About this Recording
8.660116-17 - BERLIOZ: Damnation de Faust (La) (The Damnation of Faust)
English  French  German 

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
La Damnation de Faust

Marguerite - Marie-Ange Todorovitch, Mezzo-soprano
Faust - Michael Myers, Tenor
Méphistophélès - Alain Vernhes, Baritone
Brander - René Schirrer, Bass

Philippe Gérard: Cor anglais (CD 2 / Track 13)
Slovak Philharmonic Choir (Chorus master: Jan Rozehnal)
Orchestre National de Lille / Région Nord-Pas de Calais

Jean-Claude Casadesus

 

Hector Berlioz was born in the French province of Isère, the son of a doctor, in a family of some local substance. As a child he was taught principally by his father, and was swayed by various enthusiasms, including an overwhelming urge towards music that led him to compose, not for the piano, an instrument he did not play, but for a sextet that included his music-teacher's son, a horn-player, and the flute, which he played himself. He later took the opportunity of learning to play the guitar. At the insistence of his father, he embarked on medical studies, taking his first qualification at Grenoble, before moving to Paris. Three years later he abandoned medicine in favour of music, his enthusiasm increased still further by the opportunities offered in Paris by the Opéra and by the library of the Conservatoire, of which he was later to serve as librarian. In earlier years he had not been idle as a composer, but in Paris he prudently took lessons from Lesueur, whose Conservatoire class he entered in 1826.

In 1829 Berlioz saw Shakespeare's Hamlet for the first time, with Charles Kemble as the Prince and the Irish actress Harriet Smithson as Ophelia. The experience was overwhelming and in the season he had the opportunity to see much more, sharing in the popular adulation of Harriet Smithson, with whom he fell violently in love, at first to be rejected, leading to his autobiographical Symphonie fantastique. It was only after his return from Rome, where final victory in the Prix de Rome had allowed him to spend two years, and when her popularity began to wane, that she agreed to be his wife, a match that brought neither of them much happiness.

In the following years Berlioz remained an outsider to the French musical establishment. He earned a living as a critic, while as a composer and conductor he won more distinction abroad. Both then and in later years he was seen as the very type of an individual genius, the romantic artist, driven to excess by enthusiasms and paranoid in reaction to criticism or opposition, as his Mémoires show. After the death of his wife in 1854 he was able to marry the singer Marie Recio, with whom he had enjoyed a relationship already of some twelve years. Her sudden death in 1862 and that of his son Louis, a naval officer, in 1867, saddened the final period of his life. He died in 1869.

It was in 1828 that Berlioz first discovered Goethe's Faust, which he read in a French prose translation by Gérard de Nerval. This served as the inspiration for his ambitious Huit scènes de Faust (Eight Scenes from Faust), using the Gérard de Nerval translation of Part I of Goethe's Faust, which had been published in 1827. With some audacity he issued the work in 1829 as his Opus 1, but later withdrew it, absorbing much of the material into his later La damnation de Faust. This last was largely sketched during a concert tour in 1845 and 1846 that took Berlioz to Vienna, Prague, Pest, Breslau (Wrocl/aw) and Brunswick, and using a libretto on which he had at first sought the help of Almire Gandonnière, who made some contribution to the first three parts of the new work. For much of the work, however, Berlioz eventually provided his own text. He explains in his Mémoires, not always a reliable document, how he wrote Faust's Invocation to Nature in a German post-chaise, explaining how other parts of the work were written in coaches, trains and steamboats, the Introduction in an inn at Passau, the Scene on the Banks of the Elbe, Voici des roses and the Dance of the Sylphs in Vienna, and the Hungarian March, with its initial transposition of the action to Hungary, to the dismay of some German critics, to make use of a march written for performance in Pest, where he wrote the Peasants' Dance. He completed his task in Paris, where the work was first performed in December 1846, to be received with disappointing indifference. During a further concert tour in the new year he conducted the first two parts of La Damnation de Faust in St Petersburg and during a longer stay in Berlin was able to present the whole work.

For his purposes Berlioz took episodes based on or from Part One of Goethe's Faust, of which Part Two was completed only in 1831, a year before Goethe's death. Berlioz, unlike Goethe in Part Two of his Faust, allows the protagonist to end in damnation, while Marguerite is duly saved. Part One of Goethe's Faust ends with some abruptness, as a deus ex machina, in the final lines, declares Marguerite saved, while Mephistopheles and Faust vanish together. Berlioz provides a musically more satisfactory conclusion in a final scene that finds Marguerite among the saints in Heaven, after Faust's descent into Hell. The whole work is marked by Berlioz's usual skill in orchestration, presenting a number of ideas, in his Dramatic Legend, that had been clear elsewhere in his writing, and offering a remarkable musical picture of Faust, the romantic hero, a rebel in his aspirations, seduced by the Devil and finally damned.

[CD 1 / Track 1] The Introduction to the first part of La damnation de Faust finds Faust alone at sunrise in the plains of Hungary. The violas start the movement, dolce ed espressivo, in a gentle 6/8. Faust sings of the end of winter and coming of spring and his delight in life far from human struggle and the crowd. The flute, piccolo and woodwind suggest the coming peasants' dance and Hungarian march. [1/2] The second scene, the Ronde des paysans, has the chorus celebrating the season, heard by Faust and inspiring his envy at their youth and lively pleasure. [1/3] The third scene is set in another part of the plain, where an army is seen advancing, observed by Faust. [1/4] Faust leaves the scene, as the Hungarian March is heard, an arrangement of the Hungarian Rákóczy March that Berlioz had made for his concerts in Pest, a good reason, if there was no other, for allowing Faust to be found in Hungary, rather than meditating in his study.

The second part is set in North Germany. [1/5] The fourth scene, introduced by the cellos, finds Faust, as in the opening of Goethe's tragedy, after the initial prologue, alone in his study. The second violins enter with the fugal subject, followed by a third entry of violas and bassoons, as Faust laments the joylessness of his life, which he is ready to end by taking poison, a draught that will either bring light or kill his reason. He raises the cup to his lips. [1/6] The Easter Hymn is heard, marking the resurrection of Christ, but lamenting the loss felt by those remaining on earth, Goethe's choir of angels, banishing Faust's feelings of despair. The chorus ends in a subdued and meditative Hosanna. [1/7] The hymn has deflected Faust from his purpose, songs sweeter than the dawn.

[1/8] Mephistopheles appears suddenly. Questioned by Faust, he declares himself the Spirit of Life, offering Faust everything, happiness and pleasure. Faust challenges Mephistopheles to give proof of what he can do, and Mephistopheles tells him to follow, abandoning the hotchpotch of philosophy. They disappear into the air.

[1/9] The sixth scene is set in Auerbach's cellar in Leipzig, where drinkers call for wine. Mephistopheles introduces the scene to Faust. [1/10] The drinkers sing in praise of wine and drinking, that brings forgetfulness of sorrow. They call for a song, and Brander offers his drunken tale. [1/11] Brander's tale of the rat, taken from the 1828 Huit scènes, tells of the rat poisoned, suffering like a disappointed lover. The company add their Requiescat in pace, and Brander calls for a formal academic fugue. They are observed by Mephistopheles and Faust, the former telling him of the coming display of bestiality. [1/12] The drinkers sing a fugal Amen, mockingly leading to a more rapid repetition of the word, in accompaniment of Brander's subject. [1/13] Mephistopheles praises the singers' fugue, offering his own song on an equally touching subject. The drinkers wonder who this person is, pale and red-haired, but agree to hear his song. [1/14] Mephistopheles sings his Song of the Flea, repeated from the 1828 version and giving a lively account of the royal favourite, a flea, to be squashed. [1/15] Faust has seen and heard enough of this brutal vulgarity, seeking now something more tranquil. He disappears again into the air with Mephistopheles.

[1/16] The seventh scene changes to the woods and meadows on the banks of the Elbe. Mephistopheles shows Faust roses, open in the night, making a bed for Faust, where he may hear the voices of spirits. [1/17] Faust dreams of the spirits, gnomes and sylphs, who sing a gentle lullaby, joined by Mephistopheles. The chorus is a revised version of the scene in the 1828 version. It moves forward to a livelier dance rhythm, before Faust tenderly dreams of Marguerite, a vision brought to him through the agency of Mephistopheles. The music fades, and Mephistopheles thanks the spirits. [1/18] The Ballet des Sylphes, a tempo de valse, is heard, as the Sylphs hover round the sleeping Faust, before gradually disappearing. [1/19] Faust wakes suddenly, entranced by the image of Marguerite, whom he must find. Mephistopheles promises to lead him to her, drawing his attention to the students who pass in front of her door. [1/20] Soldiers sing of their readiness for love or battle with a song in B flat major. The students add their own D minor Gaudeamus igitur, and, with Faust and Mephistopheles, the two songs are joined together in a display of contrapuntal mastery.

[2/1] The third part starts with drums and trumpets sounding the retreat. [2/2] The ninth scene is in Marguerite's room. It is evening and Faust welcomes the silence and the pure air. He sings of Marguerite, his ideal beloved, and walks slowly up and down, examining with passionate curiosity the interior of the room, action accompanied principally by a long-drawn melodic line in the first violins. [2/3] The tranquillity is abruptly broken in the tenth scene by the brass. Mephistopheles, making his sudden appearance, tells Faust to hide behind the silk curtains, promising a fine epithalamium, as he withdraws. [2/4] In the eleventh scene Marguerite enters, carrying a lamp and troubled by the dream she has had of her future lover, suggesting madness of passion. [2/5] As she plaits her hair, she sings her ballad The King of Thule, retrieved, like the serenade of Mephistopheles, from the 1828 Huit scènes. The ballad is preceded by the plucked notes of the double basses, before the first violins suggest the outline of the singer's melody and her tale of the ancient King and his treasured goblet, the dying gift of his beloved, and of his faithfulness until death.

[2/6] In the twelfth scene, Evocation, Mephistopheles calls on the spirits of fire, summoning them to help him in corrupting Marguerite. [2/7] The spirits, Wills-o'-the-Wisp, dance their sinister minuet, led to a rapid conclusion by the piccolos. [2/8] Mephistopheles, imitating the movements of a hurdy-gurdy player, the drone of which is heard, prepares to sing his serenade. [2/9] This he sings rapidly, joined by the chorus of spirits, whom he finally dismisses, ready now to observe the lovers. [2/10] In the thirteenth scene the oboe recalls Marguerite's ballad, over the accompanying figuration of the violas. She is amazed to see the lover of whom she has dreamed. Faust sings to her of his love for her, as the two join together in their declarations of passion. [2/11] In the fourteenth scene they are interrupted by Mephistopheles, who urges haste. Marguerite is frightened at the sight of the stranger, but he tells them, to music of some agitation, that the neighbours have heard them and summoned Marguerite's mother. Faust bids Marguerite farewell, while Mephistopheles interrupts, urging the lovers to part. [2/12] The neighbours, aroused by what they have heard, draw near. Mephistopheles has won the soul of Faust, Marguerite sings of her sorrow at parting from Faust, who is consumed by his passion for her.

[2/13] The fifteenth scene, Romance, largely taken from the 1828 version, opens the fourth part of La damnation de Faust. Marguerite suffers the pangs of loss, in the absence of her lover, whose every feature and gesture she had so admired. She watches always at her window, awaiting Faust's appearance, and longing for his kisses again. [2/14] A chorus of soldiers is heard, marching into the distance, and the song of the students. [2/15] The sixteenth scene, Invocation to Nature, offers a landscape of woods and caverns. Faust contemplates the immensity of Nature, alone bringing relief from his wretchedness and seeming to offer him life once more. He calls on the powers of Nature, hurricanes, deep forests, rocks, torrents, to the sounds of which he would be united, a yearning that can never be fulfilled. [2/16] In the seventeenth scene, Recitative and Chase, Mephistopheles appears, climbing the rocks and calling the attention of Faust to love. The sounds of the hunt can be heard, as Mephistopheles tells Faust that Marguerite is in prison for parricide, the murder of her mother, and condemned to death. Her mother had been poisoned by a sleeping potion Faust had given her, and taken each night by Marguerite's mother as the girl awaited Faust's return. Mephistopheles now seeks something from Faust, a signature on a document, in return for which he can save Marguerite; Faust must swear to serve Mephistopheles tomorrow. He signs and urges haste on Mephistopheles; they must reach Marguerite as soon as possible. Mephistopheles calls up his two black horses, as rapid as thought; they mount and gallop away.

[2/17] In the eighteenth scene the horses gallop, Faust in anxiety at the fate of Marguerite. During this Ride to the Abyss the voices of peasants, kneeling by a wayside crucifix, are heard singing Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis, followed by an appropriate petition to St Mary Magdalene and to St Margaret. The women and children scatter in fear as the horses gallop on, pursued, Faust sees, by great birds of the night, their cries heard, as they beat him with their wings. Mephistopheles reins in his horse, hearing the death bell. The horses redouble their pace. Faust sees around them dancing skeletons, and more afraid and breathless he sees the horses frightened, their manes bristling. Mephistopheles, who has been urging the horses on, calls for the trumpets of Hell to sound in triumph, as an abyss opens, engulfing them. [2/18] Pandaemonium, the nineteenth scene, bursts out with the cries of the devils. The Princes of Darkness greet Mephistopheles as the master for ever of the soul of Faust, who signed freely his pact. The demons carry Mephistopheles in triumph and then dance around him.

[2/19] In the Epilogue on Earth the sounds of Hell are stilled, the horror now over. [2/20] The twentieth scene, In Heaven, has the celestial spirits singing the praise of the Divine. [2/21] A voice calls to Marguerite, who is summoned to Heaven, misled by love, but now to take on again her initial beauty of innocence, joining the virgins in Heaven, to bring to an end the work in a mood of tranquil serenity.

Keith Anderson


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