Faust Myth: How This Was Manifested

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In this essay, I am going to be choosing a theme and explaining how it manifested itself in music as well as in wider society and culture. By doing this, I am going to be referencing two classical pieces, analyzing them, and giving a clear understanding of the romantic repertoire. I will be placing developments in musical form and musical language, within the context of the complex technological and sociological changes of Central Europe.

The name ‘Faust’ is as emblematic of the supra-intellectual as it is of the tragic. Many different concepts of ‘Faust’ haunt German cultural life, which has led to many long-winded discussions in philosophy, literature, visual arts, and music. This mainly became an issue in the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. A theoretical work with more concentration on the artistic and visuals of Goethe’s Faust was not needed to be musically included, as of yet, yet Goethe was willing to consider many marvelous musicians such as; Heinrich Schmieder and Prince Anton Heinrich Radziwill to compose the piece of ‘Faust’. It was one of Goethe’s main goals in life, for him to see his own text been brought alive to the sounds of music, however, he gave up and abandoned his hope that he would actually live to witness any sort of musical setting. Goethe’s words were, “the awful and repulsive passages that must occasionally occur, were not in the style of the time”. He then continued to think, “The music should be like Don Juan in character”. Goethe and Don Juan had a very strong connection, as it was clear to see in their human nature and tragic downfall. Hermann Reutter, another writer, portrayed Goethe and Don Juan in his opera ‘Don Juan and Faust’ (1850). It was also noticeable that both Don Juan and Goethe were daemonic but characterized differently. Don Juan is sensual and Goethe is spiritual. For Goethe, the daemonic was most heavily manifest in his music, and its absurd effect on the listener would covey the central themes of his text.

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Johann Wolfgang Goethe was a well-known write and scientist ( 1749 – 1832 ) He was considered to be the greatest German literary figure of the modern era and he appears as the central and unsurpassed representative of the romantic movement. Goethe is said to be the German equivalent of William Shakespeare, he stood in the same relation to the culture of the era that began with the Enlightenment, whereas William Shakespeare stood in the same relation to the culture of the Renascence.

The Faust myth was written in the late 1700s by Johann Von Goethe and wasn’t finished until 1832, which is almost 60 years. Faust was known to be a creepy man who dabbled in all kinds of alchemy and things that made people dislike him. The legend around him talks about him getting into magic and getting into touch with all the different spirits to give him power. However, this wasn’t the case. In Goethe’s version of the epic closet drama ‘Faust’, the devil, who is Mephistopheles, makes a bet with God that he can get into Faust’s head and tempt him with worldly desires. By doing this, Mephistopheles goes to earth and actually manages to trick Faust by using his desire for the beautiful maiden Gretchen against him. It was actually

There is also another famous play by Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s. In this play, he explores the tension between free will and fate. This character sells his soul to the devil, in order for him to get such power and pleasure in his life. He then made an initial thought to try and get his soul back from the devil but he never does.

The Faust Symphony features 3 movements, Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. In all 3 movements of this symphony, we hear the different stylistics of each character. It was actually composer Hector Berlioz who introduced Goethes Faust to Liszt in 1830. Liszt toyed and messed around with the idea for over two decades before actually sitting down and seriously writing a symphony based on the play, after moving to Weimar in Germany. Liszt was so excited about writing the piece, that he finished it in just two months, which meant it was able to be premiered in 1857 to celebrate the opening of a monument to Goethe. Liszt music usually has a generic structure which he uses in most of his compositions: fast-paced, lush, and extravagant harmonies, and melodies and themes which transform as they move along with the story. This is also a great piece of the romantic period as Liszt uses very advance chords which at that time, were not very popular.

The first movement (Faust) starts off very slow and seems to be building to something. It starts with Faust, a philosopher and an academic who has studied all of the possible worldly disciplines but is annoyed because he can’t find ultimate knowledge.

It features an opening chromatic melody that includes all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale. The melody re-occurs throughout the first movement. Faust’s music moves through nostalgia and heroism and every melody is showing a different theme such as ‘passion’ and ‘love’. We get so many feelings all rushed into 30 minutes, from Faust’s gloomy daydreams to his thirst for knowledge, to his huge appetite for the pleasures of life. Eventually, we come to a big triumphant love theme, which shows Faust being a hero.

The second movement (Gretchen) starts in Ab Major. There is a strong relationship between Gretchen and Faust, quite like Liszt and d’Agoult, his wife. D’Agoult truly loved Liszt, however, she divorced him after giving birth to three of his children. Seventeen years later, Liszt met d’Agoult again and wrote, “ineffable charm! It is still he, and he alone, who makes me feel the divine mystery of life. With his departure I feel the emptiness around me and I shed tears” (Williams, 375). This movement captures the innocence and gentleness of Gretchen. The movement features woodwinds and strings to create a more beautiful and passionate texture. Later on in the movement, we hear a euphoric, almost spiritual version of the Faust movement which represents the love that Gretchen feels for Faust. I think it’s very pastoral and dream-like with passages from the Faust movement creeping in and eventually bringing the two together to become a love duet.

In the final movement, the music gets interesting, with Goethe saying ‘the devil can not create anything, only destroy’. This movement represents the ‘spirit of negation’, which is ultimately destroyed. There is no motif in the final movement, just passages from the Faust movement which are being turned into gleeful wicked parodies that show Mephistopheles acting through Faust. We also hear Gretchen’s theme for a brief moment, which has not been altered at all. This shows that Gretchen can not be influenced by the devil. The movement ends with a majestic chorus sung by a male choir which is showing that Mephistopheles lost the wager with God and Faust’s soul then rises up to heaven.

Liszt, who is older than Wagner by just two years, his future father-in-law, the greatest piano virtuoso of all time, recited his piece to him in 1856. Wagner was amazed and loved this piece so much, that he actually purely nicked whole ideas from the piece, which include, thematic material, harmonic flexibility, and orchestrational sensuality. To further go into the depth of Liszt Faust, you can hear pre-echoes of Bruckner’s harmonic language. You can also hear the emotion and intensity of Gustov Mahler. Liszt’s Faust is a genuinely prophetic piece.

But there was a much bigger issue at stake in Liszt’s symphony. For Liszt, the set pieces he chose, which includes his tone-poems as well as his Faust and Dante symphonies, was no attempt to create a more musical atmosphere at all. Instead, Liszt was attempting to show what Music really was and the power that could be created from it. Liszt felt that music could do something much more elemental than toying with people’s emotions. Music for Liszt possessed a huge magical power that could transcend other art forms by becoming the sublime encounters that painting or literature could only symbolize. So this basically means that Liszt’s Faust symphony defiantly gave the sense of being daemonic and was inherently intra musical as opposed to being ‘extra musical’. It also gives us a clearer definition of the symphony at the same time, making people look at the text a lot more differently.

I have also chosen another piece that really gives us a clearer understanding of ‘Faust’ and why it was important for us to really feel what was going on. ‘Gretchen Am Sprinnrade’ which translates to ‘Gretchen At The Spinning Wheel’ was a lied composed by Franz Schubert at the age of 17, just three months before his birthday, which was astonishing as this was only one of over 600 of his works. Schumann really concentrates on the moments of lyric inwardness throughout the piece. The song mainly revolves around Part One of the text from ‘Faust’. The Lied opens in D minor with Gretchen sitting at her spinning wheel. Gretchen then goes on to sing her heart out in agony. A clever thing Schubart has done at the start is that he has tried to capture the exact text from his music, with the accompaniment in the right hand imitating the movement of the spinning wheel and the left hand mirroring the foot pedal. This shows that he wants the listener to really feel for Gretchen and imagine what she is going through. This first section has a lot of chord progressions, which all lead back to the original key. This builds a lot of tension and is very similar to the spinning wheel, as it seems like the piece is going in circles. The next second begins with the left hand then introduces block chords to us, which gives it more of a free feeling. Gretchen is in a bad state at this point in which she tries to show her admiration for Faust. I think it’s such a great positive thing that composers understood what people wanted, and in this piece, the listeners just want Faust and Gretchen to just let it all out. The piece builds and builds with so much tension, louder dynamics, and a massive tempo change. Finally, a release comes with the most powerful thing she Gretchen ever experienced – Faust’s kiss. Johnson quotes “it’s much more than a brilliant metaphor”. The final section builds up much faster than before, with the treadle-like left hand being present, rooting Gretchen in her own reality. The spinning wheel becomes less relevant as we come towards the end of the piece. It becomes synonymous with the whirring, the dislocation of a young women’s discovery of her sexual vulnerability, which was one of the main attractions for a German lied.

So for over a century, the Faust story really held a lot of power over composers. But the question is, why was this? The stage has a lot to do with. Technology was improving and stages were being transformed so they were able to produce lightning effects, flames, and magical appearances and disappearances. Some of these effects were highly used in a lot of Berlioz’s music. It also has to do with the way the story conforms with operatic conventions. Opera can only be a major success if it has a need for its central figures to have some sort of heroic ethic to them. Each of the main characters in this story has so much difference in their personality and their actions, that composers are able to choose which instruments the best suit the character. Faust and Gretchen especially offer rich possibilities to singers and composers.     


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