THE short overture by its mysterious and somewhat gloomy character expresses Faust’s dark thoughts and solitary brooding. Out of the heavy string passages a gleam of hope from the wood-wind arises. It ends with a few solemn and slow chords. The curtain rises. Faust (tenor) is alone in his study. The expiring lamp seems typical of his own sinking life. Impatiently he closes the volume : he soliloquizes upon the fruitlessness of his own learning. His sombre meditations, reflected in the orchestra, are interrupted by a cheerful melody from without, a gay air on the oboe, easy, fresh, and piquant. This the composer has substituted for Goethe’s Easter Hymn. Faust goes to the window. Another day is dawning, but there is no joy for him ! Pouring the contents of a phial into a goblet, he calls for Death. The voices of young girls saluting the lovely dawn, with its dewy roses and blithe birds, Paresseuse folle, make him pause. Again he lifts the poison to his lips, and now a chorus of reapers behind the scenes sings a pastoral melody, Aux champs l’aurore nous rappelle, constructed on a drone bass, calling everyone to rejoice and pray. Faust is impressed ; the cup drops from his hand. However, he remembers the inefficacy of prayer, and, cursing earth and all human passions, he summons Satan. The agitated string passages, depicting Faust’s excitement, are succeeded by wind instruments in a sudden change of key, and Mephistopheles (bass) appears. ” With a sword, a cap, a purse, and a gay velvet cloak, I travel,” he says, ” like a nobleman.” First, he questions Faust if he fears him, and in the following long duet asks if it is gold or glory that he wants. Faust replies in a noticeable phrase, ” A moi les plaisirs,” that it is youth. Mephistopheles dictates his terms, and when Faust refuses to sell his soul, he shows him Marguerite at her spinning-wheel, the whir of which is described on the violins, while the harps accompany it with a mysterious harmony in which the veiled notes of the horns are noticeable. This phrase will be repeated by Marguerite in Act III.
The enraptured Faust signs the parchment and Mephistopheles hands him a goblet containing ” the nectar of the sun,” which Faust quaffs, and becomes young instantly. The vision fades. “When shall I see her again ? ” asks Faust. ” To-day,” replies the fiend, ” away ! ” Faust sings delightedly ” A moi les plaisirs,” this time in another key, while Mephistopheles mockingly echoes the words and melody.
ACT II. After a few bars, the curtain rises on a tavern bearing the sign of Bacchus, just outside the gates of Frankfort. The Kermesse attracts a motley crowd. The students (first basses) gaily take up the theme from the orchestra and sing a drinking-song, Vin ou bière. Wagner (bass), a pupil of Dr. Faust, has just enlisted as a soldier, and joins in with a new theme (” Jeune adept”) ; the horns play a military strain and the soldiers (second basses) sing of siege to girls and castles (” Filles ou forteresses “) ; the old men (first tenors) in their cracked voices sing (” Aux jours de dimanche”) of how they like to sit under the trees on Sunday a very remarkable melody ; the young girls coquette with the men (“Voyez ces hardis compères”), a new strain taken up by the students in another key (“Voyez ces jeunes gaillardes “) and repeated by the matrons (second sopranos) (” Voyez, après ces donzelles “). Then the first subject the drinking-song of the students is resumed, and all ends in an animated coda. This has been described as six choruses, but it is only one, beginning and ending with the same theme.
Trombones announce Valentine (baritone), who refers to the amulet, or medal, his sister, Marguerite, has given him for protection from danger. Wagner reminds him it is time to be marching. ” Then let us have a parting-cup, says Valentine. In reply to Wagner’s questions regarding his sadness, he says he regrets leaving his sister, Marguerite, unprotected. Siebel, a lover of Marguerite’s (contralto), promises to guard her, and so do the others. Wagner calls for wine to dispel this melancholy, and begins his “Song of the Rat.” This is interrupted by the arrival of Mephistopheles, accompanied by a rushing sound of the strings. Mephistopheles compliments Wagner on the song; he will sing one after him. ” Let us have it now,” demands Wagner. ” Very well ; but you must join in the chorus,” Satan answers. He then sings his song in praise of gold (Le veau d’or), and in it alludes to Beelzebub who conducts the worship. The chorus join in the second verse, and Mephistopheles enjoys their unconscious homage to him.
Valentine comments upon the guest, but Wagner invites him to drink. Mephistopheles now looks at their palms. Wagner is to die at the first engagement ; Valentine will perish in a duel ; every flower and woman that Siebel shall pluck or love shall wither, ” Be careful of nosegays for Marguerite,” warns the fiend. Valentine takes offence at this. Snatching the glass from Wagner, Mephistopheles toasts the company ; he finds the wine bad he, will give them better, and calls on Bacchus. Again there is a rush in the orchestra. He fills the glasses miraculously and proposes the health of Marguerite. Valentine dashes the cup from his hand, and the spilled wine flames up. All are frightened. Valentine, Wagner, and Siebel draw their swords ; Mephistopheles makes a charmed circle with his ; none can approach him, although all now know the stranger is the devil, and pray Heaven for protection. Valentine and the others think of the cross on the hilt of their swords, and all, holding this cross upright, advance, singing a chorale (C’est une croix). Mephistopheles winces, and all depart in safety, leaving the fiend, who is joined by Faust.
The latter begs to see Marguerite. In a very expressive phrase, Mephistopheles says he will have difficulty in winning her, for her purity protects her; however, she will soon pass this very spot. The revels of the Kermesse begin. Students, among them Siebel, and maidens enter, with rustic fiddlers, who take their places. To a gay waltz in the orchestra the chorus sings in praise of dancing (Ainsi que la brise legere). Siebel longs for Marguerite to appear, and soon the beautiful girl enters. Faust exclaims in rapture. Mephistopheles advises him to accost her, and balks Siebel from approaching his heart’s idol. Faust compliments Marguerite and offers her his arm (” Ne permettrez-vous pas”), which she gracefully declines and passes on. It is noticeable that while she sings this lovely phrase, ” Non, Monsieur, je ne suis demoiselle ni belle,” the orchestra plays the very notes that Faust has just sung, as if he and his words had touched her heart. The disappointed Faust is reassured by Mephistopheles, while the waltz is continued and developed until the curtain falls.
ACT III. — After a short introduction, the curtain rises on the garden before Marguerite’s dwelling, a garden sweet with vines and roses. At the back is a high wall pierced by a gate, through which Siebel enters. The violoncello announces the theme of his famous air, Faites lui mes aveux ; he will gather flowers which will carry his message of love to Marguerite ! He plucks a blossom; it withers, and he remembers the prophecy of the sorcerer at the fair.” He dips his hand in the holy water at the shrine where Marguerite is wont to pray daily. Again he gathers a flower and is happy to find that Satan’s spell is broken. As he places his nosegay upon Marguerite’s doorstep, hoping the flowers will “speak the language of love,” Faust and Mephistopheles enter. At the latter’s exclamation, Siebel hastens away. The fiend tells Faust he will give him a gift for Marguerite that will outshine that of his rival. Faust bids him go, and, left alone, apostrophizes Marguerite’s dwelling in the famous cavatina, Salut, demeure, chaste et pure, a graceful and tender air with an obbligato violin in the orchestra it is almost a dialogue of the voice with the orchestra. A progression of harmony leads back to the first theme. Mephistopheles now returns with a casket of jewels. Faust refuses to tempt Marguerite, but Mephistopheles places the casket where Marguerite will see it, and bids Faust wait and hope. Hiding, they watch Marguerite, who enters. The clarinets and violins suggest her coming song. She seats herself at her spinning -wheel and sings the old chanson of the Roi de Thulé, quite in the antique style and inspired with a melancholy and dreamy sentiment. Now and again she interrupts herself to muse upon the handsome stranger. Then she speaks of her loneliness, and longs for Valentine. Now she sees Siebel’s flowers, but abandons them for the casket. First, she expresses her curiosity, then her misgivings about satisfying it, in accompanied recitative, which leads to an Allegretto in waltz time, during which she opens the casket, puts on the jewels, and admires herself in the mirror she finds there. This, Ah ! je ris de me voir si belle, is the celebrated ” Jewel Song.” Her neighbour, Martha, enters, and is astonished to see Marguerite wearing such gems. From the latter’s remarks, Martha gathers that it is Faust who presented them, and she persuades her to keep them. At this point Mephistopheles reveals himself. Faust follows. As Marguerite recognizes the latter, and fancies him the donor, she begins to take off the jewels. Mephistopheles bows to Martha, and brings her a pretended message from her absent husband. It is a dying message, and then, of course, he has to console her hysterical and hypocritical grief, distracting her attention from Marguerite. Mean-while Faust is begging the latter to wear the gems. Arm in arm, the two couples now walk about, and the quartette of the promenade is divided in a very original manner, as the situation demands. Mephistopheles is flirting with the flattered Martha, and Marguerite is telling Faust the story of her simple life. The musical phrases are full of distinction, and the instrumentation is very rich and highly-coloured, for the violins, harps, and wind instruments are well blended. After the ensemble, Mephistopheles escapes from Martha, and hides in the shrubbery to watch Faust and Marguerite. There is a return of Siebel’s song, this time on the violins instead of the ‘cello, and Siebel enters. He is dismissed by Martha and is again baffled by Mephistopheles. Then the fiend, left alone, sings an incantation to the night, and spreading his cloak above the flowers bids them bewilder the senses of Marguerite with their magic perfume, and suddenly they gleam with strange beauty. Mephistopheles retires, and Faust and Marguerite re-enter to sing their grand duet. Laissez-moi contempler ton visage, sings Faust, and Marguerite repeats his phrase note for note. Then she plucks a daisy and pulls its petals to see if her lover is true. She is overjoyed to find that he loves her. Faust assures her the daisy speaks the truth. She yields herself to him and Faust sings, O nuit d’amour, ciel radieux ! Marguerite replies, ” je veux t’aimer,” which we heard in Act I in the orchestra when Mephistopheles showed the aged Faust the vision of Marguerite.
In the next movement an Allegro in a minor key Marguerite begs Faust to leave her, and, finally, bids him farewell, promising to meet him on the morrow. Kissing her hand to him, she enters her cottage. Faust tries to go, but Mephistopheles, now at his side, forces him to remain a moment longer ” to hear what Marguerite will say to the stars.” At this moment, she softly opens her casement and sings of her love and longing for Faust. Her short, passionate phrases are echoed in the orchestra with lovely effect. Faust rushes to her, and Mephistopheles gives a demoniacal laugh of triumph. The orchestra plays the melodies that Marguerite has just been singing, and the curtain slowly falls.
ACT IV. — The short and mournful orchestral prelude introduces the melody of Marguerite’s next song. She is discovered at her spinning-wheel, awaiting Faust’s return. She hears the voices of her former companions behind the scenes (Le galant etranger s’enfuit ). She sadly remembers that once she mocked the frailties of others. She then sings her “Spinnning-wheel Song,” line revient pas, the accompaniment to which is somewhat similar to Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade. The revolving wheel is well described in the orchestra. It is almost the same melody transposed in a minor key as that which the orchestra plays in Act I, where Faust has the vision of Marguerite, and repeats in the duet in the Garden Scene.
Siebel enters and offers to avenge Marguerite. She refuses : Faust does not desert her willingly she says; it is that dark shadow of evil at his side that keeps him away. She talks of how Faust left her and their child. ” I was kneeling by the cradle and I said to him : ‘Look at this angel that God has given to us !’ His companion entered and the child woke with screams. Then they left.” Siebel sings a romance, Italian in character ; Marguerite leaves to go to church ; and Martha enters and tells Siebel that Valentine has returned.
The orchestra plays a march founded on two melodies, and the soldiers sing their chorus, Deposons les armes. Valentine meets Siebel, who tells him that his sister is in the church, the soldiers’ voices break forth again, leading up to the vigorous melody, Gloire immortelle de nos aïeux. Siebel then tries to tell Valentine about Marguerite, but fails, and as they approach the church, Faust and Mephistopheles enter, the latter with a guitar. Mephistopheles tries to lure Faust away, but Faust, still loving Marguerite, will not come. Then Mephistopheles will call her forth by a serenade ! His song is very insulting (Vous qui fait-es l’endormie). Faust bids him cease ; but he laughs sardonically. Then Valentine rushes out from the house ‘and cuts the devil’s guitar in two with his sword. A trio follows, Faust and Valentine having drawn on each other, whilst Mephistopheles presides over the duel. Valentine throws away the amulet that Marguerite gave him. This puts him under the devil’s power. The first, second, and third thrusts are imitated in the orchestra, and after the fourth lunge, Valentine falls to a doleful note on the horn. Mephistopheles takes Faust away ; Martha, Siebel, and other neighbours enter. They find Valentine dying, and he tells them that his sister’s betrayer has killed him. Marguerite makes her way through the crowd, but Valentine curses her. The bystanders breathe a prayer for them both. Sinister harmonies are heard during this death scene, and the trombones are used to depict horror.
We hear a prelude on the organ as the scene changes to the interior of the church. Marguerite is kneeling near a font of holy water, singing a short prayer without accompaniment. She hears the voice of Mephistopheles at her side, telling her that she shall pray no more, and he calls on the demons to show her her fate. A rushing sound on the wind and strings precedes the chorus of demons who call her name. She is frightened, and now she sees Mephistopheles, who ” whispers in her ear all the horrors of death.”
A chorale within the church (Quand du Seigneur le jour luira), interrupted at each pause by a peculiar figure of triplets in the orchestra, alternates with the terrible denunciations of Mephistopheles and his demons. She joins her voice with those of the worshippers whose hymn, the well-known Dies free, comforts her ; but Mephistopheles calls out ” Mine thou art,” as he disappears. The organ resumes its melody and the curtain falls.
Act V opens in the Hartz mountains on Walpurgis night, ” well and wildly with shrill, short phrases, dropped from every quarter of the heaven, as it were by unseen singers,” a chorus of Will o’ the Wisps, Dans les bruyères. Mephistopheles has brought Faust into his kingdom and restrains his terrified victim, who wants to leave. ‘With a gesture, he illuminates the scene. The mountains open and a superb palace is seen, in which there stands a table richly served and surrounded by courtesans of antiquity. They sing a chorus (Que les coupes s’emplissent), and Faust, to forget his sorrow, takes a cup and sings two couplets accompanied by the chorus :
” Doux nectar en ton ivresse Tiens mon coeur enseveli. . . .”
Soon the memory of Marguerite returns. He calls her. Night invades the scene, the palace and its inmates crumble away and disappear, and Faust is again in the valley of the Brocken. The wraith of Marguerite, sad and pale, appears on a rock. Faust insists upon seeing her, and, sword in hand, he drags Mephistopheles through the monsters and demons that try to bar the way. A group of sorcerers enter and have a dance and chorus around a cauldron from which rise wierd flames.
A long melancholy prelude is heard in the orchestra and the scene changes to the prison in which Marguerite is confined for having murdered her child. She is lying on the straw half-asleep, when Faust and Mephistopheles enter to save her from the morrow’s scaffold. Faust calls her name, and Marguerite recognizes him. The music here is founded upon the melody at the beginning of Act IV, just after her conversation with Siebel, when it was played in the orchestra in 314 time ; now it is in common time and from Marguerite’s lips, Oui, c’est toi que j’aime. Faust begs her to fly with him ; but he soon sees that her reason is impaired. The orchestra is reminiscent : we hear the waltz and the meeting with Faust in Act II, and the duet in the garden scene of Act III, all memories passing through the minds of both lovers.
Mephistopheles now appears urging Faust to leave. Marguerite recognizes him and is terrified. ” Let us go,” says Mephistopheles, “before the dawn. Listen ; the horses are waiting impatiently in the court-yard to bear us away.” As he sings, Viens, sauvons-là, the galop and neighing of horses are heard in the orchestra. Faust entreats Marguerite to come; but she will not; she prays, langes purs, anges radieux “; and Mephistopheles in the trio urges Faust away.
Now Marguerite suddenly sees in Faust the murderer of her brother. She recoils and sinks in a death-swoon. As Mephistopheles is about to triumph over his prey, a chorus of angels proclaim that she is saved. The walls of the prison open and the angels, singing an Easter Hymn, bear Marguerite to heaven. Faust prostrates himself in prayer, and Mephistopheles trembles under the avenging sword of the archangel?