The Hector Berlioz Website

Reflections and Impressions of ‘The Damnation of Faust’

 by

Michael Sproule

© 2015 Michael Sproule

‘The Damnation of Faust’ is a wonderfully eclectic, hybrid masterpiece. It is sui generis. It is the most pan-European of musicals. It opens up a landscape embracing plains, meadows, mountains, forests, gorges, cities of high and low life, high Gothic cathedrals and low Gothic skulduggery. The brush strokes are here delicate, there grotesque, here tender, there viciously unforgiving. This is a post-Napoleonic world of failed vision, flawed character and bitter disappointment, a world ostensibly liberated from the Corsican tyrant, but now, in mainland Europe at least, replete with political and social instability stemming from a perilous imbalance between the smallness of political power and the hugeness of technological possibility unleashed by recent wars.

Faust himself, like Gulliver or Candide, seems to move dreamlike, sometimes elevated, sometimes humiliated, but always propelled by some concatenation of forces, always persona isolata. He is the hybrid scientist-poet, ever alone with his febrile nature, the archetypal romantic, byronic, berliozian. When in time he is so pliably led by the nose by Mephistopheles, there is no one to interfere or intercede or stand up in his protection. There is no civilised law in this world. It is as if this apparently potent world is impotent to prevent Faust’s inexorable slide to hopeless excess, ephemeral brilliance and ultimate destruction. He is like the philosopher who jumped into the volcano, a piece of human phosphor, which dazzles in a moment and is gone.

Faust and Mephistopheles are, of course, alter egos of Berlioz himself. At times Mephisto is as much pater as patronus to Faust embarked on his great journey. Everything is hybrid and mobile – Berlioz is not quite Faust, not quite Mephistopheles (though he revels in the latter’s music). The work itself is not quite opera, not quite profane cantata. The idiom is not quite classical, not quite popular. Everything, like the political and social world that spawned it, is on a fulcrum or a cusp.

Accordingly, and to do justice to its scale, ‘The Damnation of Faust’ must ideally be performed in a huge, occasional location, which too is not quite this or that. The Royal Albert Hall is about as good as it gets, it being not quite theatre, not quite concert hall, but a kind of secular pantheon surrounded by friezes of a world of Fausts striving to conquer the forces of the natural world. Its performance requires nerve. It is full of risk, acoustic, dramatic, spatial. Only a courageous conductor need apply, preferably one in whose deranged head the music of the ‘French Beethoven’ resounds on street corners, in cafés and bars, and in the very open spaces which lie between Marble Arch and the Albert Memorial (or other metropolitan equivalent). The music must resonate long, long before he strides to the podium in that vast amphitheatre. He too must be hybrid, part interpreter, part re-composer of the very world that begot this hybrid beast and feast of a piece.

Picture the young Berlioz eking out an existence in Paris on a meagre allowance care of distant and anxious parents. He sleeps fitfully and in his dreams comes to him the figure, like the ghost to Hamlet, of his own respectable but disapproving father. Yet, instead of leading his son back to the safe haven of the surgeon’s operating theatre or the provincial practice, the figure takes him on a rollicking romp through the drinking dens of Montmartre! Berlioz awakes in a cold sweat, gasping for breath. Faust has met his Mephistopheles.

What then goes on in those dens? Great songs, that’s what, even parodying High Mass at the Cathedral round the corner – for high priests among priestly drinkers are these, a fraternity indeed of buveurs exceptionnels, partaking one and all in the Saturday night communion wine. Every young man must exorcise his parents. Berlioz sees his off – or attempts to do so – by giving his father magnificently crafted songs in a language strange, vivid and universally appealing, and by giving his mother a song of painful estrangement through the voice of the abandoned Marguerite. Another hybrid – Marguerite, not quite betrothed, not quite bride, not quite mother.

Faust’s is a world of near-misses, historical and emotional, tortured by events, isolation and the misery of making the best of things. It is an early progenitor of La Vie Bohème in which masterpieces are cast into the flames for the sake of a few moments’ worth of physical warmth.

The music is a rich cocktail – mix of birdsong of the Dauphiné, the childhood anthem of devout and provincial Catholicism, the micro-balletic effects of meadow and stream, and the boozy lampoons of Rabelaisian clerics and their flatulent cronies. There are influences from a rich array of sources, from Reicha here, a Rossinian touch of humour there, a deep genuflection to Glück there. If Beethoven’s late symphonies – especially in the woodwind writing – opened the door to the garden of romance, Berlioz entered via the arboretum with a panache second to none, determined to savour every perfume, distil every fragrance. Sometimes he succeeds with dazzling success. ‘The Damnation of Faust’ contains its fair share of successes.

We are most grateful to Mr Michael Sproule for his valuable contribution to the site.

The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 1 March 2015.

© Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights of reproduction reserved.

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