Three Orchestral Excerpts from “The Damnation of Faust”, op. 24

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        Today, despite our society’s flirtation with “multiculturalism,” audiences generally reflect little about cultural differences between the arts in the various countries of Western Europe. But, during the nineteenth century Romanticism in the various arts produced some very different national results. Perhaps the most interesting one was the difference between French and German musical preferences during that time. To perhaps over simplify, German composers and audiences generally, and naturally, seemed to have preferred symphonies, string quartets, and sonatas, in general. On the other hand, the French thought first and foremost of opera when music was mentioned. Sure, there was Wagner, but his style had its origin in Parisian opera, notwithstanding his dissimulations and general antipathy toward the French—especially French Jews who composed.

        So, the French loved music with a story—and they pretty much always have, while the Germans are comfortable with some abstraction. And perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the music of the French arch romantic, Hector Berlioz. Most audiences are familiar with his evergreen, Symphonie fantastique, with its lurid and phantasmagorical program. It is his best-known work, but at the same time, representative of his very French fascination with drama. The Damnation of Faust—first performed, in Paris, in 1846--is somewhat unusual in that it is not exactly an opera, it is not an oratorio, nor a symphony with chorus. In typically, Berlioz fashion, it is unique. He called it a “dramatic legend”—but it is occasionally staged as an opera; it is scored for full orchestra, solo voices, and chorus. It, of course, is loosely based upon a French translation of Goethe’s Faust, and various scenes in that drama provide suitable fodder for Berlioz’s wonderful musical imagination.

        The three excerpts, the Marche Hongroisse, the Ballet des sylphes, and the Menuet des follets, taken together, are a commonly performed suite. The Hungarian march was well known, and was simply thrown into the original composition by Berlioz for effect. The composer puts Faust in Hungary (unlike the original by Goethe) where he hears the march past of the Hungarian troops. The tune is apparently based on a traditional Hungarian theme, and the celebrated reception of Berlioz’s version in Budapest motivated him to include it in his drama. The ballet of the sylphs occurs after Faust has been lulled to sleep, and dreams of Marguerite. The menuet of “follets,” or wills-of-the-wisps, is from Part III, where, after the beloved Marguerite has sung her famous “King of Thule” aria, Mephistopheles summons spirits to dance around her house. This last piece is a work of eccentricity, even grotesquery. It’s really a parody of the eighteenth-century, dignified dance, and is full of strange tempo changes, odd “wrong notes,” and other effects. But, it is in the end a true child of the genius of orchestration that Berlioz was, and is a masterpiece of unusual scoring for the orchestra.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan