Full programme

  • Berlioz, The Damnation of Faust  (125mins)



Can you imagine a group of enthusiastic amateur singers who had only been together for a few weeks being confronted with a major orchestral work?

Most of us had only sung in church choirs and amateur operatic societies before, so this was a major step up into the world of professional choral singing.

Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust is a tricky work, sung in French and Latin, and was a daunting prospect to those of us who, after auditioning in September 1973, gathered in The Friends Meeting House in October under the watchful eye of choral director Gordon Clinton and CBSO’s conductor Louis Frémaux. Was the chorus formed so that M. Frémaux, A Frenchman, could perform this French piece with his own Orchestra and Chorus?

The first performance of this work (or any work by the newly formed Chorus) was on January 31st in Birmingham Town Hall, a venue many of the choir had never performed in before, or even visited. Despite jangling nerves and pumping adrenaline, the evening was a triumph. Things would only get better and the nervous tension even greater, as the very next day, the whole concert was repeated, with great success, in The Royal Festival Hall, London. Quite a step up from singing excerpts from “Messiah” with the organ in the local church!

It is a happy coincidence that we are performing this work again almost exactly fifty years since that first performance and therefore marking the fiftieth anniversary of the CBSO Chorus.

Phil Rawle, Chorus Member


Part One

Faust alone in the fields at daybreak

It’s a spring morning in Hungary, and the orchestra paints a scene of wandering melancholy as we meet Faust: a young German scholar, who has grown jaded first with his studies, and then with life itself. Like an anti-hero from a poem by Byron (another of Berlioz’s literary idols) he has taken to wandering: he can see the joy of reawakening nature, but he can’t feel it. Human sounds begin to press in upon the scene – Hungarian country-folk, singing and dancing and taking an uncomplicated (and distinctly earthy) delight in rustic pleasures. Faust is unmoved.

Distant trumpets sound, and the Hungarian army advances towards him, marching to war. To the strains of the great Hungarian war song, the Rákóczi March (in Berlioz’s own, typically flamboyant version) they march past. Faust sees the soldiers’ pride, and the fire in their eyes. What heart could not be stirred? Faust’s: he remains wholly indifferent.

Part Two

North Germany

Faust has returned alone to his study, where tedium weighs even more heavily upon his soul. Only suicide seems to offer an escape: but as he lifts the poison to his lips, he hears an Easter hymn in the streets outside. It brings back memories – of childhood faith, happiness and hope - and he relents: “Heaven has won me back!” But someone else has been listening too, and in a flash, he appears. He introduces himself as the Spirit of Life, promising Faust “happiness, pleasure and your wildest desires”. “Follow me and abandon your useless philosophy”, he insists - and Faust is only too happy to comply.

Their first stop is the boozer, and Auerbach’s wine cellar in Leipzig is heaving. The regulars are in a roistering mood and one of them, Brander, stands up and delivers his party-piece: a cheerful little number about a trapped rat and its fiery fate. And since they’re all clearly choral scholars, the drinkers round it off with an “Amen” fugue in the best academic style.

For Méphistophélès (yes, the stranger is him) it’s all getting a bit close to home. He seizes the initiative with a song of his own – about a social-climbing flea – but Faust has had enough. They wander out into the meadows by the River Elbe, and Méphistophélès promises much deeper pleasures (Voici des Roses). Strange quiet spirits whirl and sing around him – gnome-like beings, and seductive sylphs. Faust falls into an enchanted sleep in which he hears the name “Margarita”, and the promise of love. “It’s working: he’s ours!” declares Méphistophélès. As Faust wakes from his dream, a rowdy parade of soldiers and students (singing a Latin drinking song) passes by on the way back into town. Faust follows them into the city, to seek his promised love.

Part Three

Evening in Marguerite’s room

Méphistophélès has let Faust into the unsuspecting Marguerite’s empty room. Now night is falling, and while the soldiers sound the retreat outside, Faust hides as Marguerite enters and sings a song of faithful love (Le Roi de Thulé). It seems that she, too, has just dreamed of an unknown beloved. Out in the street, Méphistophélès summons more supernatural assistance, and sings a suggestive serenade as he wraps the house in his charms. Marguerite sees Faust, and it’s as if they both know each other already. Their duet is first tender, and then increasingly passionate.

But there are three…well, not people, exactly, in this relationship. Just as the lovers are about to make their happiness complete, Méphistophélès is back, with bad tidings: the neighbours have heard about the couple’s illicit liaison and are coming to put a stop to Marguerite’s scandalous behaviour. They’re calling for her mother, and Faust has to make a hurried escape. Méphistophélès seems strangely satisfied with this turn of events.

Part Four

Marguerite’s room

Another evening. The soldiers beat retreat once again, student revellers fill the streets and Marguerite, alone, longs for her new beloved – it’s as if his kisses are drawing out her very soul. But he never comes. Faust, unsatisfied even with true love, has retreated to the forest to seek solace from nature once again. But there’s a reason why he is now incapable of feeling happiness, and Méphistophélès chooses the moment to spring his trap.

He has grave news: Marguerite is in prison. Before her assignations with Faust, she had been giving her elderly mother a sleeping draught; now she’s administered too much and has killed the old woman. Faust is horrified: “Save her, you wretch!” Just sign here, replies Méphistophélès. Faust signs, and Méphistophélès summons two jet-black steeds to speed them to Marguerite’s rescue. Off they gallop, through plains, mountains and valleys. As they fly, Faust distantly hears peasants praying to the Virgin (to a chant that Berlioz had heard in his own youth).

Suddenly Faust sees skeletons; the horses bristle in terror – “It’s raining blood!” - and the hideous truth about their destination dawns upon him. Méphistophélès roars in triumph, and all the fiends of Hell sing a demonic hymn (Berlioz invented their language himself) as they plunge into the Abyss.


Stunned, the orchestra falls silent as a chorus of voices on Earth concludes the tale: “A frightful mystery – oh, dread!”. But infinitely high above, to a ripple of golden harps, an angelic choir sings a different song: “Rise to heaven, innocent soul, that love led astray”. The music seems to glow from within as Marguerite is welcomed to Heaven.

© Richard Bratby

Programme Notes

What would you trade for your wildest dreams? Young Faust makes a wicked bargain, but he has one hell of a time finding out the price. Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust caused a scandal in 1846, and it’s still just as outrageous and as entertaining. Kazuki Yamada celebrates 50 years of the CBSO Chorus with the work they sang in their very first concert – and tonight the Devil really does have all the best tunes!


Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Dealing with the Devil

Hector Berlioz was 24 years old when he first read Goethe’s Faust, and he never forgot that moment. The year was 1828 and the first French translation had been created by Gérard de Nerval – a literary genius barely out of his teens, with only the most basic understanding of German. Nonetheless, recalled Berlioz in his Memoirs:

"…it made a strange and profound impact on me. This marvellous book fascinated me straight away. I could not put it down, but read and read and read—at meals, at the theatre, in the street, wherever I happened to be."

And why wouldn’t he? The young Berlioz was utterly intoxicated by romanticism. Red-haired and impetuous, he’d thrown in his medical studies in Paris to become a musician without even the most basic professional training. He had already discovered Shakespeare and Beethoven, and the arrival in France of Goethe’s Faust felt like another, wondrous message from a world of sublime emotion, soaring poetry and spine-tingling supernatural thrills. Within weeks, he’d composed a suite of pieces entitled Eight Scenes from Goethe’s Faust.

The legend of Faust was not new. Historia von D. Johann Fausten, the earliest known account of a scholar who strikes a deal with the Devil in return for unimagined powers and pleasures, was published in Frankfurt in 1587. In 1593, the playwright Christopher Marlowe adapted the story for the London stage as The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. In Marlowe’s version, Dr Faustus is a scholar of theology at the University of Wittenberg, where his studies lead him to black magic and a fatal pact with the demon Mephistophilis.

In Part 1 of Goethe’s version (first published in 1808) Faust has a sweetheart: the gentle and loving Margarete (or Gretchen), whose own soul is endangered by her devotion to Faust.

In time, Margarete’s love brings about Faust’s redemption – but that happens in Part 2, which wasn’t published until 1832. In 1828, though, Berlioz didn’t know that, and he always kept faith with those first impressions. He soon withdrew his Eight Scenes, but the legend of Faust never left him, and in 1845, when he felt ready to return to the subject, he let nothing inhibit his imagination. This time he would create something as grand, as colourful and as extraordinary as the emotions and images that Goethe’s story had suggested to him. This wasn’t to be a musical setting of Goethe, but Berlioz’s own, utterly original vision of the story: told with the full resources of the 19th century concert hall, and charged with all the passion, ambition and wild, poetic fantasy of his own untamed imagination.

The wanderer

This was 1845, after all: the impossible was in the air. Railways and steamboats, with their new, fire-breathing engines, were shrinking distances and achieving speeds that seemed almost supernatural. Berlioz embraced them with gusto, undertaking Europe-wide concert tours, and presenting his music to audiences in Germany, Britain, Russia and the Austrian Empire. He began his Faust project by commissioning Almire Gandonnière, a fellow-journalist (Berlioz’s day-job was as a music critic) to translate some passages from Goethe, but quickly decided to write his own French text. Then, in October 1845, he set out on tour:

"As I bowled along in my old German post-chaise, I attempted to write the verses that were to be set to my music. I began with Faust’s invocation to Nature, neither translating nor imitating Goethe but taking inspiration from him, to draw out the music within…"

Before long, he was effectively composing the piece on the road – as he travelled to Vienna by coach and riverboat; then on to Prague, and to Pesth (modern Budapest), then back to Vienna and from there to Breslau (modern Wrocław, in Poland):

"The music seemed to come to me more freely than with any of my other works. I wrote it when and where I could: in coaches, on trains, on steamboats, even in the towns I visited (despite all the work required to promote my concerts). I wrote the introductory section in a tavern at Passau on the Bavarian frontier; Méphistophélès’s aria Voici des Roses was composed in Vienna…"

Some of his old ideas from 1828 proved re-useable; but sometimes new inspirations fell into his lap. His Marche Hongroise, composed en route to his concert in Pesth, caused such a sensation there that he decided to incorporate it into Faust’s adventures. Purists (especially in Germany) would later express shock at Berlioz’s liberties with the classic tale – “as if no other Faust but Goethe’s existed!”, retorted Berlioz:

"I should have had no hesitation taking Faust anywhere on Earth if it had made a better story…after all, a person like Faust can travel anywhere he wishes, without stretching credibility!"

But it still had to be performed in Paris…

To hell and back

La damnation de Faust is written for four solo singers, a 17-part choir, a children’s choir and a huge orchestra complete with bells, two harps, bass clarinet and an ophicleide (the nasal-sounding ancestor of the modern tuba). Berlioz had let his inspiration run free, and he hoped his audience would take the same imaginative journey. It was to be performed as a concert, without scenery and costumes: after all, what theatre could hope to stage a drama that depicted heaven, hell and a large slice of central Europe in between?

He initially described it as a “concert opera”; later he changed his mind and published it as a “dramatic legend”.

The premiere, mounted at Berlioz’s own expense at the Opéra Comique in Paris on 6 December 1846, cost him every franc he had, and many more that he didn’t. When tickets failed to sell, and critics were lukewarm, he was left penniless and depressed. “Nothing in my artistic career has wounded me more deeply than this unexpected indifference” he recalled. “I learned my lesson. Since then I have never risked 20 francs on the popularity of my music with the Paris public”. He had no option but to set off on his travels again – this time a tour to Russia to rebuild his fortune.

It took a while, too, for La damnation de Faust to find its place in the musical world – too ambitious for an opera, too dramatic to be a cantata, it was hard to place. One German critic, to Berlioz’s utter bemusement, claimed that he had slandered Méphistophélès: “Monstrous of me, indeed, to have libelled the father of all lies and wickedness!” responded Berlioz. And yet La damnation de Faust remains exactly what Berlioz always maintained it was: a very personal take on a classic tale, packed with romance, poetry, satire (Berlioz can’t resist having a dig both at drunken philistines and tedious church music), wit and spectacle, and set to music that paints every scene in vivid colour.

In our century, La damnation de Faust has been successfully staged as an opera: Terry Gilliam’s 2011 production at English National Opera turned it into an eye-popping cartoon cakewalk through German history - the smash of the season. But in truth, all the scenery and costume we need is already present for us to hear. Use your ears, add a little imagination, and then as now, Hector Berlioz – dreamer, maverick, traveller and genius – promises you one hell of a ride.

© Richard Bratby

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