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NBD0015 - SCHUMANN, R.: Scenes from Goethe's Faust (Warsaw Boys' Choir, Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, Wit) (Blu-Ray Audio)
Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Sorge, Engel, Magna Peccatrix - Iwona Hossa (Soprano I)
Robert Schumann is in many ways typical of the age in which he lived, combining in his music a number of the principal characteristics of Romanticism, as he did in his life. Born in Zwickau in 1810, the son of a bookseller, publisher and writer, he showed an early interest in literature and was to make a name for himself in later years as a writer and as editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, a journal launched in 1834. His father had encouraged his literary and musical interests and had at one time thought of sending him to study with Weber, a proposal that was abandoned with the death of the latter, closely followed by the death of Schumann’s father.
Schumann’s career now followed a more conventional course. In 1828 he entered the University of Leipzig, where his attention to his studies was as intermittent as it was to be the following year at Heidelberg. He was eventually able to persuade his mother and guardian that he should be allowed to study music under the well-known piano teacher Friedrich Wieck, whose energies had been directed with some intensity towards the training of his own daughter Clara, a pianist of prodigious early talent. Schumann’s ambitions as a pianist, however, were frustrated by a weakness in the fingers, whatever its true cause, and his other musical studies had, at the very least, lacked application. Nevertheless in the 1830s he wrote a great deal of music for the piano, often in the form of shorter, genre pieces, with some extra-musical literary or autobiographical association. There was an affair with one of Wieck’s pupils, later broken off, but by 1835 he had begun to turn his attention to Clara Wieck, nine years his junior. Wieck had good reason to object to the liaison. His daughter had a career before her as a concert performer and Schumann had shown signs of instability of character, whatever his abilities as a composer might be. Matters were taken to an extreme when resort was had to litigation, in order to prevent what Wieck saw as a disastrous marriage.
It was not until 1840 that Schumann was eventually able to marry Clara, after her father’s legal attempts to oppose the match had finally failed. The couple married in September, remaining first in Leipzig, although journeys took place for concert appearances by Clara, generally accompanied by her husband, whose position was of lesser distinction. In 1844 they moved to Dresden, where it seemed that Schumann might recover from the bouts of depression that he had suffered in the earlier days of marriage. Here again no official position seemed to offer itself and it was only in 1849 that the prospect of employment arose, this time in Düsseldorf, where Schumann took up his position as director of music in 1850. Mendelssohn had enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the Düsseldorf authorities, and Schumann, much less skilled in administration and conducting, proved even less able to cope with the difficulties that arose. The pressures on him led to a complete nervous break-down in 1853 and final years spent in an asylum at Endenich, where he died in 1856.
Goethe, it need hardly be said, holds a pre-eminent position in German literature. The subject of Faust had always occupied him, from the puppet shows he had seen as a child to the end of his life. The first part of his verse tragedy, more or less complete by 1801, was published in 1808; the second part was published in 1832, after his death in that year, an event that, according to Heine, was also the death of the old Germany. Goethe’s work and the obvious symbolism of the figure of Faust, in a period that saw the artist as a heroic rebel against convention, exercised continuing fascination over composers in the nineteenth century, an interest reflected in La damnation de Faust of Berlioz, Liszt’s Faust-Symphony and the operas by Spohr and Gounod, as elsewhere then and in the following years.
For Schumann the setting of scenes from Goethe’s Faust offered what he saw as a formidable challenge. He had soon rejected any idea of adapting the great text to form the libretto of an opera. Instead he made a very personal choice of excerpts, generally avoiding the setting of any songs and, in general, the use of the more overtly popular elements that are included in Part I of the play, Goethe’s ‘little world’. His attention was concentrated rather on Part II, Goethe’s ‘great world’, and in particular the finale scene of Faust’s redemption and purification. He tackled his task intermittently over some ten years, a period interrupted by bouts of nervous depression. His first sketches were made in 1844, when he set the final scene of Faust. He returned to work on this in 1847, and wrote another version of the last Chorus Mysticus. In 1849 he turned his attention to the three scenes from Part I of the play, the Gretchen episodes that came to form Schumann’s first part, and composed the scene that begins his second part, Sonnenaufgang (Sunrise), the opening of Part II of Goethe’s work. In 1850 he wrote the other two scenes that make up his second part, Mitternacht (Midnight) and Fausts Tod (Faust’s Death). The Overture was written in 1853.
The first of the three parts of Schumann’s work contains the only three scenes taken from Part I of Goethe’s work. These start with the scene in the garden of Gretchen’s neighbour Marthe in which Faust, rejuvenated for his search for knowledge and experience, woos Gretchen, finally interrupted by the devil and tempter Mephistopheles, who tells him they must go. The words set are taken largely from the scene in Marthe’s garden, the first love scene between Faust and Gretchen, followed by the end of the following brief scene in Marthe’s summerhouse. The second scene is before the statue of the Mater Dolorosa, set in a niche in the city ramparts. Gretchen places flowers before the figure and kneels in penitence, having yielded to Faust’s entreaties. The third scene is in the Cathedral. Gretchen’s brother Valentin has been killed in a brawl with Faust, and dies accusing her of immorality, and now Gretchen, having caused her mother’s death by giving her a supposed sleeping draught, at Faust’s prompting, is tempted by the Evil Spirit to despair, as the choir is heard singing the Dies irae. The words Quid sum miser tunc dicturus (What shall I, poor wretch, then say?) are repeated, and Gretchen, calling for smelling salts, faints, as the choir continues, seemingly with greater urgency.
Part II of Faust, unlike Part I of Goethe’s work, is divided into five acts. Part I had ended with Gretchen’s rejection of Faust, as he tries to save her from the prison, where she awaits execution for infanticide, and a voice declaring her redemption. The second part of Schumann’s setting takes one scene from Act I, Sunrise, and two from Act V. In a pleasant landscape Faust lies, tired and longing for sleep, in the half light. He is surrounded by a ring of spirits and Ariel sings to him, with words taken from Goethe’s longer song. A choir continues, singing partly antiphonally, one group echoing another. Ariel resumes his song, as the sun rises. Faust wakes, revived by the beauty of the place. The second scene is Midnight, from Goethe’s Act V. Faust and Mephistopheles have solved the financial problems of an extravagant Emperor by issuing paper money. After many events, including the episode with Helen of Troy, Faust is rewarded for his service of the Emperor in securing the defeat of the latter’s enemy by the grant of his own fiefdom, land to be reclaimed from the sea and for the full possession of which he has the aged Philemon and Baucis murdered, their house burnt down. Schumann’s chosen scene sees four grey old women enter, Want, Guilt, Need and Care, figures who seem to suggest Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth. The last of these four makes her way into the palace, through the key-hole. Faust has heard the word Need (Not) which chimes with Death (Tod) and is now confronted by Care (Sorge), whose words he rejects. She breathes on him and he is blinded, but light still shines within, in his mind. He bids his people set to the work he has ordered, with spade and shovel. The final scene of Schumann’s second part is set in the great outer court of the palace, by torch-light. Here Mephistopheles summons the Lemures, maleficent spirits of the dead, sung by boys’ voices, telling them to dig a grave. Faust, an old man again, gropes his way out of the palace, hearing the sound of their work and imagining that his men are building locks and dykes, to drain the land of his demesne. Taking delight in this, his highest moment, he sinks back into the arms of the Lemures, who lay him on the ground. Mephistopheles comments on Faust’s endless search, now seeing this greybeard lying on the sand. He declares that all is now accomplished (Es ist vollbracht).
The third and major part of Schumann’s work is Faust’s Transfiguration. The scene is set amid mountain gorges, forest, cliffs and wilderness. Holy anchorites, living amid the rocks on the mountainside, describe the place, their voices echoing. Pater Ecstaticus, floating above and below, calls on the ecstasy of divine love in a tenor solo, followed by the bass, Pater Profundus, in the depths, calling for the holy fire to bring light to his heart. Pater Seraphicus, a baritone solo, from the middle region, welcomes a choir of holy boys, taking them into his own spirit as they soar higher, in joy. Angels, hovering above in the higher sphere, bear all that is immortal of Faust, triumphantly declaring him saved. Younger angels bring flowers and more perfect angels carry the remains of Faust. The younger angels feel a spirit near and see the blest boys, who receive Faust’s immortal remains, as it were a soul’s chrysalis. In the highest, purest region Doctor Marianus, in a baritone solo, sings of the Queen of Heaven, to whom a chorus of penitent women make their pleas, joined by Magna Peccatrix (Great Sinner), the Samaritan woman and Mary of Egypt and leading to the prayers of a penitent, once called Gretchen, helped by the Mater Gloriosa. The work ends with a final chorus, set for two choirs and soloists, for which Schumann provided a second version, Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis (All that is transient is only a parable) and the closing lines: Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan (The eternal feminine leads us above).
Schumann never heard a performance of all his Szenen aus Goethes Faust, the third part of which had been performed at the Goethe centenary celebrations of 1849 in Dresden, Leipzig and Weimar. The whole work was first given in 1862 in Cologne, six years after Schumann’s death.
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