#378 BERLIOZ THE DAMNATION OF FAUST

#378

BERLIOZ

THE DAMNATION OF FAUST

RAKOCZI MARCH (MARCHE HONGROISE)

CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
GEORG SOLTI, CONDUCTOR

D’AMOUR, L’ARDENTE FLAMME

JOYCE DIDONATO, MEZZO-SOPRANO
BERLIN PHILHARMONIC
SIMON RATTLE

Collegiate music students the world over are grateful for the rest of their lives for having heard so many works they had never heard—sometimes never heard OF—in their various college classes. For me, one of those works was Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust. I first heard it when various parts of it were assigned for analysis in one of my theory classes at Juilliard.

My (now) well-worn LPs of the work by Colin Davis and the London Symphony had just been released in the fall of 1973 when I was studying the work. I was strongly attracted to this work from the first time I heard it. And true to my OCD self, once I had become acquainted with it, I had to go out and purchase it—I had to own it.

*****

The Faust legend—a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for earthly pleasure—is related in Goethe’s Faust, written in 1808. The work is considered Goethe’s masterpiece—as well as the greatest work of literature in the German language. From the time of its publication onward, it captured the attention and imagination of a very literate and religious Europe in the 19th century.

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) certainly fell under its inspiration. Berlioz, a composer who never—ever—thought small, wrote his Damnation of Faust in 1845. It is a work of nearly two and half hours that has confounded all those who would produce it ever since. Berlioz scored the work for an enormous orchestra, a 7-part chorus, a children’s choir, and four vocal soloists. Part opera, part oratorio, part cantata, it defies being presented successfully in any of those forms. Berlioz called it a “legend dramatique.”

The work is now most often presented as a concert work—as an oratorio.

*****

When Berlioz first read Goethe’s Faust, he was transfixed by it, reading it incessantly, at meals, while walking in the streets, everywhere and at all times. His eventual musical depiction of the work is true to the chronological unfolding of Goethe’s story.

In that story, Faust, who is an intellectual pursuing all the wisdom he can possibly obtain, has become disillusioned with life and is about to commit suicide. He hears peasants singing and dancing and realizes he will never have their kind of simple happiness. When he hears a distant army marching, and hears the soldiers’ enthusiasm for the glory of fighting—he knows this also is a joy he cannot ever relate to.

The Devil—Mephistopheles—comes to Faust just when he is going to kill himself, and offers him “the deal”—serve him eternally in hell and, in exchange, experience his deepest earthly desires until then–a deal Faust does not refuse.

Mephistopheles shows Faust a vision of a beautiful and innocent girl, Marguerite, who Faust is very desirous to meet. The Devil takes Faust to her, but in spite of his near reverence for her innocence and beauty, he seduces her and ultimately leaves her.

In the end—of course—Faust has been tricked by the Devil. He winds up suffering torments in hell, while Marguerite experiences the bliss of heaven.

*****

There are many moments of beauty and excitement in Berlioz’ Damnation. I’ve chosen two of the most popular—music that haunted me then–in my college days–as it does now.

The tune for the Rakoczi March had been popular in Hungary for generations at the time Berlioz utilized it in Damnation. Until Berlioz’ time, it was the unofficial state anthem for Hungary. A Hungarian musical friend in Vienna had sent Berlioz the Rakoczi melody, suggesting Berlioz orchestrate it. This he did, creating one—of three—purely orchestral insertions—no chorus or vocal soloists—into the Damnation score. In Damnation, this is the music of the troops marching by that Faust hears.

The Rakoczi March has become one of the most loved, and most often played, orchestral marches in the entire orchestral repertoire. Georg Solti’s recording with the Chicago Symphony is absolutely superb.

*****

One of the most moving moments of Damnation occurs in the fourth act when Marguerite, who has been seduced by Faust, laments that even though Faust has abandoned her, her love for him still burns intensely within her heart, and she is awaiting his return—which, of course, will never happen.

This aria was a favorite of the great Maria Callas, and is here sung tenderly by the expressive and beautiful Joyce DiDonato. The lyrics in English:

Loves fiery flame,
Consumes my beautiful days.
Ah! The peace of my soul
has fled forever!
His departure, his absence
Is the death of me,
And away from his presence,
Everything seems in mourning.
So my poor head
is soon driven mad,
My weak heart stops
Then ices over immediately.

I admire his strong gait,
Its carriage so graceful,
His mouth’s sweet smile
The charm of his eyes,
His enchanting voice,
He sets me ablaze,
His hand, caress,
Alas! His kiss
Of one amorous flame
consumes my days!
Ah! The peace of my soul
has fled forever!
I am at my window,
where outside, all day –
This is the view I wish to see him appear,
Or hasten his return.
My heart beats and presses
Whenever I feel he is coming.
According to my affection
I will always remember him!
O the flame caresses!
I would one day
See my soul exhale
In his kisses of love!

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