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Memoirs chapter 36
I must also mention among the remarkable incidents of my life the strange and deep impression I experienced on reading for the first time Goethe’s Faust in the French translation of Gérard de Nerval. The wonderful work fascinated me from the start; I could not put it down, but read it constantly, during meals, at the theatre, in the streets and everywhere.
This prose translation contained a few passages in verse: songs, hymns etc. I yielded to the temptation of setting them to music, and hardly had I completed this difficult task, and without having heard a single note of my score, I was foolish enough to have it published… at my own expense. A few copies of this work which was published in Paris under the title Eight Scenes from Faust circulated in this way. One of them reached the hands of M. Marx, the celebrated critic and theorist in Berlin, who was kind enough to send me an encouraging letter on the subject. This unhoped-for encouragement from Germany caused me great pleasure, as you can imagine; but it did not deceive me for long on the numerous and huge shortcomings of this work, the ideas of which still seem to me to have merit, as I have preserved and developed them in a very different way in my legend on The Damnation of Faust, but which briefly speaking was incomplete and rather badly written. As soon as I had made up my mind on this point, I lost no time in collecting as many if the copies of the Eight Scenes from Faust that I could find and I destroyed them.
I recall now that in my first concert I had included the piece for six voices called Concert des Sylphes. It was sung by six students from the Conservatoire, and made no impression at all. It was found to be meaningless, the whole piece seemed vague, cold and totally devoid of melody. Eighteen years later this same piece, slightly modified in its orchestration and modulations, has become the favourite piece of many an audience in Europe. I have never performed it in St Petersburg, Moscow, Berlin, London or Paris without the audience calling for it to be encored. The design now appears perfectly clear and the melody exquisite. It is true that I have now assigned it to a chorus. Unable to find six good solo singers I chose instead to have eighty choristers; the idea shines out, the shape and colour become clear, and it is three times as effective […].
Memoirs chapter 54
[…] It was during this trip to Austria, Hungary, Bohemia and Silesia that I started composing my legend of Faust, the plan of which I had been pondering for a long time. As soon as I resolved to undertake it, I had to settle for writing myself most of the libretto as well; the fragments of the French translation of Goethe’s Faust by Gérard de Nerval, which I had already set to music twenty years before [in the Huit scènes de Faust], and which I intended to include in the new score in a revised version, and two or three other scenes which had been written before my departure from Paris by M. Gandonnière following my instructions, did not add up to one-sixth of the entire work.
During the journey in the old German stage-coach, I therefore tried to write the verses intended for my music. I started with Faust’s invocation to nature, without attempting to translate or even imitate Goethe’s masterpiece, but only to draw inspiration from it and to extract the musical substance that it contained. I wrote the following piece which gave me the hope that I would manage to write the rest:
Nature immense, impénétrable et fière!
Toi seule donnes trêve à mon ennui sans fin!
Sur ton sein tout-puissant je sens moins ma misère,
Je retrouve ma force et je crois vivre enfin.
Oui, soufflez ouragans, criez, forêts profondes,
Croulez rochers, torrents précipitez vos ondes!
A vos bruits souverains, ma voix aime à s’unir.
Forêts, rochers, torrents, je vous adore! mondes
Qui scintillez, vers vous s’élance le désir
D’un cœur trop vaste et d’une âme altérée
D’un bonheur qui la fuit.
Once I had started I wrote the remaining verses as the musical ideas came to me, and I composed the score with an ease that I have rarely experienced with my other works. I wrote whenever I was able to, on coaches, on trains, on steam boats, and even during my stay in cities, despite the various obligations which arose from the concerts I was giving. It was in this way that I wrote the introduction in an inn at Passau, on the borders of Bavaria:
Le vieil hiver a fait place au printemps
in Vienna I composed the scene on the banks of the Elbe, Mephistopheles’ aria:
Voici des roses
and the dance of the Sylphs. I have already related the circumstances, also in Vienna, in which I wrote the march on the Hungarian Rákóczy theme [see below]. The extraordinary impact this piece had in Pesth led me to introduce it in my Faust: I took the liberty of bringing my hero to Hungary at the start of the action, as he witnesses a Hungarian army marching across the plain where he wanders lost in his dreams. A German critic found it very odd that I made Faust travel to such a place. I do not see why I should not have done so, and I would not have had the slightest hesitation in taking him anywhere else, had this benefited my score in any way. I had not bound myself to following Goethe’s plan, and the most far-fetched travels can easily be ascribed to someone like Faust without transgressing the bounds of plausibility. Some other German critics later picked up this strange argument and attacked me with even greater vehemence for the changes made to the text and plan of Gœthe’s Faust in my libretto (as though there were not other settings of Faust than Goethe’s [in a footnote: For example Marlow’s Doctor Faustus, and Spohr’s opera: neither resembles Gœthe’s work], and as though such a poem could be set to music in its entirety, without upsetting the poet’s scheme). I made the mistake of replying to them in the preface to the Damnation of Faust. I have often wondered why these same critics have not made any objection to the libretto of my Romeo and Juliet symphony, which hardly resembles the immortal tragedy! It is probably because Shakespeare is not a German. Patriotism! Fetishism! Idiocy!
In Pesth, one evening when I had lost my way in the city, I wrote the choral refrain of the Ronde des paysans by the gaslight of a shop.
In Prague I got up in the middle of the night to write down a melody which I was afraid of forgetting, the chorus of angels in Marguerite’s apotheosis
Remonte au ciel, âme naïve
Que l’amour égara.
In Breslau I wrote the words and the music of the Latin song of the students:
Jam nox stellata velamina pandit.
Back in France, while spending a few days near Rouen at the country house of M. le baron de Montville, I composed the great trio:
Ange adoré dont la céleste image.
The rest was written in Paris, but always at unexpected times, at home, at the café, in the Tuileries garden, and even on a milestone in the Boulevard du Temple. I did not look for ideas, I let them come, and they occurred in the most random sequence. When at last the outline of the score was complete, I reworked the whole, polished up the different parts, and sought to unify the work by blending them together, with as much obstinacy and patience as I am able to muster, and completed the orchestration which was only sketched in parts. I consider this to be one of my best works; up to now the general public seems to share my view.
But writing the work was nothing, I had to get it heard, and this is where my problems and disappointments began. Copying the orchestral and vocal parts cost me a fortune; then the numerous rehearsals which I required from the players and the exorbitant fee of 1600 francs which I had to pay for the hire of the hall of the Opéra-Comique, the only hall available to me at the time, committed me to an enterprise which was bound to ruin me. But I went ahead, comforted by a specious reasoning which anyone in my position would have made. “When I performed for the first time Romeo and Juliet at the Conservatoire, I said to myself, such was the eagerness of the public to come and hear it that tickets had to be issued for the corridors to accommodate the overflow of the audience in the hall; and despite the huge costs of the performance I made a small profit. Since this time my reputation among the public has grown, the echo of my successes abroad has bestowed on it an authority in France that it did not have before; the subject of Faust is as famous as that of Romeo, it is generally believed that I find it congenial and that I must have treated it well. Everything therefore encourages the belief that there will be great interest in hearing the new work, which is on a grander scale and more varied in tone than its predecessors, and that at least I should cover the expenses I am incurring…” Vain hope! Years had passed since the first performance of Romeo and Juliet, during which the indifference of the Parisian public for everything to do with arts and literature had progressed beyond belief. At that time already public interest had waned, particularly when a musical work was involved, and there was no desire to go and spend the day (I was unable to give my concerts in the evening) in the hall of the Opéra-Comique, which the fashionable public does not frequent in any case. It was late November (1846), it was snowing, the weather was dreadful; I did not have a popular singer for the part of Marguerite; as for Roger, who sang Faust, and Herman Léon, who took the part of Mephistopheles, they could be heard every day in the same theatre, and they were not fashionable either. The result was that I performed Faust twice before a half-empty hall. The concert-going public of Paris, which is supposed to be interested in music, quietly stayed at home, showing as little interest in my new score as if I had been the most obscure student from the Conservatoire; the audience at those two performances at the Opéra-Comique was no larger than if the most trivial opera in its repertory was being performed.
Nothing in my artistic career hurt me more deeply than this unexpected indifference. It was a painful discovery, but it was at least salutary, in that I learnt from it, and from then on I have not gambled even twenty francs on the popularity of my music with the Parisian public. […]
Memoirs, Second visit to Germany, Third letter to M. Humbert Ferrand
[…] Among the works on the programme [of a concert at Pesth in February 1846] was the march which now serves as the finale of Part I of my legend of Faust. It had been written the night before I left for Hungary. A Viennese music-lover, well acquainted with the ways of the country I was about to visit, had come to see me a few days earlier with a volume of old tunes. "If you want to please the Hungarians, he said, write a piece on one of their national themes; they will be delighted, and on your return you will tell me about their Elien (hurrahs) and their applause. Here is a collection from which you can choose." I followed the advice and chose the Rákóczy theme, on which I wrote the grand march which you know.
Hardly had news of this new piece of hony music spread in Pesth that imaginations began to stir with nationalist fervour. People wondered how I would have treated this celebrated and almost sacred theme, which for many years has stirred Hungarian hearts and filled them with a passion for liberty and glory. There was even some anxiety about it, and they feared a profanation… Far from being offended by these misgivings, I admired them. They were actually all too justified by a mass of miserable pots-pourris and arrangements, where tunes that deserve to be treated with the utmost respect are subjected to dreadful outrage. It could also have been the case that several Hungarian music-lovers had witnessed in Paris the vandalism with which our immortal Marseillaise is outrageously dragged in the musical gutter at our national festivals!
Eventually one of them, M. Horvath, the chief editor of a Hungarian newspaper, could not contain his curiosity. He went to see the publisher who was assisting me in the organisation of the concert, found out the address of the copyist whose job was to extract the orchestral parts from the full score of my work, lost no time in paying him a visit, asked for my manuscript and studied it carefully. This did not satisfy M. Horvath, and the next day he could not conceal his worry from me.
— I have seen your score of the Rákóczy march, he said.
— Well, I am worried.
— You state our theme piano, while on the contrary we are used to hearing it played fortissimo.
— Yes, by your gypsies. Is that all you are worried about? Rest assured, you will get a forte such as you have never heard in your life. You have not read the piece properly. In everything always consider the end.
On the day of the concert I felt all the same a certain tightening of the throat when the time came to produce this devil of a piece. After a trumpet flourish based on the opening bars of the theme, the march appears, as you recall, played piano by flutes and clarinets, with a pizzicato accompaniment on the strings. The audience stayed quiet and silent at this unexpected opening. But when, over a long crescendo, fragments of the theme reappeared in a fugato, punctuated by muffled notes on the bass drum simulating distant cannon-fire, the hall began to seethe with an indescribable sound, and when the orchestra erupted in a furious mêlée and hurled forth the long-contained fortissimo, shouts and stamping such as I had never heard shook the hall. The concentrated fury of all these incandescent souls exploded with a vehemence which shook me with terror; I felt my hair standing on end, and from this fatal bar I had to say farewell to the peroration of my piece, as the storm in the orchestra was unable to compete with this volcanic eruption which nothing could stop. We had to start again, as you can imagine; the second time round the public hardly managed to contain itself for two or three seconds longer to hear a few bars of the coda. M. Horvath was gesticulating in his box like one possessed; I could not help laughing as I glanced at him as though to say: “Well, are you still worried? Are you pleased with your forte?” Thank goodness I had placed the Rakôczy-indulo at the end of the concert (that is the name of the piece in Hungarian), as anything one might have wanted to play after would have been lost.
I was violently shaken, as you can imagine, after such a storm; I was wiping my brow in a small room behind the theatre when there was a striking after-shock of the emotional scenes in the hall. This is what happened: a poorly dressed man suddenly entered my room, his face strangely agitated; at my sight he threw himself on me, embraced me wildly, his eyes filled with tears, and it was with difficulty that he mumbled a few words:
“Ah! Sir, sir! me poor Hungarian… poor devil… not speak French… un poco l’italiano… Forgive… my excitement… Ah! understood your cannon… Yes, yes… big battle… German dogs!” Then beating his breast violently with his fist: “In my heart I… carry you… Ah! Frenchman… revolutionary… know how to write music for revolutions.”
I will not attempt to describe the man’s terrible state of excitement, his tears, the gnashing of his teeth; it was almost terrifying, it was sublime!
As you can imagine, my dear Humbert, after this the Rákóczy-indulo was an obligatory item on every concert, and always with the same result. When I left I even had to donate to the city of Pesth my manuscript which they wanted to keep, a copy of which I received in Breslau a month later. Nowadays it is performed in Hungary on special occasions. But here I must warn M. Erkel the Kapellmeister that since then I have made several changes in the orchestration of this piece, by adding to the coda some thirty bars which, I think, add to the effect. I will gladly send him the revised score with its corrections and additions, as soon as my publisher will allow me. […]
* (Note dated 6 March 1861) I have just posted this score to Hungary. A few weeks ago a society of young Hungarians sent me a silver crown of exquisite workmanship, with these words inscribed on the coat-of-arms of the city of Györ (Raab in German): To Hector Berlioz the youth of Györ. This gift was accompanied by a letter [see Hector Berlioz: Correspondance Générale volume VI no. 2531], to which I made the following reply:
I have received your handsome present and the flattering letter which came with it. I am deeply touched by this mark of friendship from a country for which I have the fondest memories. The impact of my work is probably due to the feelings which your national theme stirs in you, which must lead you to life (in your own poetic phrase). Virgil’s words apply to you:
..........................................Furor iraque mentes
Praecipitant, pulchrumque mori succurrit in armis.
But if you have found in my music even a spark of the fire which stirs noble Hungarian souls, I must consider myself fortunate and regard this as one of the rarest successes that an artist can obtain.
Receive, Gentlemen, together with the expression of my gratitude, my cordial greetings.
14 February 1861.
The Damnation of Faust (commentary and scores)
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© Michel Austin for the English translation. All rights of reproduction reserved.