The Music For An Old And Lasting German Legend

The Music For An Old And Lasting German Legend

According to a very old German legend, one which has come to be expressed in every theatrical form from grand opera to puppet plays to Broadway musicals, a medieval scholar named Faust or Faustus made a deal with Satan, offering the Evil One his soul for unending post-mortem punishment, in return for elusive knowledge and worldly pleasure. The specific lure or combination of lures that led to the bargain differs with each telling.

As does the ending! Some versions of the tale lead to the sinner’s death and damnation … others to the sinner’s repentance and the defeat of the devil.

This story entered the canonical realm of Great Literature in 1594, with the first productions of the play, “Doctor Faustus,” by Christopher Marlowe.

Half a century later, Rembrandt did an etching of Faust in his study summoning the evil spirit. I’ve used that etching above. I love the way the etching both merges and doesn’t quite merge the two light sources – natural light comes into the room quietly from a highly-placed window, while supernatural (or infra-natural) light spreads from a oblong source just below that window, and closer to Faust’s face. I also love the ambiguous shadow (or smudge?) in the lower right hand corner of the window.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

A later version of the tale, Goethe’s play Faust (1808), may represent the single greatest accomplishment in the literature of the German language. Goethe is often thought to have modeled his protagonist after two infamous alchemists of the late medieval period, Paracelsus and Agrippa.

Fascinating as all that is, at justsheetmusic we are naturally interested in the way in which the story entered musical immortality. There are at least three grand operas involved. Working in reverse chronological order (and increasing degree of prominence) these are: Doktor Faust, by Ferruccio Busoni, (1925); Mefistofele, (1868) by Arrigo Boito; and Faust (1859), by Charles Gounod. Each of these was deeply indebted to the epic poem on this theme by Goethe.

You can listen to each of these through the miracle of YouTube. Just go:

Of the three, Gounod’s is easily the most loved and most performed. One of Gounud’s admirers has called his Faust a moment of “life from the dead for the lyric drama of France.”

Gounod drew largely upon Goethe’s poem, and in his own memoir the composer described the early stage of composition this way: “I never parted with the score; I carried it about with me everywhere, and jotted down in stray notes any idea which I thought might be useful whenever I made an attempt to use the subject for an opera. This I did not attempt until seventeen years afterwards.”

When that long period of gestation came to its end, and Gounod set to work in earnest, he asked his friend Michael Carré to write the libretto. Carré already had written a (comic) play on the theme, but he did not simply transpose the play to an operatic key. Rather, he brought in another pair of hands, those of Jules Barbier, and it was Barbier and Carré who together found the perfect words for Gounod’s five acts of music.

Meyerbeer Took A Pass, Pasternak Didn’t

Giacomo Meyerbeer

Barbier had aspired to contribute to such a work for some time. He had approached another composer, Giacomo Meyerbeer, with the suggestion that Goethe’s “Faust” would make a fine story for an opera, but Meyerbeer had indignantly refused to participate, believing that Goethe’s masterpiece was above all adaptation.

The Faust legend became part of the politics of the Soviet regime in Russia in 1950, because Boris Pasternak in that year completed a Russian language translation of the first part of Goethe’s work. A Communist party hack criticized the translation in Novy Mir, writing that Pasternak “attributes a reactionary idea to Goethe.” The party line in those days was that Goethe was a “progressive” political figure and that translations of these works should emphasize Goethe’s real or imagined leftward political tendencies. To do otherwise is to believe in the false bourgeois aesthetic of pure art, etc.

Pasternak, to his great credit, appears to have done otherwise.

But let’s get back to the music! The musical “Those Damned Yankees” ran on Broadway in 1955 and became a Hollywood musical three years later, on the strength of music by Richard Adler and lyrics by Jerry Ross, based on a novel by Douglass Wallop, “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant.” In those days, the very notion of the Yankees not winning the American League pennant was so fantastical that it seemed only an opposing player’s deal with the devil could possibly make it transpire!

In this optimistic, perhaps characteristically American version of the tale, the devil is cheated. The Yankees go down to defeat and the protagonist, Joe Hardy, gets his soul back.

The Charlie Daniels Band

The popular song, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” (1979) – performed by the Charlie Daniels Band for their album Million Mile Reflections, and was featured in the John Travolta movie “Urban Cowboy” the following year, is another fine reflection of the comic possibilities inherent in the theme. For sometimes someone can get away with dealing with the devil – at least if that someone (like the “Johnny”) of the Charlie Daniels tune – is a fine fiddler.

Randy Newman

We could keep this up for a long time! But we’ll end it with Randy Newman’s Faust (1993), a ‘concept album’ that infused the whole story with Newman’s characteristic cynicism, and that has repeatedly since been staged as a play, though never (it must be said) with rollicking success.

A critic of a Chicago production in 2001 praised the play for offering a lot of laughs, but criticized the “pat, unsatisfying series of reprises” with which it concludes.

Perhaps it is best remembered for the song “Feels Like Home.”

Despite the comparative lack of success on his take on Faust, some of Newman’s most ardent fans did complain that he had “sold out” with this album and the subsequent stagings, going for commercial success at the cost of artistic integrity.

Sold out? What an ironic charge, in context! Sold out: to Whom, or What?





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *