Sunday, June 23, 2019

Essay about Faust

I decided that I needed to know more about Faust. We are hitting only the highlights. To get an idea of how big the influence of the Faust legend is see this list.  There are many, many works with this theme, more than I could possibly address.


I called the original Faust a German myth. Apparently others call it a legend. One reliable source (EB) says that the original Johann Georg Faust (c. 1480–1540) lived in the time of Martin Luther and practiced the dark arts of wizardry, magic and astrology. This is rather a different idea than Goethe’s Faust. The Faust legend became the subject of extensive theological discussion.  Martin Luther was concerned that Protestantism would become associated with the practices of Faust and fought hard against him.


Between 1589 and 1592 Christopher Marlowe wrote a play usually referred to as Doctor Faustus. Calling Faust Doctor Faustus means pretty much the same thing it does now.  He has advanced to the top of academia.  This is an interesting work where Faust gives up his soul in order to gain magical powers for a specified time period. He accomplishes nothing useful but uses his gifts to perform tricks for the nobility. He goes to hell when his time runs out. 

I don’t have to go into all the details. Clearly in this early period the subject matter of Faust’s knowledge and studies is significant. Marlowe’s play represents the Calvinist position where salvation is preordained. He is condemned for his magical practices and cannot be saved.

Mephistopheles was a folklore figure in the Faust legend. He becomes a stock character.  It's best seen as a play for special effects.  Marlowe establishes the idea that Faust gets his magic powers from the Devil.


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Faust part 1 and part 2 (1806-1832) was the next landmark in the life of this legend. Only part 1 is regularly staged.  It is regarded as a great monument of German literature.  For our purposes we will concern ourselves only with part 1.

It is Goethe who transforms the legend into something else.  Originally it is Faust himself who leads himself into darkness, perhaps with the devil's help, but not entirely.  In Goethe it is rather like the tale of Job where God challenges the Devil to lead his exemplary man to hell.  The Devil gives it his best shot.  Faust is a learned man but his studies are here regarded as good.  Mephistopheles enters into Faust's life as a dog who follows him home.

It is also Goethe who introduces Marguerite into the story.  We are to presume that Faust, the saintly scholar, is sexually inexperienced.  Here it becomes a transaction.  Faust may have anything he wants on earth, while the Devil alone has power in hell.  It is a witch who turns Faust into a young man.  Valentine, Marguerite's brother, first appears here.

Goethe's Marguerite donates Mephistopheles' jewels to the church, but is led to ruin anyway.  The Devil thinks Faust would be tempted by a Walpurgis Nacht.  Perhaps this links us back to the original legend where Faust is attracted to the dark arts.  Here he isn't.

The Marguerite story is extended through several scenes where she kills her mother, gives birth to Faust's child, kills her child and is sent to prison.  At the very end she prays for salvation and is saved.  This does not sound like a Calvinist perspective. The story of Faust continues into part 2.


It's after this that musicians become interested.  The first piece that has remained in the repertoire is Hector Berlioz' La damnation de Faust (1846).  This is intended to be a concert piece, but is often fully staged.  The prologue in heaven where God makes a bargain with the Devil does not appear.  Instead Faust is an old man who has become tired of life and wants to kill himself.  Méphistophélès appears and offers him something to live for.  They travel together to several locations, but Faust doesn't become interested until Marguerite enters the picture.

Berlioz focuses on Marguerite much like Goethe, but shows Faust's continuing interest in science in this aria. The presence of a love story makes it more suitable as an opera plot.  At the end Marguerite is saved but Faust goes to hell.  The musical style is fully romantic. 


The most famous of all the Faust operas is Charles Gounod's Faust (1859).  For about 50 years it was the most popular opera just about everywhere, but then it faded considerably.  Gounod's Faust summons the Devil to his study when after a long life in science, he finds that he has accomplished nothing and wants to kill himself.  Mephistopheles makes a bargain with Faust that he will show him something he cannot resist.  God's complicity in this bargain is not shown.  After changing him into a young man, the Devil takes Faust out to get drunk in a bar.  Faust is uninterested.  Marguerite is next.  The above aria is Faust's reaction to her.

This is my favorite aria from Gounod's Faust, sung here by my favorite baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, in the role of Marguerite's brother Valentin.  This is just before he leaves her to go off to war.  He gives responsibility for her to Siebel who appears only in this opera.


Here above we have the original version of "Diamonds are a girl's best friend."

The Walpurgis Nacht comes in the form of a ballet which is usually omitted.  Faust returns to Marguerite in her prison cell.  She is saved by an angel, but Faust continues on with Mephistopheles.  In the recent production from London he turns back into an old man.

We have wandered far from the original legend which concerned itself with Faust's interests as a scholar to the mere boredom of an old man who has accomplished nothing with his life.  The Met's attempt to drag it back by casting Faust as a nuclear scientist who regrets what he has spent his time doing.  We have the fully romantic music of one Faust and the story of another.

It is good to stop for a moment and point out the difference between Gounod and Goethe.  Goethe is clear that Faust the academic is a good man favored by God.  Gounod's Faust is just a bored old man.  The worst thing about this opera is the fact that both Faust and Valentin praise Marguerite for her chastity and purity.  Then Faust leads her into darkness with hardly a backward look.  Valentin abandons her.  She is saved in the end through God's grace.  This is seen as a Christian message because God can forgive anything.  Someone has pointed out to me that Gounod was a Catholic, and that we have here more of a Catholic perspective.


Not too long after Gounod's opera came Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele (1868).  I know this opera from glorious performances in San Francisco starring Samuel Ramey.  Boito restores Goethe's prologue in heaven where Mefistofele challenges God for the soul of his servant Faust.  It was a failure at its initial performance at La Scala, Milan.

Faust agrees to give up his soul in return for bliss on earth. The Marguerite part of the story is similar to Gounod, except in addition to killing her child, she poisons her mother.  She repents of her sins, and the angels save her.

At the end Mefistofele and Faust return to heaven for the final judgment.  Faust is saved.

I think it is the music which speaks against this opera, Boito's only composed opera.  Boito is almost modern in his style.  The contrast to Gounod's music is enormous.  The version with Samuel Ramey is highly recommended.  Without Ramey does it work at all?


Ferruccio Busoni in his Doktor Faust (1916–25) writes his own libretto in German.  This opera was presented at the San Francisco Opera in June, 2004.  I attended one of these performances and was completely confused.  Now that I see the plot description, I can understand why.   It was done as a regie production in modern dress in what appears to be a modern factory of some kind.  To add to the confusion Faust is a baritone and Mephistopheles is a tenor.

God is not involved.  Faust the academic is visited by mysterious figures who give him a book.  He follows the instructions in the book, draws a circle on the floor and summons the Devil.  Marguerite's brother is a character whom Faust kills, but she herself does not appear.  Clearly we have wandered far from Goethe but closer to Marlowe.

Faust appears as a magician at the court of the Duke of Parma where he seduces and elopes with the Duchess of Parma.  I can't imagine how this fits in with a factory.  At the end he performs some kind of magic trick where he falls dead and gives his life to another.  I think it would be necessary to study this extensively to have any hope of understanding what was going on.


It might be possible to regard Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (1951) as a Faust opera.  It's a bit of a stretch.  The Devil makes an appearance.

It has also been pointed out to me that Damn Yankees is also a Faust story.


R Daniel Evans said...

Please add the wonderful choral work by Schumann, written before the Berlioz version.
Thank you.

Bruce said...

back in high school, a great German teacher named Josef Trentacosta introduced my cohort to Goethe's Faust--I can almost still recite F's great opening monologue ("Habe nun acht!, philosophie...."). as I recall it, the issue for Faust himself when the devil arrives is that all the learning and accomplishments in the world still haven't fulfilled him; and Mephistopheles says, in effect, if I can get you to a moment when you want time to stop ("Stehe doch!, du bist so schoen!"), can I have your soul? sure, why not: thus two plays' worth of adventures--and the romance with Margueritte--until Faust is involved in reclaiming land from the sea in Holland--cutting-edge technology and development in Goethe's time--and Faust says it. and then through Margueritte's intervention, the devil is frustrated. one of the great works.

Bruce said...

PS we saw the Glyndebourne Faust a couple evenings ago--Berlioz--and it was a mess. Faust had become a 30-ish liberal arts junior faculty guy; and there were way too many people on stage at any one time. but the music is magnificent.

Dr.B said...

So then what is the point? I'm sure any 30-ish young man could go off and get into trouble all on his own.

Paul said...

Thanks for this essay -- very informative!

A number of other "Faust" operas apparently exist, including one by Ludwig Spohr [1816], primarily known for his violin concerti, and "Faust and Marguerite" [1855] by British composer Meyer Lutz (mostly known for his operettas a la G&S).

Dr.B said...

No offense intended, but I tend to write only about things I have seen myself. So no Schumann, Spohr, Lutz, etc. I should maybe learn about the Schumann even though it's not an opera.