Hector Berlioz

The Damnation of Faust


This is one of many musical works in 19th century that was based on Goethe's Faust. This popular poem was used by many composers to set to music, including Wagner, Schumann, and Liszt. Berlioz first read the French translation of the poem when he was a 23-year-old medical student and he was immediately fascinated by it. He made two attempts at setting the story of Faust to music. Shortly after he had read the story, he composed eight pieces of music depicting eight scenes in the poem. Soon displeased with them and having a grander plan for a larger work, Berlioz withdrew them from publication and destroyed any copy he could find. The second attempt, which is the current form of Damnation, was much grander in scale, and the movements flow from one to another more smoothly in telling the story of Faust.

Berlioz wrote most of the work while touring Europe in the mid-1840's. The purpose of his trip to hold and conduct concerts of his own music, and he had considerable success on his visits to several cities. A portion of the work was completed after he returned home to Paris. His experience at these different European cities had partly influenced and shaped how Damnation was written. For instance, Berlioz had no trouble setting the main character of the story, Faust, to reside in Hungary when the work opens, even though Goethe's original poem did not specify that. No doubt his travel to Hungary had a hand in prompting that. Berlioz thought the initial performance of th work would be a great success, since his name had gotten bigger and his last work, Romeo and Juliet, was a success. However, the first performance was attended by few audiences. Only two performances were done during Berlioz's lifetime, both considered failures. Here's a passage from Berlioz's Memoirs describing the first performance and his disappointment:

The Drama and the Music

This work is not a symphony, and it is not an opera either, even though it is a concert stage piece. It is considered a Dramatic Legend. It involves 3 principal singers, representing the 3 main characters of the story: Faust(tenor), Mephistopheles(bass), and Marguerite/Gretchen(messo-soprano). The work also requires a chorus and a large orchestra.

The work is divided into four parts. The following gives a brief description of each part:

Click HERE to hear a sample of Part IV, Scene 19 of Damnation of Faust.

Here, Faust has reached the abyss of darkness, and exchanges between the demon princes and Mephistopheles are heard.

Click HERE to hear a sample of Part IV, Scene 20 of Damnation of Faust.

Here, heaven is depicted as Marguerite reaches there.

Comparison with Requiem

Both Requiem and The Damnation of Faust are large-scale works that extensively utilizes voices to carry the music. Like many of Berlioz's other major works, they are based on original texts. Berlioz freely shuffled and revised these source text to suit the dramatic needs of his own music.

Another similarity is found among the contents of these two works. Requiem is about man and God; it depicts the Judgement Day, when some are picked to be saved while others are driven to hell. Damnation also depicts this difference between those who saved and those sent to hell. Because he was tempted by Mephistopheles and foolishly signed a pact with this devil prince, Faust ended up riding to the abyss of darkness. However, because Marguerite repented her sins on earth, she is saved and ended up going to heaven.

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Jason C. Lee