IN an operatic form Berlioz’s “Damnation de Faust” had its first representation in New York at the Metropolitan Opera-house on December 7, 1906. Despite its high imagination, its melodic charm, its vivid and varied colors, its frequent flights toward ideal realms, its accents of passion, its splendid picturesqueness, it presented itself as a “thing of shreds and patches.” It was, indeed, conceived as such, and though Berlioz tried by various devices to give it entity, he failed. When he gave it to the world, he called it a “Dramatic Legend,” a term which may mean much or little as one chooses to consider it ; but I can recall no word of his which indicates that he ever thought that it was fit for the stage. It was Raoul Guns-bourg, director of the opera at Monte Carlo, who, in 1903, conceived the notion of a theatrical representation of the legend and tricked it out with pictures and a few attempts at action. Most of these attempts are futile and work injury to the music, as will presently appear, but in a few instances they were successful, indeed very successful. Of course, if Berlioz had wanted to make an opera out of Goethe’s drama, he could have done so. He would then have anticipated Gounod and Boito and, possibly, have achieved one of those popular successes for which he hungered. But he was in his soul a poet, in his heart a symphonist, and intellectually (as many futile efforts proved) incapable of producing a piece for the boards. When the Faust subject first seized upon his imagination, he knew it only in a prose translation of Goethe’s poem made by Gerald de Nerval. In his “Memoirs” he tells us how it fascinated him. He carried it about with him, reading it incessantly and eagerly at dinner, in the streets, in the theatre. In the prose translation there were a few fragments of songs. These he set to music and published under the title “Huit Scènes de Faust,” at his own expense. Marx, the Berlin critic, saw the music and wrote the composer a letter full of encouragement. But Berlioz soon saw grave defects in his work and withdrew it from circulation, destroying all the copies which he could lay hands on. What was good in it, however, he laid away for future use. The opportunity came twenty years later, when he was fired anew with a desire to write music for Goethe’s poem.
Though he had planned the work before starting out on his memorable artistic travels, he seems to have found inspiration in the circumstance that he was amongst a people who were more appreciative of his genius than his own countrymen, and whose language was that employed by the poet. Not more than one-sixth of his “Eight Scenes” had consisted of settings of the translations of M. de Nerval. A few scenes had been prepared by M. Gaudonnière from notes provided by the composer. The rest of the book Berlioz wrote himself, now paraphrasing the original poet, now going to him only for a suggestion. As was the case with Wagner, words and music frequently presented themselves to him simultaneously. Travelling from town to town, con-ducting rehearsals and concerts, he wrote whenever and wherever he could one number in an inn at Passau, the Elbe scene and the Dance of the Sylphs at Vienna, the peasants’ song by gaslight in a shop one night when he had lost his way in Pesth, the angels’ chorus in Marguerite’s apotheosis at Prague (getting up in the middle of the night to write it down), the song of the students, “Jam nox stellata velamina pandit” (of which the words are also Berlioz’s), at Breslau. He finished the work in Rouen and Paris, at home, at his café, in the gardens of the Tuilleries, even on a stone in the Boulevard du Temple. While in Vienna he made an orchestral transcription of the famous Rakoczy march (in one night, he says, though this is scarcely credible, since the time would hardly suffice to write down the notes alone). The march made an extraordinary stir at the concert in Pesth when he produced it, and this led him to incorporate it, with an introduction, into his Legend a proceeding which he justified as a piece of poetical license ; he thought that he was entitled to put his hero in any part of the world and in any situation that he pleased.
This incident serves to indicate how lightly all dramatic fetters sat upon Berlioz while “La Damnation ” was in his mind, and how little it occurred to him that any one would ever make the attempt to place his scenes upon the stage. In the case of the Hungarian march, this has been done only at the sacrifice of Berlioz’s poetical conceit to which the introductory text and music were fitted ; but of this more presently. As Berlioz constructed the “Dramatic Legend,” it belonged to no musical category. It was neither a symphony with vocal parts like his “Roméo et Juliette” (which has symphonic elements in some of its sections), nor a cantata, nor an oratorio. It is possible that this fact was long an obstacle to its production. Even in New York where, on its introduction, it created the profoundest sensation ever witnessed in a local concert-room, it was performed fourteen times with the choral parts sung by the Oratorio Society before that organization admitted it into its lists.
And now to tell how the work was fitted to the uses of the lyric theatre. Nothing can be plainer to persons familiar with the work in its original form than that no amount of ingenuity can ever give the scenes of the ” Dramatic Legend ” continuity or coherency. Boito, in his opera, was unwilling to con-tent himself with the episode of the amour between Faust and Marguerite; he wanted to bring out the fundamental ethical idea of the poet, and he went so far as to attempt the Prologue in Heaven, the Classical Sabbath, and the death of Faust with the contest for his soul. Berlioz had no scruples of any kind. He chose his scenes from Goethe’s poem, changed them at will, and interpolated an incident simply to account for the Hungarian march. Connection with each other the scenes have not, and some of the best music belongs wholly in the realm of the ideal. At the . outset Berlioz conceived Faust alone on a vast field in Hungary in spring. He comments on the beauties of nature and praises the benison of solitude. His ruminations are interrupted by a dance of peasants and the passage of an army to the music of the Rakoczy march. This scene M. Gunsbourg changes to a picture of a mediaeval interior in which Faust soliloquizes, and a view through the window of a castle with a sally-port. Under the windows the peasants dance, and out of the huge gateway come the soldiery and march off to battle. At the climax of the music which drove the people of Pesth wild at its first performance, so that Berlioz confessed that he himself shuddered and felt the hair bristling on his head when in a long crescendo fugued fragments of the march theme keep reappearing, interrupted by drum-beats like distant cannonading, Gunsbourg’s battalions halt, and there is a solemn benediction of the standards. Then, to the peroration, the soldiers run, not as if eager to get into battle, but as if in inglorious retreat.
The second scene reproduces the corresponding incident in Gounod’s opera Faust in his study, life-weary and despondent. He is about to drink a cup of poison when the rear wall of the study rolls up and discloses the interior of a church with a kneeling congregation which chants the Easter canticle, “Christ is risen ! ” Here is one of the fine choral numbers of the work for which concert, not operatic, conditions are essential. The next scene, however, is of the opera operatic, and from that point of view the most perfect in the work. It discloses the revel of students, citizens, and soldiers in Auerbach’s cellar. Brander sings the song of the rat which by good living had developed a paunch “like Dr. Luther’s,” but died of poison laid by the cook. The drinkers shout a boisterous refrain after each stanza, and supplement the last with a mock-solemn “Requiescat in pace, Amen.” The phrase suggests new merriment to Brander, who calls for a fugue on the “Amen,” and the roisterers improvise one on the theme of the rat song, which calls out hearty commendation from Méphistophélès, and a reward in the shape of the song of the flea a delightful piece of grotesquerie with its accompaniment suggestive of the skipping of the pestiferous little insect which is the subject of the song.
The next scene is the triumph of M. Gunsbourg, though for it he is indebted to Miss Loie Fuller and the inventor of the aerial ballet. In the conceit of Berlioz, Faust lies asleep on the bushy banks of the Elbe. Méphistophélès summons gnomes and sylphs to fill his mind with lovely fancies. They do their work so well as to entrance, not only Faust, but all who hear their strains. The instrumental ballet is a fairy waltz, a filmy musical fabric, seemingly woven of moonbeams and dewy cobwebs, over a pedal-point on the muted violoncellos, ending with drum taps and harmonics from the harp one of the daintiest and most original orchestral effects imaginable. So dainty is the device, indeed, that one would think that nothing could come between it and the ears of the transported listeners without ruining the ethereal creation. But M. Gunsbourg’s fancy has accomplished the miraculous. Out of the river bank he constructs a floral bower rich as the magical garden of Klingsor. Sylphs circle around the sleeper and throw themselves into graceful attitudes while the song is sounding. Then to the music of the elfin waltz, others enter who have, seemingly, cast off the gross weight which holds mortals in contact with the earth. With robes a-flutter like wings, they dart upwards and remain suspended in mid-air at will or float in and out of the transporting picture. To Faust is also presented a vision of Marguerite.
The next five scenes in Berlioz’s score are connected by M. Gunsbourg and forced to act in sequence for the sake of the stage set, in which a picture of Marguerite’s chamber is presented in the conventional fashion made necessary by the exigency of showing an exterior and interior at the same time, as in the last act of “Rigoletto.” For a reason at which I cannot even guess, M. Gunsbourg goes farther and transforms the chamber of Marguerite into a sort of semi-enclosed arbor, and places a lantern in her hand instead of the lamp, so that she may enter in safety from the street. In this street there walk soldiers, followed by students, singing their songs. Through them Faust finds his way and into the trellised enclosure. The strains of the songs are heard at the last blended in a single harmony. Marguerite enters through the street with her lantern and sings the romance of the King of Thule, which Berlioz calls a Chanson Gothique, one of the most original of his creations and, like the song in the next scene, “L’amour l’ardente flamme,” which takes the place of Goethe’s “Meine Ruh’ ist hin,” is steeped in a mood of mystical tenderness quite beyond description. Méphistophélès summons will-o’-the-wisps to aid in the bewilderment of the troubled mind of Marguerite. Here realism sadly disturbs the scene as Berlioz asks that the fancy shall create it. The customary dancing lights of the stage are supplemented with electrical effects which are beautiful, if not new. They do not mar if they do not help the grotesque minuet. But when M. Gunsbourg materializes the ghostly flames and presents them as a mob of hopping figures, he throws douches of cold water on the imagination of the listeners. Later he spoils enjoyment of the music utterly by making it the accompaniment of some utterly irrelevant pantomime by Marguerite, who goes into the street and is seen writhing between the conflicting emotions of love and duty, symbolized by a vision of Faust and the glowing of a cross on the façade of a church. To learn the meaning of this, one must go to the libretto, where he may read that it is all a dream dreamed by Marguerite after she had fallen asleep in her arm-chair. But we see her awake, not asleep, and it is all foolish and disturbing stuff put in to fill time and connect two of Berlioz’s scenes. Marguerite returns to the room which she had left only in her dream, Faust discovers himself, and there follows the inevitable love-duet which Méphistophélès changes into a trio when he enters to urge Faust to depart. Meanwhile, Marguerite’s neighbors gather in the street and warn Dame Martha of the misdeeds of Marguerite. The next scene seems to have been devised only to give an environment to Berlioz’s paraphrase of Goethe’s immortal song at the spinning-wheel. From the distance is heard the fading song of the students and the last echo of drums and trumpets sounding the retreat. Marguerite rushes to the window, and, overcome, rather unaccountably, with remorse and grief, falls in a swoon.
The last scene. A mountain gorge, a rock in the foreground surmounted by a cross. Faust’s soliloquy, “Nature, immense, impénétrable et fière,” was in-spired by Goethe’s exalted invocation to nature. Faust signs the compact, Méphistophélès summons the infernal steeds, Vortex and Giaour, and the ride to hell begins. Women and children at the foot of the cross supplicate the prayers of Mary, Magdalen, and Margaret. The cross disappears in a fearful crash of sound, the supplicants flee, and a moving panorama shows the visions which are supposed to meet the gaze of the riders birds of night, dangling skeletons, a hideous and bestial phantasmagoria at the end of which Faust is delivered to the flames. The picture changes, and above the roofs of the sleeping town appears a vision of angels welcoming Marguerite.