A work as abstract as it is visionary, a symphony as much as an oratorio, La Damnation de Faust raises some universally philosophical questions out of the deepest recesses of romantic legend. Berlioz himself, a composer grappling with his work and haunted by the question of creation, provided La Damnation de Faust with a score as fascinating as it is demanding.
A visionary score
Even before Wagner, Berlioz had the vision of an invisible theatre. With La Damnation de Faust, he contemplated a form of art that strived to distance itself ever further from story-telling, instead placing a powerful – and highly abstract – faith in humanity ahead of the narration. The composer puts Man at the centre of his art and not the story. Of course, Marguerite and Faust are there, but beyond that lies the human desire to control nature, to experience divinity. This creative side of man naturally corresponds to Berlioz who, just as in the Symphonie fantastique, identifies with the work’s central figure. Each part of La Damnation de Faust is a different illustration of this examination of creation: nature, science, but also pleasure, perfect love and divinity – which Faust praises in the invocation to nature. In other words, Berlioz chooses to portray Man in four different ways which he condenses into the character of Faust. Between Earth, Heaven and Hell, Man passes from the most primal of needs to the most incandescent of spiritual quests. The subject in itself is not dramatic, which is why Berlioz sought a different form and why he subtitled his work A dramatic legend in four parts. This is a vocal symphony but also a drama—the imaginary vision of a subject too human to be truly narrated.
A genius of orchestration
Berlioz is to orchestration what Mozart was to melody, Beethoven to form and Bach to counterpoint. A symphony is something of a visionary work. It is abstract music. Berlioz launched into the genre with gusto, but not without questioning its link with the text – most notably through the invention of the symphonic poem (La Damnation de Faust cultivates some very strong connections with them: Lelio, and even more so Romeo and Juliet). In Berlioz's exploration of orchestral sonorities there lies a desire to play with extremes. The composer is equally at home portraying the simplicity of nature at the beginning of “La Damnation” as the martial character of the Hungarian march or the hellish Pandemonium at the work’s climax– with the four bassoons joined by the ophicleide and the racing violins marking that headlong rush into the abyss – and in the same work demonstrating a fluidity and sensitivity in Marguerite’s aria that are reminiscent of his Nuits d’été cycle. The sul ponticello he uses to accompany Mephistopheles or the treatment of the Menuet des follets for three piccolos – truly modern for the times and which must have unsettled listeners – shows to what extent Berlioz was able to find complexity hidden in extraordinary simplicity.
Like Beethoven, Berlioz’s vocal compositions had an instrumental character that made them relatively difficult to sing. The chorus is treated in a rather complex way whilst corresponding well to the treatment of orchestral voices. Berlioz gives unprecedented precision to the nuances – in this regard he was even more “punctilious” than Wagner: he could go as far as using pppp in the pianissimi which was totally new at the time. In fact, Berlioz's orchestral composition explores the extremes to set the universe reverberating. As such, the legend of Faust was a natural choice. This genius of orchestration went on to influence Liszt and Wagner, indeed, Liszt’s Faust Symphony could not have existed without La Damnation de Faust.
Scenes from Faust
The Faust legend has often been revisited by musicians and, from one interpretation to another, a comparison of the different visions of Goethe’s work offers interesting perspectives. Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, for example, are a sort of German reflection of La Damnation de Faust: during the same period, we find a similar type of orchestration, misunderstood by musicians and public alike. Schumann, like Berlioz, chose different scenes in the work, hence the explicit title: Scenes from Goethe’s Faust. While the two works may seem similar it is clear that two different cultures are at play: The French composer has a highly dramatic vision of things, whereas with Schumann, it is the humanist aspect that stands out—and that is much closer to the second part of Goethe’s Faust. For Schumann, redemption is more important than in the French vision, which by nature has more of a Latin and Catholic sensibility. For Schumann, Mephistopheles is a very dark, sombre character, whereas Berlioz and Boito both set aside some comic scenes for the flamboyant character. Schumann refuses to make us laugh. In the 20th century, Busoni manages to bring together all of these aspects in his own Doktor Faust. With Gounod, on the other hand, the central subject is Marguerite. In this case it is less about questioning human existence than recounting a story. Conversely, with Berlioz, when Faust invokes nature at the end of the work, it is the result of an exploration of the greater universe, as opposed to a focus on creation that his first words implied. It is no longer a simple, immediately accessible nature, but a much larger, more profound spiritual quest in which the character of Marguerite is finally forgotten.
Just as the invocation of this “immense nature” changes as the character develops, La Damnation de Faust leads the listener forward in a subtle and unremitting crescendo, towards an ever-greater unity. The end result brings sense to the abstraction of a work composed of disparate scenes which through this inherent complexity acquires a quality and a depth which in my view makes it one of Berlioz’s most interesting.
Philippe Jordan is Musical Director of the Paris Opera.