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La Damnation de Faust: 3 Orchestral Pieces (H 111)

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Performance history
The 3 orchestral pieces

This page is also available in French


    As is the case with a several of Berlioz’s major works – the Requiem and les Troyens, among others – a long period elapsed between the initial conception of The Damnation of Faust (in 1828) and the eventual completion of the work (in 1846). In his Memoirs (chapter 26), Berlioz relates the deep impression made on him by his reading in 1828 of Goethe’s Faust in the translation by Gérard de Nerval: he was so fired by the work that he promptly set to music a series of scenes from it which he published immediately, at his own expense, under the title Eight Scenes from Faust. But he soon had second thoughts and tried to destroy every copy of the published work he could get hold of: in his view, it was ‘incomplete and badly written’. It was not an integrated work that progressed from beginning to end, but a collection of separate scenes. As for its incompleteness, while it had two scenes each for the leading characters (Marguerite and Mephistopheles) it did not include a single scene involving the central figure of Faust. Yet the work as it stood contained music of remarkable originality, and Berlioz judged correctly that it was worth preserving for future use.

    It was to be well over a decade before Berlioz returned to the subject. What prompted him to do so is a matter of conjecture, but it is likely that his first trip to Germany in 1842-43 played a role, as it brought him to the setting of the Faust legend and places associated with it, among them Weimar, where Berlioz was able to visit the houses of Goethe himself, and Leipzig with Auerbach’s celebrated Cellar. It seems also that Berlioz’s trip to Bonn in 1845 to witness the celebrations in honour of Beethoven helped to bring his thoughts back to the Faust legend. As he says in his Memoirs (chapter 54) while the work of composition took place during his second trip to Germany and central Europe (from October 1845 to April 1846) he had in fact been ‘pondering the plan of the new work for a long time’ and preparing the ground by commissioning additions to the libretto from the writer Almire Gandonnière in Paris. In the event he was forced to supplement the libretto himself in the course of his travels in central Europe (the libretto of the Damnation was thus in the end a composite work by three different writers, Gérard de Nerval [for the original Eight Scenes from Faust], Almire Gandonnière, and Berlioz himself). Most unusually Berlioz worked on the composition of the work while carrying out at the same time a large-scale conducting tour involving many concerts in central Europe, though the work was only completed during the summer after his return to Paris.

    For his new work Berlioz eventually settled for the description ‘Dramatic Legend’. As with the composition of his Romeo and Juliet symphony in 1839, Berlioz could not help being influenced when writing the Damnation of Faust by the failure of his opera Benvenuto Cellini in 1838: for him access to the Opéra was closed for the foreseeable future. Had it been otherwise, Berlioz may well have designed the new work as an opera rather than a concert work; in 1846 he did indeed refer to it several times as a ‘concert opera’ [opéra de concert] (CG nos. 1028, 1029; cf. also the description ‘a sort of opera’ in Journal des Débats 6 September 1846). The title page of the autograph score intially called the work ‘Concert opera in four parts’, though the words ‘Concert opera’ were later crossed out and replaced with ‘Legend’. In London in 1847, when he was required to provide an opera for the Drury Lane Theatre, Berlioz toyed with the idea of adapting the work as an opera, with an enhanced role for Mephistopheles; but the project came to nothing, and thereafter Berlioz never performed the work except as a concert piece. It was only many years after his death that the work was eventually transferred to the stage where it proved a great success, though the idea was also strongly resisted by some of the leading Berlioz champions of the day (on this see the relevant section of the page Berlioz’s operas in France, 1869-1914).

    As Berlioz relates in his Memoirs (chapter 54; cf. CG no. 1092), the first performances of the work in Paris (6 December and 20 December 1846) elicited favourable critical comment from the press but were financially a disaster: the hall was half-empty and ticket sales could not cover the very high cost of the concerts. Berlioz reflected bitterly on the contrast between the enthusiasm of the public for Romeo and Juliet in 1839 with the indifference which greeted the new work. The work was never again performed complete in Paris in the composer’s lifetime, though it soon achieved notable success abroad, in Russia, Germany, and London (see below). Ironically it was to become by far his most popular work in France, but this only happened after Berlioz’s death (see on this the pages on Paris and Berlioz: the revival, and on Édouard Colonne).

Performance history

The complete work

    Because of its length and the large forces involved, performances of the complete Damnation were relatively rare in Berlioz’s career. Apart from the two initial performances in Paris in December 1846, the work was given complete only on a number of special occasions: in 1847 in Berlin (19 June, at the request of the King of Prussia; CG nos. 1106, 1108, 1110bis, 1114, 1115), in 1854 in Dresden (22 and 25 April; CG nos. 1746, 1748, 1750), in 1856 in Weimar (1 March; CG nos. 2104, 2128), and for the last time in 1866 in Vienna (16 December; CG no. 3200).


    On the other hand performances of excerpts from the larger work were more manageable and quite frequent. Of the four parts of the work only the first two were given by Berlioz, especially part II (sometimes complete, sometimes in part only); on the other hand parts III and IV were never given on their own, only as components of the complete work. On a few occasions one or more of the three purely orchestral excerpts were included, either on their own or in addition to larger excerpts. They are abbreviated as follows: March = Hungarian March; Minuet = Minuet of the Wills’-o-the-Wisps; Dance = Dance of the Sylphs. Here is a chronological listing of all these performances (all conducted by Berlioz unless otherwise specified).

1847: 15 & 25 March (I-II), 12 May (I), (St Petersburg); 10 April (I-II; Moscow); 29 April (part of II and March; Riga)
1848: 7 February (I-II); 7 April (March); 16 June (March and part of II; all in London); 29 October (March only; Versailles)
1849: 15 April (March and part of II; Paris, Conservatoire, cond. Girard; CG nos. 1256, 1258)
1850: 19 February (I, II; Paris, Société philharmonique); 23 April (I; Paris, Société philharmonique)
1851: 25 February (Paris, Société philharmonique, March only); 4 May (Paris, Société philharmonique, March only)
1852: 9 June (excerpts from I & II; London); 20 November (I-II; Weimar)
1853: 11 August (I-II; Baden-Baden); 24 & 29 August (I-II; Frankfurt; CG nos. 1624, 1627); 22 & 25 October (II in part, March, Minuet, Mephistopheles air; Brunswick; CG nos. 1636, 1637); 8 & 15 November (I-II (?); Hanover); 1 & 10 Decembeer (I-II; Leipzig)
1855: 17 February (II in part; Weimar)
1856: 17 February (Minuet with preceding Evocation; Weimar)
1857: 18 August (March; Baden-Baden)
1859: 23 April (II in part; Paris, Opéra-Comique)
1860: 27 August (II in part; Baden-Baden)
1861: 7 April (II, Paris, Conservatoire, cond. Tilmant; CG nos. 2547, 2549)
1868: 8 February (excerpts, unspecified; St Petersburg)

The 3 orchestral pieces

I. Hungarian March
II. Dance of the Sylphs
III. Minuet of the Wills’-o-the-Wisps

    In his Memoirs Berlioz relates the circumstances of the composition of the Hungarian March and its extraordinary reception when first performed in Pesth in February 1846, which contemporary letters confirm (CG nos. 1021, 1029). He not only decided to introduce the piece into the score of the Damnation he was composing at the time, but also often used it as a rousing concert piece in its own right that was always assured of success. He also very occasionally included the two other orchestral pieces, the Minuet of the Wills-o’-the-Wisps and the Dance of the Sylphs, among excerpts of the larger work (see the listing of performances above). But it seems that the idea of grouping all three together (with the March normally played last) originated with Henri Litolff, composer, friend and admirer of Berlioz: Litolff included all 3 pieces at two concerts at the Opéra on 7 and 21 November 1869. Contemporary critics praised him for the initiative (Le Ménestrel 14 November 1869; Ernest Reyer, Journal des Débats 23 November 1869). Pasdeloup, who had already been performing pieces by Berlioz in his Concerts populaires, including the Hungarian March, lost no time in following his example (9 January 1870), as pointed out by Adolphe Jullien in his review of that concert. Thereafter the 3 pieces were frequent items on the programmes of the leading concert societies of the day.

    I. Hungarian March. This celebrated piece, which concludes Part I of La Damnation de Faust, needs no introduction. But one might draw attention to a few details which are often overlooked in performance. (1) The grace note on the first beat of the second bar of the theme (bars 9, 27, 31 etc.) is rarely brought out clearly. (2) There is no justification in the score for the pointless accelerando that is so often made by conductors in the closing pages of the march after the return of the main theme (bar 118 and following); Colin Davis was a conspicuous exception. This unfortunate tradition may have originated in the last decades of the 19th century when the piece, and the Damnation of Faust as a whole, enjoyed great popularity in orchestral concerts in Paris. (3) Over the final bar of the march Berlioz has written the instruction ‘sustain and swell the last chord of the brass’, and the chord itself is marked with a hairpin (< >) indicating a crescendo followed by a diminuendo. This is often ignored in performance.

    In order to achieve the required effect, the triplets and sextuplets of violins and violas in bars 99-118 and of the violas in bars 135-143 have had to be notated in full, and not in abbreviated form.

    II. Dance of the Sylphs. This piece comes from Part II of the work, towards the end of Scene VII (On the banks of the Elbe). It follows the long chorus of Gnomes and Sylphs, during which Faust is lulled to sleep and made to see a vision of Marguerite. The Ballet, for orchestra alone, is based on the main theme of the preceding chorus.

    III. Minuet of the Wills’-o-the-Wisps. This piece, from Part III of La Damnation, follows a summons by Mephistopheles to the Wills-o’-the-Wisps to cast their spell on Marguerite who is about to meet Faust. A masterpiece of musical irony and of orchestral wizardry, this must be one of the most original minuets ever written. Berlioz uses a dance form associated with the 18th century but obsolete in his day and turns it into a sardonic parody. After a seemingly normal start the music wanders off in strange and unexpected directions, stops and starts again, flares up and subsides abruptly. Strange accidentals disfigure the original theme. Then just as the music seems about to lull itself to sleep, piccolos, flute and oboes launch at breakneck speed into a reckless anticipation of Mephistopheles’ serenade. The minuet tries to reassert itself but is brushed aside, and the piece fizzles out in an enigmatic violin trill.

    Hungarian March (duration 5')
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 7.03.2000; revised 12.10.2001)
    — Score in pdf format

    Ballet des Sylphes (duration 2'2")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 1.01.2000; revised 31.08.2001)
    — Score in pdf format

    Menuet des Follets (duration 5'32")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 11.09.2000; revised 23.12.2001)
    — Score in pdf format

© Michel Austin for all scores and text on this page.

This page revised and enlarged on 1st April 2022.

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