Tuesday 21 February 2017

The devil with all the best tunes

Published 28/08/2010 | 05:00

Germany's foremost man of letters was born on this day in 1749. Difficult to define, for his interests extended way beyond the literary, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had a huge cultural impact.

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His magnum opus, on which he worked for much of his life, was the two-part drama Faust, a powerful allegory of the never-ending battle between good and evil.

Although the English dramatist Christopher Marlowe was first to bring this story to the stage, it was Goethe's account that resonated with composers across the years.

The inherent melodrama lent itself particularly to opera, and there are many takes on the tale of the man, Faust, who sells his soul to the devil so that he can be young again. Louis Spohr, no longer in the front rank of classical composers, was first out of the blocks with a version that debuted in Prague in 1816.

But it was the French, whose music of the Romantic era drew heavily on German literary sources, who made a lasting impression.

There was La Damnation de Faust by Hector Berlioz. Faust gets the tenor part, Mephistopheles the devil is the bass, and Faust's love interest -- Marguerite (Gretchen in the original) -- is the soprano.

As titled by the composer, it wasn't so much an opera but a légende dramatique -- a dramatic legend. Indeed La Damnation has had much of its success in concert performance, though in recent years there has been something of a renaissance of its operatic form.

Best known is Charles Gounod's Faust, yet it had a troubled birth. Its premiere was delayed for a year because an interpretation by Gounod's former collaborator, Adolphe d'Ennery, got there first.

Then when it was staged in spring 1859, it wasn't well received. From this distance, it's hard to know why. Nobody hears of d'Ennery now. Gounod's Faust always fills halls.

The wonderful tunes come thick and fast: the joyous waltz 'Ainsi que la brise légère' (the gentle breeze is like a dance), Faust's cavatina in praise of Marguerite's house -- 'Salut! Demeure chaste et pure' -- with a terrific high C at the end, and the exquisite Jewel Song ('Je ris de me voir si belle!' -- I laugh when I see how lovely I look!) for example.

Goethe's Faust was instrumental in the creation of Mahler's Eighth Symphony. Its second part is based on the closing scene of the play. Schubert, too, drew on Goethe. His first successful song, 'Gretchen am Spinnrade' (Gretchen at the spinning wheel), is a setting of lines spoken by the object of Fausts's desire.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning ghamilton@independent.ie

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