The Damnation of Faust and the Ascension of Berlioz

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Hector Berlioz.
Hector Berlioz.

Charles Dutoit conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Hector Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, Dramatic Legend in four parts, op. 24

Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano (Marguerite)
Paul Groves, tenor (Faust)
Sir Willard White, bass-baritone (Méphistophélès)
Christopher Feigum, baritone (Brander)
Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver, conductor
PALS Children’s Chorus, Andy Icochea Icochea, artistic director

Koussevitzky Music Shed, Saturday, July 28

The paradox of Berlioz is that he is both quintessentially of the nineteenth-century and in many ways far ahead of his time. Grandiose, self-absorbed, at home in both Heaven and Hell (well, perhaps a bit more in Hell), operating on the largest temporal and spatial canvases, bringing together mammoth forces to speak in one voice; but also episodic and arbitrary in construction, harmonically idiosyncratic and technically suspect, bombastic, addicted to overwhelming sound spectaculars, in short, in questionable taste; in these ways he epitomizes Romanticism. All of these characteristics of his music have been noticed and pondered in attempts to come up with an evaluation of this unavoidable maverick, a figure whose closest counterpart in his own time might be Mussorgsky, or in ours, Charles Ives. Today, with post-modernism, mash-ups, the valuing of discontinuity and fragmentary statements, Berlioz rides high. He is seen as a predecessor to the liberation of tone color as an independent element of construction, as in the music of Debussy. In the past, when polished craftsmanship and solid structure were primary virtues, critics often looked askance at Berlioz’s bulky, generically ambiguous compositions. Today, we recognize the uniqueness of his vision [1].

Take the Damnation of Faust: is it a symphony, oratorio, or opera? The possible answer is that it is either some kind of hybrid or something new altogether. It tells and partially reenacts its story but was not intended to be presented with scenery. Despite this, the Metropolitan Opera offered a scenic production several seasons ago that was quite successful, with considerable assistance from digital projection technology. I incline to the view that Berlioz was inventing a new form of musical-literary narrative, one that should not be seen as aligned with or similar to Wagnerian music-drama. Next to Berlioz, Wagner’s works are indubitably operas, belonging on operatic stages with singers in costumes and scenery, however minimal. Berlioz’s Damnation (along with Romeo and Juliet and even the Requiem) belong on the concert stage, where the scenic aspect is left to the theater of the imagination.

In these last two Tanglewood seasons, Charles Dutoit has presented two great Berlioz canvases that could be considered as a monumental pair: last summer, the Grande Messe des Morts (see my discussion in Berkshire Review, and now, the Damnation. As before, the Tanglewood Festival Choir, here joined by the PALS Children’s Chorus, performed the extensive choral part from memory. The important solo vocal roles were given exemplary renditions by singers who seemed ideally suited to them, and once again, the over-sized festival environment of the Shed seemed uniquely suitable. While the Requiem depicts and explores the spatial dimensions of Heaven and Hell, Faust focuses on the realm in between, the ordinary experiences of earthly life, told from the perspective of a protagonist who has become alienated from them. In that sense, Berlioz’s Faust is not the same as Goethe’s or any other version; it is really the composer’s own interpretation.

The performance by the BSO under Dutoit underscored the extent to which the music does not so much illustrate the story as the story provides a framework for a musical expression of general human experiences. It begins with Faust in nature, music providing a seductive backdrop for Faust’s expressions of regret that he cannot respond, despite the fact that we as an audience can. This dynamic continues with the music of soldiers and heros, the “Rakoczky” March which builds gradually to a splendid climax, with a less grotesque, more humane portrait of human force than the “Marche au Supplice” from Symphonie Fantastique. The BSO performance benefited from the presence of a euphonium, a low brass instrument that was ultimately replaced by the tuba, but with a distinctive coarse, growly sound of its own. Berlioz scores it at first gently, then with gathering force to replicate the experience of hearing it as it approaches, and then as it gives off its full power up close [2].

Faust's Dream by August von Kreling.
Faust’s Dream by August von Kreling.

Unlike other Fausts, Berlioz’s protagonist does not seek knowledge of the cosmos or wish to revel in earthly pleasures. The encounter with dark forces is not initiated by him, and he does not respond until the possibility of love appears in the dream conjured by Méphistophélès. Faust is neither the philosophical inquirer nor the sensual reveler, and it his innocent quest for love that earns him damnation, thanks to trickery. His impulsive nature and credulity (or naïveté) determine his fate. In this sense, he is a parallel figure to Verdi’s Otello. The music of the Auerbach’s cellar scene, particularly Méphistophélès’s drinking song, provides a startling foreshadowing of Iago’s “Brindisi” scene in the first act of Otello, making me suddenly wonder about Verdi’s knowledge of Berlioz, and particularly of this score. (There are parallels between the characters of Méphistophélès and Iago. Since Verdi’s librettist Arrigo Boïto had written of his own Faust opera entitled Mefistofele (1868), it is plausible to surmise that Boïto may already have been familiar with Berlioz’s work.)

Faust's Vision of Marguerite by August von Kreling.
Faust’s Vision of Marguerite by August von Kreling.

At any rate, Berlioz’s devilish emissary once again seduces the audience with the simple pleasures of wine and song, but Faust is only interested in woman, only one: Marguerite, whom this Méphistophélès introduces to him in a dream. And unlike Goethe’s Faust-and-Gretchen encounter, this one lasts but a few moments before Faust is snatched away. There follow a few more new plot twists that lead Faust to Hell, once again duped by Méphistophélès, while Marguerite gets to Heaven through the intercession of the angelic voices of the chorus. The purpose of these final scenes and appendices is to expand the spatial dimension of the drama from earthly scenes to those of the beyond, in both directions.

Our feelings for the protagonists are much cooler than in romantic opera; Marguerite, as portrayed by the magnificent Susan Graham, generated the most sympathy, but Faust, well-sung by Paul Groves, came off as naïve rather than worldly-wise, one who shows no appetite for plumbing nature’s secrets, and who is rather easily duped by the arch-trickster. As in operas, the Devil upstages everyone else, and Sir Willard White enjoyed doing so thoroughly; his character was the closest to a true operatic figure, stepping out from behind the scrim of Berlioz’s dream-scape and Faust’s alienation into a palpable hear-and-now.

Charles Dutoit.
Charles Dutoit.

In the days of Berlioz’s exile from critical approval, such inconsistencies might have been thought defects; but in such a commanding performance as Dutoit’s, all the elements and levels of dramatic action flowed irresistibly together, validating more recent perceptions of Berlioz as sui generis regarding both musical style and dramatic vision. A few days ago, I switched on the car radio, catching a couple of bars of dramatic orchestral music that sounded completely familiar; but I was momentarily disoriented. In a fraction of a second there flashed through my mind the names of the following composers: Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky…no, wait! its Berlioz! In fact, it was a passage from the “Marche au Supplice.” Berlioz’s strikingly direct use of the orchestra and his tonal originality simply seem to be about a century ahead of his own time. Even though he epitomizes a Romantic sensibility, he does so like no one else. His imagination was always sparked by literature, but he chose inspiration that would let loose a flow of musical emotions and thoughts, not to illustrate the words, but to show us the music that the words were attempting to describe all along.

[1] In Jacques Barzun’s commemorative article about him in 1970, he attributes the modern re-appraisal of Berlioz, in part, to the invention of the LP record, and mentions The Damnation of Faust as the first example of a work that was now finally accessible in its entirety. See “Berlioz One Hundred Years After,” in The Musical Quarterly, vol. 56 no. 1, Jan. 1970, pp. 1-13.

[2] This spatial effect, also found in the “Marche au Supplice” and in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhition (the section entitled “Bydlo”) became characteristic of a sub-genre of marches called “patrol,” as in Sousa’s American Patrol. Arvo Pärt put a new spin on this genre in his popular work Fratres.

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