MM. MICHEL CARRE and Jules Barbier, who made the book for Gounod’s opera “Faust,” went for their subject to Goethe’s dramatic poem. Out of that great work, which had occupied the mind of the German poet for an ordinary lifetime, the French librettists extracted the romance which sufficed them the story of Gretchen’s love for the rejuvenated philosopher, her seduction and death. This romance is wholly the creation of Goethe ; it has no place in any of the old legends which are at the bottom of the history of Dr. Faust, or Faustus. Those legends deal with the doings of a magician who has sold his soul to the devil for the accomplishment of some end on which his ambition is set. There are many such legends in medieval literature, and their fundamental thought is older than Christianity. In a sense, the idea is a product of ignorance and superstition combined. In all ages men whose learning and achievements were beyond the comprehension of simple folk were thought to have derived their powers from the practice of necromancy. The list is a long one, and includes some of the great names of antiquity. The imagination of the Middle Ages made bondsmen of the infernal powers out of such men as Zoroaster, Democritus, Empedocles, Apollonius, Virgil, Albertus Magnus, Merlin, and Paracelsus. In the sixth century Theophilus of Syracuse was said to have sold himself to the devil and to have been saved from damnation only by the miraculous intervention of the Virgin Mary, who visited hell and bore away the damnable compact. So far as his bond was concerned, Theophilus was said to have had eight successors among the Popes of Rome.
Architects of cathedrals and engineers of bridges were wont, if we believe popular tales, to barter their souls in order to realize their great conceptions. How do such notions get into the minds of the people? I attempted not an answer but an ex-planation in a preface to Gounod’s opera published by Schirmer some years ago, which is serving me a good turn now. For the incomprehensible the supernatural is the only accounting. These things are products of man’s myth-making capacity and desire. With the advancement of knowledge this capacity and desire become atrophied, but spring into life again in the presence of a popular stimulant. The superstitious peasantry of Bavaria be-held a man in league with the devil in the engineer who ran the first locomotive engine through that country. More recently, I am told, the same people conceived the notion that the Prussian needle-gun, which had wrought destruction among their soldiery in the war of 1866, was an infernal machine for which Bismarck had given the immortal part of himself.
When printing was invented, it was looked upon in a double sense as a black art, and it was long and widely believed that Johann Fust, or Faust, of Mayence, the partner of Gutenberg, was the original Dr. Johann Faustus (the prototype of Goethe’s Faust), who practised magic toward the end of the fifteenth and at the beginning of the sixteenth century, made a compact with Mephistopheles, performed many miraculous feats, and died horribly at the last. But Fust, or Faust, was a rich and reputable merchant of Mayence who provided capital to promote the art of Gutenberg and Schöffer, and Mr. H. Sutherland Edwards, who gossips pleasantly and at great length about the Faust legends in Volume I of his book, “The Lyrical Drama,” indulges a rather wild fancy when he considers it probable that he was the father of the real mediaeval incarnation of the ancient superstition. The real Faust had been a poor lad, but money inherited from a rich uncle enabled him to attend lectures at the University of Cracow, where he seems to have devoted himself with particular assiduity to the study of magic, which had at that period a respectable place in the curriculum. Having obtained his doctorial hat, he travelled through Europe practising necromancy and acquiring a thoroughly bad reputation. To the fact that this man actually lived, and lived such a life as has been described, we have the testimony of a physician, Philip Begardi; a theologian, Johann Gast, and no less a witness than Philip Melanchthon, the reformer. Martin Luther refers to Faust in his “Table Talk” as a man lost beyond all hope of redemption; Melanchthon, who says that he talked with him, adds: “This sorcerer Faust, an abominable beast, a common sewer of many devils (turpissima bestia et cloaca multorum diabolorum), boasted that he had enabled the imperial armies to win their victories in Italy.”
The literary history of Faust is much too long to be even outlined here; a few points must suffice us. In a book published in Frankfort in 1587 by a German writer named Spiess, the legend received its first printed form. An English ballad on the subject appeared within a year. In 1590 there came a translation of the entire story, which was the source from which Marlowe drew his “Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus,” brought forward on the stage in 1593 and printed in 1604. New versions of the legend followed each other rapidly, and Faust became a favorite character with playwrights, romancers, and poets. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, when Goethe conceived the idea of utilizing the subject for publishing his comprehensive philosophy of human life, it seems to have held possession of a large portion of literary Germany. All together, it was in the mind of the great poet from his adolescence till his death ; but while he was working on his original plan, literary versions of the legend were published by twenty-eight German authors, including Lessing, whose manuscript, unhappily, was lost. Goethe had known the legend from childhood, when he had seen puppet-plays based on it these plays being the vulgar progeny of Marlowe’s powerful tragedy, which is still an ornament of English literature. Music was a part of these puppet-plays. In the first one that fell into my hands I find the influence of opera manifest in recitatives and airs put into the mouth of Mephistopheles, and comic songs sung by Kasperle, the Punch of the German marionette fraternity.
The love tale which furnished forth the entire opera book of MM. Carré and Barbier is, as I have said, wholly the invention of Goethe. There is the shadowy form of a maiden in some of the versions of the legend, but not a hint of the romantic sentiment so powerfully and pathetically set forth by the poet. Nor did the passion either for good or evil play a part in the agreement between Faust and the devil. That agreement covered five points only : Faust pledged himself to deny God, hate the human race, despise the clergy, never set foot in a church, and never get married. So far from being a love episode in the story, when Faustus, in the old book by Spiess, once expressed a wish to abrogate the last condition, Mephistopheles refused him permission on the ground that marriage is some-thing pleasing to God, and for that reason in contravention of the contract. “Hast thou,” quoth Mephistopheles, “sworn thyself an enemy to God and to all creatures? To this I answer thee, thou canst not marry ; thou canst not serve two masters, God and thy prince. For wedlock is a chief institution ordained of God, and that thou hast promised to defy as we do all, and that thou hast not only done, but, moreover, thou hast confirmed it with thy blood. Persuade thyself that what thou hast done in contempt of wedlock, it is all to thine own delight. Therefore, Faustus, look well about thee and bethink thyself better, and I wish thee to change thy mind, for if thou keep not what thou hast promised in thy writing, we will tear thee in pieces, like the dust under thy feet. Therefore, sweet Faustus, think with what unquiet life, anger, strife, and debate thou shalt live in when thou takest a wife. Therefore, change thy mind.” Faustus abandons his purpose for the time being, but within two hours summons his spirit again and demands his consent to marriage ; whereupon up there comes a whirlwind, which fills the house with fire and smoke and hurls Faustus about until he is unable to stir hand or foot. Also there appears an ugly devil, so dreadful and monstrous to behold that Faustus dares not look upon him. This devil is in a mood for jesting. “How likest thou thy wedding?” he asks of Faustus, who promises not to mention marriage more, and is well content when Mephistopheles engages to bring him any woman, dead or alive, whom he may desire to possess. It is in obedience to this promise that Helen of Troy is brought back from the world of shades to be Faustus’s paramour. By her he has a son, whom he calls Justus Faustus, but in the end, when Faustus loses his life, mother and child vanish. Goethe uses the scene of the amour between Faust and the ancient beauty in the second part of his poem as does Boito in his “Mefistofele,” charging it with the beautiful symbolism which was in the German poet’s mind. In the Polish tale of Pan Twardowsky, built on the lines of the old legend, there is a more amusing fling at marriage. In return for the help which he is to receive, the Polish wizard has the privilege of demanding three duties of the devil. After enjoying to the full the benefits conferred by two, he commands the devil to marry Mme. Twardowska. This is more than the devil had bargained for, or is willing to perform. He refuses ; the contract is broken, and Twardowsky is saved. The story may have inspired Thackeray’s amusing tale in “The Paris Sketch-book,” entitled “The Painter’s Bargain.”
For the facts in the story of the composition and production of Gounod’s opera, we have the authority of the composer in his autobiography. In 1856 he made the acquaintance of Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, and asked them to collaborate with him in an opera. They assenting, he proposed Goethe’s “Faust” as a subject, and it met with their approval. Together they went to see M. Carvalho, who was then director of the Théâtre Lyrique. He, too, liked the idea of the opera, and the librettists went to work. The composer had written nearly half of the score, when M. Carvalho brought the disconcerting intelligence that a grand melodrama treating the subject was in preparation at the Thé-âtre de la Porte Saint-Martin. Carvalho said that it would be impossible to get the opera ready before the appearance of the melodrama, and unwise to enter into competition with a theatre the luxury of whose stage mounting would have attracted all Paris before the opera could be produced. Carvalho therefore advised a change of subject, which was such a blow to Gounod that he was incapable of applying himself to work for a week. Finally, Carvalho came to the rescue with a request for a lyric comedy based on one of Molière’s plays. Gounod chose “Le Médecin malgré lui,” and the opera had its production at the Théâtre Lyrique on the anniversary of Molière’s birth, January 15, 1858. The melodrama at the Porte Saint-Martin turned out to be a failure in spite of its beautiful pictures, and Carvalho recurred to the opera, which had been laid aside, and Gounod had it ready by July. He read it to the director in the greenroom of the theatre in that month, and Mme. Carvalho, wife of the director, who was present, was so deeply impressed with the rôle of Marguerite that M. Carvalho asked the composer’s permission to assign it to her. “This was agreed upon,” says Gounod, “and the future proved the choice to be a veritable inspiration.”
Rehearsals began in September, 1858, and soon developed difficulties. Gounod had set his heart upon a handsome young tenor named Guardi for the titular rôle, but he was found to be unequal to its demands. This caused such embarrassment that, it is said, Gounod, who had a pretty voice and was rather fond of showing it, seriously pondered the feasibility of singing it himself. He does not tell us this in his autobiography, but neither does he tell us that he had chosen Mme. Ugalde for the part of Marguerite, and that he yielded to M. Carvalho in giving it to the director’s wife because Mme. Ugalde had quarrelled with him (as prima donnas will), about Massé’s opera, “La Fée Cara-bosse,” which preceded “Faust” at the Lyrique. The difficulty about the tenor rôle was overcome by the enlistment of M. Barbot, an artist who had been a companion of Carvalho’s when he sang small parts at the Opéra Comique. He was now far past his prime, and a pensioned teacher at the Conservatoire, but Gounod bears witness that he “showed himself a great musician in the part of Faust.” Of Belanqué, who created the part of Méphistophélès, Gounod says that “he was an intelligent comedian whose play, physique, and voice lent themselves wonderfully to this fantastic and Satanic personage.” As for Mme. Carvalho, it was the opinion of the composer that, though her masterly qualities of execution and style had already placed her in the front rank of contemporary singers, no rôle, till Marguerite fell to her lot, had afforded her opportunity to show in such measure “the superior phases of her talent, so sure, so refined, so steady, so tranquil its lyric and pathetic qualities.”
It was a distinguished audience that listened to the first performance of “Faust” on March 19, 1859. Auber, Berlioz, Beyer, Jules Janin, Perrin, Émile Ollivier, and many other men who had made their mark in literature, art, or politics sat in the boxes, and full as many more of equal distinction in the stalls. Among these latter were Delacroix, Vernet, Eugène Giraud, Pasdeloup, Scudo, Heugel, and Jules Lévy. The criticism of the journals which followed was, as usual, a blending of censure and praise. Berlioz was favorably inclined toward the work, and, with real discrimination, put his finger on the monologue at the close of the third act (“Il m’aime ! Quel trouble en mon coeur”) as the best thing in the score. Scudo gave expression to what was long the burden of the critical song in Germany; namely, the failure of the authors to grasp the large conception of Goethe’s poem; but, with true Gallic inconsistency, he set down the soldiers’ chorus as a masterpiece. The garden scene, with its sublimated mood, its ecstasy of feeling, does not seem to have moved him ; he thought the third act monotonous and too long. There was no demand for the score on the part of the French publishers, but at length Choudens was persuaded to adventure 10,000 francs, one-half of an inheritance, in it. He was at that time an éditeur on a small scale, as well as a postal official, and the venture put him on the road to fortune. For the English rights Gounod is said to have received only forty pounds sterling, and this only after the energetic championship of Chorley, who made the English translation. The opera was given thirty-seven times at the Théâtre Lyrique. Ten years after its first performance it was revised to fit the schemes of the Grand Opéra, and brought forward under the new auspices on March 3, 1869. Mlle. Christine Nilsson was the new Marguerite. No opera has since equalled the popularity of “Faust” in Paris. Twenty-eight years after its first performance, Gounod was privileged to join his friends in a celebration of its 500th representation. That was in 1887. Eight years after, the 1000 mark was reached, and the 1250th Parisian representation took place in 1902.
Two years before “Faust” reached London, it was given in Germany, where it still enjoys great popularity, though it is called “Margarethe,” in deference to the manes of Goethe. Within a few weeks in 1863 the opera had possession of two rival establishments in London. At Her Majesty’s Theatre it was given for the first time on June 11, and at the Royal Italian Opera on July 2. On January 23, 1864, it was brought forward in Mr. Chorley’s English version at Her Majesty’s. The first American representation took place at the Academy of usic, New York, on November 25, 1863, the parts being distributed as follows : Margherita, Miss Clara Louise Kellogg ; Siebel, Miss Henrietta Sulzer ; Martha, Miss Fanny Stockton ; Faust, Francesco Mazzoleni ; Mephistopheles, Hanibal Biachi; Valentine, G. Yppolito ; Wagner, D. Coletti. It was sung in Italian, won immediate popularity, and made money for Max Maretzek, who was at once the manager and the conductor of the company. Forty years before an English version of Goethe’s tragedy (the first part, of course) had been produced at the Bowery Theatre, with the younger Wallack as Faust and Charles Hill as Mephistopheles.
The opera begins, like Goethe’s dramatic poem, after the prologue, with the scene in Faust’s study. The aged philosopher has grown weary of fruitless inquiry into the mystery of nature and its Creator, and longs for death. He has just passed a night in study, and as the morning breaks he salutes it as his last on earth and pledges it in a cup of poison. As he is about to put the cup to his lips, the song of a company of maidens floats in at the window. It tells of the joy of living and loving and the beauty of nature and its inspirations. Faust’s hand trembles, strangely, unaccountably; again he lifts the cup, but only to pause again to listen to a song sung by a company of reapers repairing to the fields, chanting their gratitude to God for the loveliness surrounding them, and invoking His blessing. The sounds madden the despairing philosopher. What would prayer avail him? Would it bring back youth and love and faith? No. Accursed, therefore, be all things good earth’s pleasures, riches, allurements of every sort ; the dreams of love ; the wild joy of combat happiness itself ; science, religion, prayers, belief; above all, a curse upon the patience with which he had so long endured ! He summons Satan to his aid. Méphistophélès answers the call, in the garb of a cavalier. His tone and bearing irritate Faust, who bids him begone. The fiend would know his will, his desires. Gold, glory, power? all shall be his for the asking. But these things are not the heart’s desire of Faust. He craves youthfulness, with its desires and delights, its passions and puissance. Méphistophélès promises all, and, when he hesitates, inflames his ardor with a vision of the lovely Marguerite seated at her spinning-wheel. Eagerly Faust signs the compact the devil will serve Faust here, but below the relations shall be reversed. Faust drinks a pledge to the vision, which fades away. In a twinkling the life-weary sage is transformed into a young man, full of eager and impatient strength.
Méphistophélès loses no time in launching Faust upon his career of adventures. First, he leads him to a fair in a mediaeval town. Students are there who sing the pleasures of drinking; soldiers, too, bent on conquest of maidens or fortresses, all’s one to them; old burghers, who find delight in creature comforts ; maids and matrons, flirtatious and envious. All join in the merriest of musical hubbubs. Valentin, a soldier who is about to go to the wars, commends his sister Marguerite to the care of Siebel, a gentle youth who loves her. Wagner, a student, begins a song, but is interrupted by Méphistophélès, who has entered the circle of merry-makers with Faust, and who now volunteers to sing a better song than the one just begun. He sings of the Calf of Gold (“Le veau d’or est toujours debout”), and the crowd delightedly shouts the refrain. The singer accepts a cup of wine, but, finding it not at all to his taste, he causes vintages to the taste of every one to flow from the cask which serves as a tavern sign. He offers the company a toast, “To Marguerite!” and when Valentin at-tempts to resent the insult to his sister with his sword, it breaks in his hand as he tries to penetrate a magic circle which Méphistophélès draws around himself. The men now suspect the true character of their singular visitor, and turn the cruciform hilts of their swords against him, to his intense discomfort. With the return of the women the merrymaking is resumed. All join in a dance, tripping it gayly to one waltz sung by the spectators and another which rises simultaneously from the instruments. Marguerite crosses the market-place on her way home from church. Faust offers her his arm, but she declines his escort not quite so rudely as Goethe’s Gretchen does in the corresponding situation. Faust becomes more than ever enamoured of the maiden, whom he had seen in the vision conjured up in the philosopher’s study.
Méphistophélès is a bit amused at Faust’s first attempt at wooing, and undertakes to point the way for him. He leads him into the garden surrounding the cottage in which Marguerite dwells. Siebel had just been there and had plucked a nose-gay for the maiden of his heart, first dipping his fingers in holy water to protect them from the curse which Méphistophélès had pronounced against them while parading as a fortune-teller at the fair. Faust is lost in admiration at sight of the humble abode of loveliness and innocence, and lauds it in a romance (” Salut ! demeure chaste et pure”), but is taken aside by Méphistophélès, who gives warning of the approach of Marguerite, and places a casket of jewels beside the modest bouquet left by Siebel. Marguerite, seated at her spinning-wheel, alternately sings a stanza of a ballad (“Il était un Roi de Thule”) and speaks her amazed curiosity concerning the hand-some stranger who had addressed her in the market-place. She finds the jewels, ornaments herself with them, carolling her delight the while, and admiring the regal appearance which the gems lend her.
Here I should like to be pardoned a brief digression. Years ago, while the German critics were resenting the spoliation of the masterpiece of their greatest poet by the French librettists, they fell upon this so-called Jewel Song (“Air des bijoux,” the French call it), and condemned its brilliant and ingratiating waltz measures as being out of keeping with the character of Gretchen. In this they forgot that Marguerite and Gretchen are very different characters indeed. There is much of the tender grace of the unfortunate German maiden in the creation of the French authors, but none of her simple, almost rude, rusticity. As created by, let me say, Mme. Carvalho and perpetuated by Chris-tine Nilsson and the painter Ary Scheffer, Marguerite is a good deal of a grande dame, and against the German critics it might appositely be pleaded that there are more traces of childish ingenuousness in her rejoicing over the casket of jewels than in any of her other utterances. The episode is poetically justified, of course, by the eighth scene of Goethe’s drama, and there was not wanting one German writer who boldly came to the defence of Marguerite on the ground that she moved on a higher moral plane than Gretchen. The French librettists, while they emptied the character of much of its poetical con-tents, nevertheless made it in a sense more gentle, and Gounod refined it still more by breathing an ecstasy into all of its music. Goethe’s Gretchen, though she rejects Faust’s first advances curtly enough to be called impolite, nevertheless ardently returns Faust’s kiss on her first meeting with him in the garden, and already at the second (presumably) offers to leave her window open, and accepts the sleeping potion for her mother. It is a sudden, uncontrollable rush of passion to which Marguerite succumbs. Gretchen remains in simple amaze that such a fine gentleman as Faust should find any-thing to admire in her, even after she has received and returned his first kiss ; but Marguerite is exalted, transfigured by the new feelings surging within her.
Il m’aime ! quel trouble en mon coeur ! L’oiseau chante ! Le vent murmure ! Toutes les voix de la nature Semblent me répéter en choeur : Il t’aime !
I resume the story. Martha, the neighborhood gossip, comes to encourage Marguerite in a belief which she scarcely dares cherish, that the jewels had been left for her by some noble admirer, and her innocent pleasure is interrupted by the entrance of Faust and Méphistophélès. The latter draws Martha away, and Faust wooes the maiden with successful ardor. They have indulged in their first embrace, and said their farewells till tomorrow : Faust is about to depart, when Méphistophélès detains him and points to Marguerite, who is burdening the perfumed air with her new ecstasy. He rushes to her, and, with a cry of delight, she falls into his arms.
Goethe’s scene at the fountain becomes, in the hands of the French librettists, a scene in the chamber of Marguerite. The deceived maiden is cast down by the jeers and mockings of her erstwhile companions, and comforted by Siebel. It is now generally omitted. Marguerite has become the talk of the town, and evil reports reach the ear of her brother Valentin on his return from the wars with the victorious soldiery. Valentin confronts Faust and Méphistophélès while the latter is singing a ribald serenade at Marguerite’s door. The men fight, and, through the machinations of Méphistophélès, Valentin is mortally wounded. He dies denouncing the conduct of Marguerite, and cursing her for having brought death upon him. Marguerite seeks consolation in religious worship ; but the fiend is at her elbow even in the holy fane, and his taunts and the accusing chant of a choir of demons interrupt her prayers. The devil reveals himself in his proper (or improper) person at the end, and Marguerite falls in a swoon.
The Walpurgis night scene of Goethe furnished the suggestion for the ballet which fills the first three scenes of the fifth act, and which was added to the opera when it was remodelled for the Grand Opéra in 1869. The scene holds its place in Paris, but is seldom performed elsewhere. A wild scene in the Harz Mountains gives way to an enchanted hall in which are seen the most famous courtesans of ancient history Phryne, Laïs, Aspasia, Cleopatra, and Helen of Troy. The apparition of Marguerite appears to Faust, a red line encircling her neck, like the mark of a headsman’s axe. We reach the end. The distraught maiden has slain her child, and now lies in prison upon her pallet of straw, awaiting death. Faust enters and tries to persuade her to fly with him. Her poor mind is all awry and occupies itself only with the scenes of her first meeting and the love-making in the garden. She turns with horror from her lover when she sees his companion, and in an agony of supplication, which rises higher and higher with each reiteration, she implores Heaven for pardon. She sinks lifeless to the floor. Méphistophélès pronounces her damned, but a voice from on high proclaims her saved. Celestial voices chant the Easter hymn, “Christ is risen !” while a band of angels bear her soul heavenward.