past like Stravinsky, etc. The Faust legend hits some deep psychological place. It’s an archetypical theme – selling your soul into eternal damnation and betraying/using the people you love the most in order to gain earthly power, wealth and fame. Now THAT’s got the makings of a great story!
The Faust Bargain
We start with some of the earliest musical settings after the publication of Goethe’s masterpiece, the “Song of the Flea” by Beethoven and two settings of ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ by Schubert. The first as originally written, sung by Dame Janet Baker accompanied by the great Gerald Moore. The second is an orchestrated version (by Max Reger) with Renée Fleming and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado.
We then turn to Robert Schumann’s Szenen aus Goethe’s Faust (1853) and to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (1906-7) both of which conclude with the finale scene from Goethe’s Faust and both of which end with the glorious final stanza –
- Alles Vergängliche;All that is ephemeral
- ist nur ein Gleichnis;is but a symbol;
- das Unzulängliche,the incomplete
- hier wird’s Ereignis;is here fulfilled;
- das Unbeschreibliche,the indescribable,
- hier ist’s getan;is here accomplished;
- das Ewig-WeiblichetheEternal Feminine
- zieht uns hinan.draws us ever upwards.
After that overwhelming text and music, I thought a little Wagner might lighten things up…haha!! The two songs, here sung by the great lieder singer Dietrich Fischer-Diskau are light ‘songs’ from the scene in Goethe’s Faust which takes place in Auerbachs Keller in Leipzig.
Interestingly, Wagner never wrote a Faust opera or even a symphony (unlike Liszt, with his Eine Faust-Symphonie) but he did write a Faust overture, so I’m including that little taste of Wagnerian “Faust-ness”.
We stay in Leipzig and wander with Felix Mendelssohn through Walpurgis Night (celebrated on the evening of April 30/May1) which was when, according to legend, the devil was abroad—when the graves were opened and the dead came forth and walked. Mendelssohn wrote lots of wonderfully dramatic music, but I don’t know that this 1841 cantata is any bettered for both drama and just plain fun! It’s also a great performance by the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnányi…always awesome to hear this orchestra!
Then we come to the work that started all my Faustian musing – Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust from (1846). This performance is the BSO/TFC/Ozawa recording I mentioned above. It’s a little travelogue through some of my favorite sections of the much longer work (well worth it if you want to seek out!!) – including the soldiers/students chorus; when the two musical ideas are finally combined it always makes me smile – one of Berlioz’s most impressive musical devices.
After the Berlioz we head, finally, to opera and one of the most wonderful operatic “Prologues” ever written – the “Prologo in cielo” from Boito’s Mefistofele from 1868. This performance comes from the Ravenna Festival with Riccardo Muti conducting and Ildar Abdrazakov singing the role of Mefistofele. Special shout out to the children’s chorus, which spits out really difficult Italian tongue-twisters better than any I’ve heard!
We next turn to Gounod’s 1859 opera Faust – I’m sure operaphiles will wish I’d chosen other highlights as well – but these are worth hearing: Erwin Schrott singing Mephistopheles’ aria ‘Le veau d’or’; the late, great Russian baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky singing ‘Avant de quitter’; Angela Georghiu singing the “Jewel Song”.
Then…if you dare: the final trio from Gounod’s opera (sung, in English, as a duet!?!?!) by Florence Foster Jenkins …and a baritone of dubious repute (Actually, he’s so hideous he makes her sound polished!) – put the wine down from your lips before listening to this – you have been warned!
After that – we move to an awesome music video (complete with wacky and weird Soviet imagery during the introduction) of the “Death Tango” from Alfred Schnittke’s Faust Cantata from 1983. The cantata is famous for this movement – a tango sung through the microphone by the Devil with the mocking comments on the cruel death of Faust. The cantata eventually became the third act of Schnittke’s Faust opera.
I couldn’t resist including Damn Yankees, the hit 1955 Broadway music based on a modern retelling of the Faust legend – and starring Ray Walston (as the Devil) and Gwen Verdon (as Lola, one of his seductive minions).