La Damnation de Faust or...
Faust's Damnation

Written by Dieter Schoop

The typical characteristics of this dramatic musical legend are its many delightful and awe-inspiring choral parts.

I have been fascinated by this score for many years, and hope the present introduction to this grand choral symphony will open your heart and mind to the wonders of this pearl of romantic music.

On this page...

  • We shall be looking at the leading three characters, and what La Damnation de Faust is all about.
  • You will hear some fascinating musical examples  that will familiarize you with Berlioz' ingenious composition.
  • I will recommend two recordings of Berlioz’ complete Faust Legend.
  • You will learn why Berlioz rearranged the famous play Faust, created by the German writer Goethe (1749-1832).
  • I will show you what the great French composer wrote in his Memoirs, i.e. his autobiography about this composition, which he completed in 1846.
  • You will read how this exceptional score was originally received in Paris, Vienna, Germany and Russia.
  • At the end of this page you will find a short synopsis or the story of the play.

What's the Essence of this Concert Opera?

The leading characters of Faust’s Damnation are... philosopher Faust, the devil Mephisto and a virgin, Marguerite.
Faust who was searching for truth, becomes frustrated with life. He is on the point of ending it himself. Mephisto appears and promises him a life of pleasure and excitement if Faust will come with him.

They go to the Auerbach cave and sing with the drunkards. Great choral scenes! Faust dislikes this rude atmosphere.
Mephisto creates a sweeter dream for Faust wherein Faust meets Marguerite. They fall in love. Mephisto tears them apart and takes Faust to hell while Marguerite goes to heaven.

Musical Examples

Here is a video of a complete performance just as Berlioz intended it. He didn’t want this work to be stage-played. In the above recording of 1989, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Sir Georg Solti.

Let's start with the joyful piece Peasants' Dance. Click on the triangle in the center of the photo above. Then push the slider on the lower left side of the video to 0:06:30

Here is a regiment of soldiers marching off to battle in the plains of Hungary. This is the famous Hungarian March, familiar to concert goers. Most however don't suspect Berlioz has written this fervent composition.

At 0:35:57 - on the first video above -  follows a hilarious scene in Auerbach's Cellar where Mephisto has led Faust to have some wild fun. A drunkard  has just finished singing a silly song about a rat. Now the chorus of the drunkards is crowning the death of the rat by a splendid fugue on the word Amen.

The fugue is found in many of Johann Sebastian Bach’s compositions. Berlioz never liked fugues but here he composed a parody of one by following the rules of fugue composing to a tee. He probably intended to show that he is capable of mastering that form of art, too.

Consequently  Mephisto praises the beauty of the drunkard's fugue, making fun of religious feelings. He adds his own silly, but very dynamic and fascinating song about a flea in order to amuse the intoxicated audience.  It’s at 0:38:30 of the first video above.

As Faust dislikes the carousing and singing with the drunkards, Mephisto lulls him into a dream with the words, Voici des roses . Click on the video just above.

The most beautiful and romantic aria sung by Monica Groop as Marguerite, is entitled "D'amour, l'ardante flamme" in the video just above.

Recommended Recordings

  1. Conductor Colin Davis’ interpretation - recorded in 2001 - is to my view, the best one available. Click to listen to the first half minute of each of the 35 scenes of Faust for free.
  2. Igor Markevitch's very Berliozian recording of La Damnation de Faust was made in 1959 - digitally remastered 2002, in near perfect quality - in Deutsche Grammophon golden-age stereo sound.
    Don’t underestimate this recording
    because it was made 50 years ago. The slyest of all Mephistos here, is irresistible and Markevitch is a superb conductor. To get an idea,click, and listen to the first 30 seconds of every scene for free.

Goethe’s Faust Reinterpreted Musically

In his autobiography or in French, Memoirs, Berlioz wrote... “I was neither trying to translate nor to imitate Goethe’s masterpiece Faust. I used it as an inspiration and extracted all its musical substance”.

He had begun the setting of his Goethe-inspired text during the winter of 1845/46, drawing on his Huit scènes de Faust which he had composed in 1829. The work was originally designated an “opéra de concert” and later a “Légende dramatique”. But it is neither a word-by-word setting of a literary source nor an opera conceived along dramatic lines. Rather it is an attempt to develop a literary theme by musical means.Berlioz has not envisaged a stage performance of La Damnation de Faust.

In 1858 at the age of 55, Berlioz said about his works... “It is precisely their expressiveness, their inner fire and rhythmic originality that have done them the greatest harm, on account of the qualities they demand from the performers. To perform them well, everybody concerned, the conductor most of all, must feel as I feel. My works require a combination of irresistible verve and the utmost precision, a controlled vehemence, a dreamlike sensitivity, without which the essential character of my phrases is falsified or even obliterated.”

Reception of this Modern Composition

Twenty years after completion of the score, Berlioz, a famous composer and conductor by then, was invited to Vienna - the most important city of classical music - to conduct his Faust. The duration or the work is about 2 hours, if not interrupted by applause.

In October of 1866 Berlioz wrote to his niece Joséphine Suat...
I am leaving for Vienna in Austria on the 9th of next month. The Philharmonic Society has just written to me to invite me to come and conduct my legend of the Damnation of Faust which they want to perform complete for the first time. I will have 200 choristers and 150 players, the best singers from the great theatre, and I will be present at five rehearsals before they hand over the baton to me.

So all I will have to do is blow on a fire that has already been lit. These excellent Austrians could not behave in a more generous or artistic way. I am going to meet again a crowd of friends and some very devoted supporters. I have not heard the Damnation of Faust since my last trip to Dresden, more than twelve years ago.

All this is giving me new life, and I am suffering much less. I do not know what I will be given in Vienna by way of expenses and fee, I warned them that I did not want to know and that I would accept with eyes shut. What does it matter? I am too happy to go there and hear again my great score, so bold and to hear it performed without fear or reproach.

I am told that the conductor Herbeck had the first two acts rehearsed to perfection. Tomorrow he will do the same for the following two acts. The 250 choristers are working like a single man. There is constant applause. In short everything points to a great success. All the members of the committee are extremely excited.

After the successful performance in Vienna on December 16, 1866, Berlioz wrote to his friend Ernest Reyer...

The Damnation of Faust performed yesterday in the vast Redoutensaal before a huge audience, and has scored an electrifying success. It would be ridiculous for me to tell you about how often I was called back, the shouts of bis (encore), the flowers, and all the applause of the morning.

I had 300 choristers and 150 players, a delightful Marguerite, the beautiful Miss Bettelheim, who has a superb mezzo-soprano voice, a tenor for Faust whose counterpart we certainly do not have in Paris, and a vigorous Mephisto, all three from the great Vienna Opera.

The love duet between Faust and Marguerite, outstandingly sung, was interrupted three times by applause. The scene of the abandoned Marguerite caused an even greater stir. The Sylphs, Wills-o’-the-Wisps, the Easter Hymn, the scenes in Hell and Heaven have literally turned my good audience upside down. Helmesberger (the director of the Conservatoire) gave a most poetic rendering of the little solo for viola in the Ballad of King Thule which Miss Bettelheim sang so well.

Since yesterday my room has been overflowing with visitors and well-wishers. This evening they are putting on for me a great reception with two or three hundred guests, professional and amateur musicians, and among them my hundred and forty women choristers (all amateurs) who sang my choruses so well. What can I say to you? It is the greatest musical joy of my life; you must forgive me if I write to you at such length. Some had travelled from Munich (270 miles / 435 km) and Leipzig (380 miles / 600 km) to hear the work.

More Autobiographical Notes about La Damnation de Faust

  •  During my travels in Austria, Hungary, Bohemia and Silesia, I began the composition of the legend of Faust, which I had long been planning.
  • Once launched, I wrote the rest by degrees, as my musical ideas came to me, and composed the score with a facility I have rarely experienced with any of my other works. I wrote when I could and anywhere I could; in the coach, on the railroad, in steamboats, and even in towns, notwithstanding the various cares entailed by my concerts.
  • I did not search for ideas, I let them come, and they presented themselves in the most unforeseen order.
  • At Vienna I did the Elbe scene, Mephistopheles' song, Voici des roses, and the sylphs' ballet. I was writing a march at Vienna, in one night, on the Hungarian air of Rákóczy. The extraordinary effect it produced at Pesth (Budapest) made me resolve to introduce it into Faust, by taking the liberty of placing my hero in Hungary at the opening of the action, and making him present at the march of a Hungarian army across the plain.
  • After my choral symphony Romeo and Juliet was first performed, my name has gone up in public opinion... and therefore everything made me hope there will be great curiosity to hear my new work La Damnation de Faust, which is on a larger scale and more varied in effect than any of its predecessors. Vain hope!... The result was that Faust was twice performed to a half-empty room. Nothing in all my artistic career ever wounded me so deeply as this unexpected indifference of the Parisians.
  • I was ruined, and in debt for a considerable sum. After two days of inexpressible anguish, I perceived a way of extricating myself from my difficulties by going on a concert tour to Russia. St. Petersburg gave me a most gracious welcome. At the end of the first act of Faust, the Empress sent for me. She gave me a most flattering reception, praised my music much, and expressed herself astonished at the exceptional performance.
  • After the sylph-chorus, the public was really almost beside itself. This sort ofrefined, aerial music, to which you have to listen with all your ears in order to catch its low tones, was evidently quite unexpected, and I confess the moment was an intoxicating one for me... When the concert was over... It bethought me of inquiring about the financial result of the experiment. Receipt: 18,000 francs; Expenses: 6,000; Clear profit: 12,000 francs. I was saved! Then I turned mechanically towards Paris, and could not refrain from murmuring: "Ha! You dear Parisians!"
  • I remember that one of the scenes, for six voices, entitled Concert des Sylphes... was encored whenever it was given, either in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Berlin, London, or Paris...

Synopsis or... Story of the Dramatic Legend

The legend of Faust’s Damnation is a narrative of actions that are perceived both by teller and listeners to take place within our history. Legends generally possess certain qualities that give the tale plausibility.

PART 1 Faust, the philosopher, alone at sunrise in a meadow, revels in the loveliness of springtime and the joys of his solitary way of life. The tranquil pastoral scene is disturbed, however, first by country folk singing a round, and then by a regiment of fully-armed soldiers marching off to battle (the famous Hungarian March). Faust quickly withdraws from this scene.

PART 2 Alone in his study, Faust resolves to put an end to his profoundly melancholy mood by taking poison. The sounds of the Easter hymn restrain him however, and he returns to everyday matters and the consolations of religion.

All of a sudden Mephistopheles, the devil, appears and promises Faust, who at first is highly sceptical, a life of the utmost good fortune and pleasure. The next setting is Auerbach’s cellar in Leipzig, where students are carousing and singing. Mephisto enters with Faust and sings his “flea” song.

In the following scene, on the banks of the river Elbe, Mephisto casts a sleeping spell over Faust and then entices him with tantalizingly seductive dreams.

Faust is allowed a glimpse of his future love, Marguerite. On awaking Faust demands to meet her. The last scene is taken up by a procession of soldiers and students.

PART 3 Faust has been led by Mephisto into Marguerite’s chamber. Faust awaits her with passionate longing. Marguerite appears, and Faust, hiding behind a curtain, learns that she too has dreamed of him as her future beloved. Lost in reverie, she sings the Ballad of the King of Thule.

Rounding off his magic feats with a flourish, Mephisto conjures up a grand dance of the will-o’-the-wisps and seductively sings an ironically “moral” song.

Faust and Marguerite discover one another and declare their mutual love. This scene is however rudely interrupted by rowdy neighbours and Mephisto’s interference.

PART 4 In a highly romantic aria - D’amour l’ardente flamme - Marguerite pours out her fervent love for Faust, but a passing troop of soldiers makes it all too clear that she will never see him again.

Faust himself is alone in the wilderness, this time in a desperate mood. Mephisto appears and forces Faust to sign a document which will free Marguerite from prison, to which she has been condemned for poisoning inadvertently her mother with a sleeping potion to keep her away from Faust’s visits to her chamber.

They set off, but Mephisto drags Faust down into Hell, where his arrival is greeted with demoniac glee. Marguerite, who has repented of her sins, is received into Heaven with all kindness.

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