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La Damnation du Faust
(English title: The Damnation of Faust)
An Opera by Hector Berlioz

In its original form a "dramatic legend" in four parts for the concert stage. Music by Hector Berlioz. Words, after Gérald de Nerval’s version of Goethe’s play, by Berlioz, Gerard, and Gandonnière. Produced in its original form as a concert piece at the Opéra Comique, Paris, December 6, 1846; London, two parts of the work, under Berlioz’s direction, Drury Lane, February 7, 1848; first complete performance in England, Free Trade Hall, Manchester, February 5, 1880. New York, February 12, 1880, by Dr. Leopold Damrosch. Adapted for the operatic stage by Raoul Gunsberg, and produced by him at Monte Carlo, February 18, 1893, with Jean de Reszke as Faust; revived there March, 1902, with Melba, Jean de Reszke, and Maurice Renaud. Given in Paris with Calvé, Alvarez, and Renaud, to celebrate the centennial of Berlioz’s birth, December 11, 1903. New York, Metropolitan Opera House, December 7, 1906; Manhattan Opera House, November 6, 1907, with Dalmores as Faust and Renaud as Méphistophélès.


MARGUERITE……………………………… Soprano
FAUST……………………………………….. Tenor
BRANDER…………………………………… Bass
Students, soldiers, citizens, men and women, fairies, etc.

Time: Eighteenth century.
Place: A town in Germany.

In the first part of Berlioz’s dramatic legend Faust is supposed to be on the Plains of Hungary. Introspectively he sings of nature and solitude. There are a chorus and dance of peasants and a recitative. Soldiers march past to the stirring measures of the "Rákóczy March," the national air of Hungary.

This march Berlioz orchestrated in Vienna, during his tour of 1845, and conducted it at a concert in Pesth, when it created the greatest enthusiasm. It was inorder to justify the interpolation of this march that he laid the first scene of his dramatic legend on the plains of Hungary. Liszt claimed that his pianoforte transcription of the march had freely been made use of by Berlioz, "especially in the harmony."

In the operatic version Gunsbourg shows Faust in a mediaeval chamber, with a view, through a window, of the sally-port of a castle, out of which the soldiers march. At one point in the march, which Berlioz has treated contrapuntally, and where it would be difficult for marchers to keep step, the soldiers halt and have their standards solemnly blessed.

Original MS of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust (image)

The first page of the original manuscript of the opera, La Damnation de Faust, by Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869)

The next part of the dramatic legend only required a stage setting to make it operatic. Faust is in his study. He is about to quaff poison, when the walls part and disclose a church interior. The congregation, kneeling, sings the Easter canticle, "Christ is Risen." Change of scene to Auerbach’s cellar, Leipsic. Revel of students and soldiers. Brander sings the "Song of the Rat," whose death is mockingly grieved over by a "Requiescat in pace" and a fugue on the word "Amen," sung by the roistering crowd. Méphistophélès then "obliges" with the song of the flea, in which the skipping about of the elusive insect is depicted in the accompaniment.

In the next scene in the dramatic legend, Faust is supposed to be asleep on the banks of the Elbe. Here is the most exquisite effect of the score, the "Dance of the Sylphs," a masterpiece of delicate and airy illustration. Violoncellos, con sordini, hold a single note as a pedal point, over which is woven a gossamer fabric of melody and harmony, ending with the faintest possible pianissimo from drum and harps. Gunsbourg employed here, with admirable results, the aerial ballet, and has given a rich and beautiful setting to the scene, including a vision of Marguerite. The ballet is followed by a chorus of soldiers and a students’ song in Latin.

The scenic directions of Gounod’s "Faust" call Marguerite’s house -- so much of it as is projected into the garden scene -- a pavilion. Gunsbourg makes it more like an arbour, into which the audience can see through the elimination of a supposedly existing wall, the same as in Sparafusile’s house, in the last act of "Rigoletto." Soldiers and students are strolling and singing in the street. Marguerite sings the ballad of the King of Thule. Berlioz’s setting of the song is primitive. He aptly characterizes the number as a "Chanson Gothique." The "Invocation" of Méphistophélès is followed by the "Dance of Will-o-the Wisps." Then comes Méphistophélès' barocque serenade. Faust enters marguerite’s pavilion. There is a love duet, which becomes a trio when Mephistophele joins the lovers and urges Faust’s departure.

Marguerite is alone. Berlioz, instead of using Goethe’s song, "Meine Ruh is hin" (My peace is gone), the setting of which by Schubert is famous, substitutes a poem of his own. The unhappy Marguerite sings, "L’Amour, l’ardene flame" (Love, devouring fire).

The singing of the students and the soldiers grows fainter. The "retreat" -- the call to which the flag is lowered at sunset -- is sounded by the drums and trumpets. Marguerite, overcome by remorse, swoons at the window.

A mountain gorge. Faust’s soliloquy, "Nature, immense, impénétrable et fière" (Nature, vast, unfathomable and proud). The "Ride of Hell"; moving panorama; pandemonium; redemption of Marguerite, whom angels are seen welcoming in the softly illumined heavens far above the town, in which the action is supposed to have transpired.

The production by Dr. Leopold Damrosch of "La Damnation de Faust" in its original concert form in New York, was one of the sensational events of the concert history of America. As an opera, however, the work has failed so far to make the impression that might have been expected from its effect on concert audiences: "...the experiment, though tried in various theatres," says Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians "has happily not been permanently successful." Why "happily"? It would be an advantage to operatic art if a work by so distinguished a composer as Berlioz could find a permanent place in the repertoire.

Gounod’s "Faust," Boito’s "Mefistofele," and Berlioz’s ‘La Damnation de Faust" are the only settings of the Faust legend, or, more properly speaking, of Goethe’s "faust," with which a book on opera need concern itself. Gounod’s "Faust," with its melodious score, and full of a sentiment that more than occasionally verges on sentimentality, has genuine popular appeal, and is likely long to maintain itself in the repertoire. "Mefistofele," nevertheless, is the profounder work. Boito, in his setting, sounds Goethe’s drama to greater depths than Gounod. It always will be preferred by those who do not have to be written down to. "La Damnation de Faust," notwithstanding its brilliant and still modern orchestration, is the most truly mediaeval of the three scores. Berlioz himself characterizes the ballad of the King of Thule as "Gothic." The same spirit of the Middle Ages runs through much of the work. In several important details the operatic adaptation has been clumsily made. Were it improved in these details, this "Faust" of Berlioz would have a chance of more than one revival.

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Middle Ages Music
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Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
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Turn of Century Music

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