By Tammela Platt

I spent three years of college immersed in nineteenth-century classical music. In one of my first musicology classes we studied parts of Hector Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust –  technically a dramatic cantata, though many people call it an opera – and Schubert’s famous Lied, “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” both based on Part I of Goethe’s Faust.

But for all the music I studied, I – for shame! – never read Goethe’s play (blame that on immersion in British literature). Until this spring. I was in Chernivtsi, Ukraine, with my friend, Michelle, for an English Club meeting at the library. Michelle and I were browsing the wall of English books, and I wasn’t planning to check anything out but as my eyes wandered the shelves Goethe’s name leapt out at me. A big book, with Faust, Werther, poems and more. I knew at that moment that it was time to read Faust: now or never.

Most people know the basic premise: professor Faust is bored with life and yet does not want to die; he wants to know more, to know everything, to have power. And so he sells his soul to Mephistopheles (i.e., the devil), who pledges servitude to Faust until the latter dies. Mephistopheles plans to take Faust on a wild ride, as he details in this aside:

Go on despising reason and learning, man’s greatest asset. Let me entangle you in my deceits and magic shows and I’ll get you for sure. This man was born with a spirit that drives him on incessantly and will not be curbed. All at such a pace that he overleaps the common pleasures. I’ll drag him through a round of riotous living, where everything is shallow and meaningless, till I have him at my mercy like a fly on a fly-paper. I’ll dangle food and drink before his greedy mouth. He’ll beg in vain for refreshment. He’d be sure to go under anyway, even if he hadn’t given himself to the devil.

Heavy predictions, even from the devil himself. But he masterfully exerts control over Faust, making the latter fall in love with the beautiful peasant-girl, Gretchen. Faust recognizes and resents the magic Mephistopheles works, but he cannot do anything about it:

Oh but now I realize that nothing perfect ever comes. Along with this rapture, bringing me closer and closer to the gods, I am given a companion, who with his cold and withering words humiliates me continually and turns your gifts to nothingness with a whisper. Yet I cannot do without him. He fans in me a burning passion for that fair woman’s form, making me go blindly from desire to the fulfillment of desire and in the fulfillment making me yearn again for the desire. (My italics.)

He is caught in the devil’s vortex. Yet Faust wants more. Nothing satisfies him. This theme and others have captivated critics, authors, and composers since Faust‘s publication. Reading Faust for the first time, I got excited when I came across the scene in Part I when Gretchen sits at her spinning wheel: “Oh wow, this is the “Gretchen am Spinnrade” text!” I said to myself, thinking about the Schubert song. And I kept wanting to compare Goethe’s text with Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust: what does Berlioz change? Does he tell the story truthfully? How does his music enhance our understanding of the text?

How a composer chooses to re-imagine a text musically can illuminate it through new observations and interpretations, not unlike literary criticism. Some composers work with complete texts – Berlioz’s dramatic cantata, La damnation de Faust – while some focus on a small section – Franz Schubert’s Lied, “Gretchen am Spinnrade.”  The composers’ choices for voicing, instrumentation, and orchestration in these pieces can teach us a lot about Goethe’s play.

So let’s start with the basics: how are the main characters represented in the music? In the Schubert song, it is simple: Gretchen is a soprano who sings unsettled vocal lines that jump around frantically. In the Berlioz, there is more to parse out: Faust is a tenor – he is the lover, but does this also imply he is the hero? (The lover/hero was often scored as a tenor in nineteenth-century opera.) He sings meditative, contemplative arias that fit his “learned professor” character yet sometimes seem odd set for a tenor voice. Mephistopheles is, of course, a bass-baritone, one of those low-voiced men representing evil (think Mozart’s Don Giovanni). When he isn’t engaging in energetic, declamatory outbursts in dialogue with the orchestra, Berlioz’s devil sings gorgeous arias as he seduces his prey, Faust. Marguerite (Gretchen) is a mezzo-soprano, a slightly surprising choice since lead female characters are often cast as sopranos. Berlioz’s choice of mezzo adds more richness and perhaps melancholy to the role, due to a mezzo’s lower-reaching range and generally warmer tone. It makes for some beautiful arias in Marguerite’s short time on stage.

Considering characters’ voice and singing styles is important to translating literature into music. But equally important is the accompaniment that goes along with these voices. Since “Gretchen am Spinnrade” is an art song, it is scored for piano and voice. Schubert uses the piano well, representing Gretchen’s spinning wheel with repetitive, rhythmic arpeggios that modulate as Gretchen becomes more desperate. At the song’s climax, Gretchen sings about Faust’s figure, smile, eyes, and finally recalls his kiss, singing “ach, sein Kuß!” (“oh, his kiss!”). During this section the piano gradually slows and stops – i.e., the spinning stops – as Gretchen becomes completely absorbed in Faust’s image. The song’s return to the opening lines – “Meine Ruh’ ist hin, mein Herz ist schwer, / Ich finde sie nimmer und nimmermeht”; “My peace is gone, my heart is heavy / I never and nevermore find it” (my translation) – with the same musical material emphasizes the repetitiveness of Gretchen’s current existence and the hold love has on her; she’ll be waiting forever for Faust to return.

In La damnation de Faust we again are dealing with a larger scale and a full orchestra which Berlioz expertly uses to create atmosphere and tell Faust’s story. In this episodic work, the orchestra acts as a narrator of sorts, whereas in “Gretchen am Spinnrade” it is more of a prop. Because Berlioz stages all of Faust Part I, orchestral interludes are necessary to guide the characters and audience, just as Mephistopheles guides Faust into a world of turbulent, sensory experience. Berlioz cuts Goethe’s minor characters and uses the orchestra to create atmosphere and aid the devil’s demons and spirits in their doings, having them dance instead of sing at some points. The most memorable orchestral section is in the final few scenes when Faust and Mephistopheles mount two black horses and ride off to save Marguerite (or so we, and Faust, think). The orchestra ultimately alerts us that we are not riding toward redemption but instead toward hell. The strings simulate the sound of galloping horses with a repeated eighth-sixteenth-sixteenth note pattern under a smooth oboe solo which tries to hold onto earthliness and innocence as long as possible. Soon Faust’s terror increases as he sees evil visions represented by low horn blasts, which become more and more frequent until the galloping strings stop – the horses halt – briefly, and then resume even faster than before. By the time they reach hell and Mephistopheles sings, “he is ours!” the full orchestra accompanies with a crashing, fortissimo cord. Literally, all hell has broken loose: the next scene is entitled “Pandaemonium.” Though Faust and Mephistopheles do sing in this section, it is the orchestra that narrates their journey.

One more notable part of Berlioz’s orchestration is how he represents heaven in the final scene and during earlier religious scenes as well: a unison chorus, harp arpeggios, flutes, high strings, and rising lines. This is clear, effective musical rhetoric that any audience can understand.

So how do musical works re-imagine texts? Here, the orchestra or accompaniment takes on the role of narrator, setting the atmosphere and directing us through the story. Texts are sung by vocalists who have been cast to highlight certain aspects of their characters. Music has the ability to tell stories just as well as texts can; music leaves more to the imagination in terms of what certain sounds mean to certain ears, but most people can innately tell evil music from heavenly. If nothing else, listening to music based on a text one has read only enhances the experience. Reading Goethe’s Faust and then watching the 2008 Metropolitan Opera production of Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust made a few things clear to me that hadn’t been when I read the play. (I also noticed that Berlioz changes the order of some events, no doubt for dramatic purposes.) It’s a bit like watching the film version of a book: we don’t always like how artistic license has changed certain characters or plot elements, but ultimately the experience sheds further light on the original text.