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

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I. Hungarian March
II. Ballet des Sylphes
III. Menuet des Follets

     See also Texts and Documents; Berlioz Libretti; Berlioz and his music: self-borrowings

    I. Hungarian March. This celebrated piece, which concludes Part I of La Damnation de Faust, needs no introduction. Berlioz relates in his Memoirs (Travels in Germany II, 3rd letter to Humbert Ferrand; see Texts and Documents) the circumstances of the composition of this march in 1846, based on a Hungarian national theme (Rákóczy-indulo). The electrifying effect of the first performance in Budapest incited Berlioz to include it in La Damnation de Faust which he was composing at the time (Memoirs, chapter 54, also in Texts and Documents). There is, incidentally, no warrant for the pointless accelerando that is so often made by conductors in the closing pages of the march, an unfortunate tradition which 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.

    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 as in Berlioz’s score.

      II.  Ballet des Sylphes. 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. According to Berlioz’s Memoirs (chapter 54, reproduced in Texts and Documents) the whole scene, including the Ballet, was written in Vienna, where Berlioz gave a series of highly successful concerts between November 1845 and February 1846. In June 1846 he was made Honorary Member of the Vienna Philharmonic Society. But a complete performance of the Damnation in Vienna did not take place until December 1866 when Berlioz, responding to the invitation of the conductor Johann von Herbeck, came to conduct a large-scale and triumphant performance of the work in the Redoutensaal, ‘the greatest joy of my musical life’, he wrote afterwards.

      III. Menuet des Follets. 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)

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

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

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

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