Berlioz’s Faust at Seattle Symphony: Some Tragical History

Ludovic Morlot will conduct Seattle Symphony’s performance of selections from Berlioz’s Faust on June 21st. There have been many versions of the Faust myth throughout history, but Berlioz drew from Goethe’s version of the tale. If you love the music or the literature behind it, it’s worth pondering some of the differences between the various narratives.

In all tellings, the eponymous doctor is a brilliant but flawed scholar who barters his soul for a limited period wherein he will have supernatural powers and cosmic knowledge. The two most famous versions are by Christopher Marlowe and Goethe, and though they differ enormously in their plots, they are both parables of futility in seeking knowledge for the sake of knowledge, power for the sake of power. Marlowe’s Dr Faustus enjoys more powers of sorcery and necromancy than the Faust of Goethe. This is indicative of the times in which the versions were written. Marlowe was writing for a much more superstitious audience for whom black magic was a more real and present threat while the post-Enlightenment Goethe was writing in a world at the cusp of industrialization. Marlowe’s protagonist devolves very quickly from a grand wizard into a petty practitioner of parlor tricks who raises a demonic Helen of Troy to be his mistress and who causes antlers to sprout from the head of the skeptic Benvolio. The contract expires in due time and Faustus spends his final night in terror, lamenting the futility of his pursuits before he is ripped to shreds and dragged to hell.

Goethe’s Faust is much more complex. The man is convinced that he means well and that his powers and leadership will bring greater prosperity for all. His pride blinds him to the havoc he wreaks on those close to him and makes him indifferent to the destruction of those who stand in the way of his vision of progress. Goethe devotes more time to the development of Faust’s naive and benevolent love interest, Gretchen, who is seduced with the aid of Mephistopheles, the demonic broker of Faust’s bargain. Gretchen finds salvation and dies after being abandoned by Faust, and he carries on more determined than ever to shape the world according to his vision. In the conclusion, Faust has a crisis of faith and realizes (in a distinctly modern parable) that he has become the architect of his own obsolescence, that in order for progress to continue beyond him he too must be destroyed. In the face of this realization (but only after destroying more lives) he begs for forgiveness. When he dies, Mephistopheles comes to claim his soul, but Gretchen’s love and the powers of heaven intervene and his soul ascends.

Berlioz’s version lies somewhere between Marlowe’s and Goethe’s. The conventions of opera being what they were, the death of the love interest (Marguerite/Gretchen) had to fall near or at the end of the opera. In the libretto, Marguerite is sentenced to die for accidentally poisoning her mother with an overdose of sleeping potion (used to allow her and Faust to cavort without the mother knowing). Faust forfeits the remainder of his life in another bargain with Mephistopheles on the condition that Marguerite will be saved. It is a double cross, and Mephistopheles and Faust descend directly to hell while Marguerite achieves her own salvation through appeals to heaven, then dies. The old adage, “The roads of hell are paved with good intentions,” springs readily to mind. All three tales are consistent in their message that power without love is empty and destructive, but their characterizations differ greatly.