‘O earth, for me alone
you have no flowers!’
‘This marvellous book fascinated me from the first; I could not put it down’: Hector Berlioz’s first encounter with Goethe’s Faust I immediately inspired the 25-year-old composer to write settings for eight of the songs and ballads contained in the play. His enthusiasm persisted, and 15 years later the youthful Huit Scènes de Faust — in part substantially reworked — were incorporated into La Damnation de Faust (1846), one of Berlioz’s greatest and most brilliant works. Here Faust appears not as Goethe’s restless seeker after knowledge but as a romantic, melancholic figure in the grip of loneliness and ennui, with whose sufferings and yearning Berlioz doubtless identified. The ‘légende dramatique’ describes Faust’s path from feelings of alienation and frustration, his failure in respect of knowledge, social participation, God, nature and love, to his end in hell — a path on which he is driven by Méphistophélès, who confronts Faust as if from the depths of the latter’s own subconscious.
Berlioz initially described La Damnation de Faust as an ‘opéra de concert’ or ‘concert opera’, never intending it to be staged. A loose sequence of individual tableaux, the work is in fact conceived for an imaginary stage, as a drama that unfolds through the music in the imagination of the listener. The suggestive force of Berlioz’s music proves itself particularly in the scenes that would be very difficult to realize on stage — Faust’s ride to hell and Marguerite’s heavenly apotheosis, as well as the dances of the spirits or the evocations of nature.
Instrumental timbre plays as important a role in the characterization as melody, harmony and rhythm — unsurprising in a score whose composer had just published his highly influential Grand Traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes.