Work: La damnation de Faust, Op. 24
About This Work
Despite the hurly-burly and mixed reviews attending the dedication of Beethoven's statue in Bonn in August 1845, organized by his friend Liszt, Berlioz's imagination was stimulated by the journey. His thoughts turned to Goethe's Faust, and, taking
the Huit Scènes de Faust -- which he had published in 1829 as his Opus 1 only to recall and destroy every copy he could lay hands on -- as his starting point, he began to flesh out a new musical form. The resulting "légende dramatique," often called a cantata, is in the nature of a concert opera, similar to the "symphonie dramatique" Roméo et Juliette -- salient moments from familiar literary works projected as vocal scenes or by the expressive power of music alone, with plot complications and baneful recitatives elided, to be seen in the mind's eye, thus dispensing with the requirements of staging. This "open" dramaturgy had been one of the revelations of Faust, which Berlioz recalled in the Memoirs -- "The marvelous book fascinated me from the first. I could not put it down, I read it incessantly, at meals, at the theater, in the street." It was what Liszt and Berlioz had spoken of at their first meeting, on the eve of the Symphonie fantastique's premiere in December 1830. Faust, the tormented, suicidal philosopher who suddenly seeks the meaning of life in life itself -- not only in love but in the immense solitude of nature -- struck a chord, so to speak, with the Romantic generation. But reverence for a classic did not prevent Berlioz from finding the "hero" contemptible in his abandonment of the village girl he has, with Mephistopheles' help, seduced. The startlingly vivid, non-Goethean, cinematic Ride to the Abyss -- impossible to stage in Berlioz's day and awkward in ours -- is capped by Faust's screaming plunge into Hell as the soul of his lover, Marguerite, is welcomed by a choir of angels. La Damnation de Faust is dedicated to Liszt, whose own greatest symphonic work, Eine Faust Symphonie, would follow in 1854. Berlioz gave his work, at his own expense, before a half-empty house on December 6, 1846, and again on the 20th with the same result. "Nothing in my career as an artist wounded me more deeply than this unexpected indifference," Berlioz wrote. He was, to boot, financially ruined.
-- Adrian Corleonis, All Music Guide
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