Program Notes: The Damnation of Faust

Updated: Apr 29

Friday, March 13, 2020, at 8:00PM

Saturday, March 14, 2020, at 8:00PM


Stéphane Denève, conductor

Isabel Leonard, soprano (Marguerite)

Michael Spyres, tenor (Faust)

John Relyea, bass (Méphistophélès)

Anthony Clark Evans, baritone (Brander)

St. Louis Symphony Chorus

Amy Kaiser, director

The St. Louis Children’s Choirs

Barbara Berner, artistic director


BERLIOZ La damnation de Faust, op. 24 (The Damnation of Faust)

Hector Berlioz

HECTOR BERLIOZ

Born December 11, 1803, La Côte-Saint-André, France

Died March 8, 1869, Paris, France


The Damnation of Faust


The story of Faust might appear far away from us. First, it is very old: a dusty folk-tale first written down 500 years ago. Second, it feels distant from our lived experience: a wager between a scholar and the devil results in tragic love, a lost soul.


But look closer. Here is the war between reason and religion. Here is the war between the mind and the senses. Here is a character we know: a weak man who thinks he is better than the world, who thirsts for power, who exploits a woman only to leave her for dead.


Look even closer. The music of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust sounds newly minted, surprising us with new genres, new sounds. His orchestra can sound like a gust of wind or horses hooves or the shrieks of hell. His chorus can play farmers, angels, alcoholics, and demons.


Faust

The story is simple. A scholar makes a deal with the devil: sensual pleasures in exchange for his everlasting soul.


The first Faust stories were told in the 16th century. At the time, old thinking was being challenged—magic by science, religion by humanism—and the Faust tales put these issues front and center.


Two centuries later, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe made his own version. Goethe was Europe’s most famous author, an angry young man whose work resisted rationalism and celebrated the individual.


Faust took Goethe five decades to complete. An atheist, Goethe’s play is not a pious morality tale, but a fascinating mix of tragedy and comedy, with some religion and philosophy thrown into the mix.


Berlioz

Berlioz was addicted. “I could not put [Goethe’s Faust] down,” he recalled. “I read it constantly, at meals, at the theater, in the street, everywhere.”


He must have recognized himself in Goethe’s lost scholar. Berlioz shared some of Faust’s idealism, alienation, desires, loves, nature-worship. Goethe’s play became “a silent confidant of my suffering,” holding “the key to my life.”


Berlioz made his first musical attempt at Faust in his twenties, composing a collection of eight scenes. This work was quickly withdrawn, and it was not until his forties that Berlioz felt ready to craft Faust into a coherent whole.


The task engulfed him. He wrote while sipping coffee at a cafe, while wandering through gardens, while battling foot traffic on busy streets. One day he followed an army regiment down a city street, trying to capture their sounds, and ended up on the wrong train.


Berlioz crafted his own text, shaping Part I of Goethe’s Faust into a uniquely personal creation. Berlioz’s Faust is something of a pitiful creature, not worthy of redemption. The demon Mephistopheles is a chameleon: alternately terrifying, comic, seductive.


Marguerite doesn’t appear until two-thirds of the way through Berlioz’s work. Although she is little more than a plaything for Faust and Méphistophélès, she does inspire some of Berlioz’s most radiantly beautiful music.


Fusion

Berlioz spent his career experimenting. With each new work he changed his approach, reinventing genres along the way. Damnation was composed for the concert hall, but fuses many musical worlds. First, opera. As a teenager, Berlioz obsessively attended opera in Paris, drawn by the dramas on display. He loaded Damnation with nail-biting scenes that would be at home in the opera house.


Second, symphony. In his twenties, Berlioz heard Beethoven’s symphonies, an earthquake with lifelong aftershocks. Damnation—always intended to be a concert work—reaches for the complexity and experimentation of Beethoven’s orchestral music.


Third, oratorio. Damnation’s chorus (a seven-part adult choir and children’s choir) has a dominant role in the drama. They play farmers, demons, angels, soldiers, students, fairies, merrymakers, and everyday city-folk. They sustain beautiful lines, hurl fury, sing a drunken fugue, shout with terror.


Fourth, songs. As a teenager, Berlioz learned to write music through the composition of dozens of mélodies, songs for voice and piano. At the heart of Damnation are varied songs for voice and orchestra: radiant celebrations of nature, moving evocations of love, funny folk-ditties.


Reinvention

Berlioz reinvented the orchestra. At a time of technological change for instruments, he was fascinated by every new gadget, every new approach to playing. In fact, while working on Damnation, Berlioz published an influential book on orchestration.


Damnation’s orchestra creates scenic effects. Strings become horse’s hoofs and wind gusts. Piccolos cascade and shriek, bassoons sway like drunkards. Trumpets herald soldiers with fanfares, trombones signal darkness. Basses and cellos pull us into hell’s chasm.


Instruments also paint characters. Faust the scholar is introduced in his study with an academic musical form: the fugue. The demon Méphistophélès is conjured by a hair-raising string effect called sul ponticello and the sound of trombones, the signature of the underworld. Marguerite’s arias are accompanied by throaty, soulful instruments: in one a solo viola, in another an English horn.


Berlioz pushed instruments to their limits. A horn player told Berlioz during rehearsals that he had written a note “which does not exist,” resulting in “a sort of sneeze like nothing on earth, an impossible din.” Berlioz replied, “that is exactly what I want.”


The story

Each of Damnation’s four parts begins with some hope and ends in disappointment. Each begins with an individual and expands to the crowd. Below, italics are descriptions and locations from Damnation’s score.


[Goethe’s Faust begins with a Prologue. God and a demon called Méphistophélès agree to a bet: Mephistopheles will try to tempt Faust, God’s favorite human, from the path of goodness.]


Part 1: The plains of Hungary. Faust alone at dawn. Faust, a medieval scholar, contemplates the beauty of nature, observes the joy of local villagers and the anticipation of soldiers, but remains unhappy.


Part 2: North Germany. Back in his study, Faust contemplates suicide. Easter Hymn. Struck by the memory of hymn-singing choirs, he has hope. Mephistopheles enters, offering to “delight your eyes and ears.”


A cellar in Leipzig: Méphistophélès brings Faust to a raucous bar, but Faust is unmoved. Meadows on the banks of the river Elbe. They visit a fantastical garden, and in a dream, Faust lusts after a woman. Students and soldiers march towards the town. Faust and Méphistophélès follow this group to the dream-woman’s town.


Part 3: Evening in Marguerite’s room. Faust has snuck into Marguerite’s room. A street in front of Marguerite’s home. Méphistophélès conjures spirits to force Marguerite to love Faust. Marguerite enters her room, discovers Faust. The two sing a love duet. Méphistophélès interrupts: Marguerite’s mother has learned of the tryst. Méphistophélès and Faust flee.


Part 4: Marguerite’s room. Marguerite has been rejected by Faust. Forests and caves. Faust, alone, finds solace in nature. Méphistophélès brings news: Marguerite has accidentally poisoned her mother with Faust’s sleeping potion, and she will be hanged. To save Marguerite, Faust gives his soul to Méphistophélès. The Ride to the Abyss—Faust and Méphistophélès on black horses. Faust believes they will visit Marguerite, but Méphistophélès takes him directly to hell. On earth. Angels welcome Marguerite to heaven.


First performance: December 6, 1846, at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, France

First SLSO performance: November 20, 1936, Vladimir Golschmann conducting, with Rose Bampton, Paul Althouse, Chase Baromeo as soloists (bass/Brander soloist not recorded)

Most recent SLSO performance: April 18, 2009, David Zinman conducting, with Katherine Rohrer, Matthew Polenzani, Kyle Ketelsen, and Eric Owens as soloists

Scoring: Solo mezzo-soprano (Marguerite), tenor (Faust), bass-baritone (Mephistopheles), and bass (Brander), mixed chorus, children’s choir, 3 flutes (all doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (both doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, 4 timpani, bass drum, chimes, cymbals, snare drum, tam tam, triangle, 2 harps, strings

Performance time: Approximately 2 hours and 16 minutes


Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly-behaved orange cat.


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