Berlioz and the German masters
Hector Berlioz enjoyed a huge reputation in Vienna in his lifetime as “France’s Beethoven”. Local critics loved and hated him in equal parts. One would praise his “nice, ingenious musical ideas” but also mock his “obscure musical language”. Niccolò Paganini wrote to him personally that since Beethoven no one else had emerged to create such magnificent compositions. Whilst Berlioz hardly attracted attention at home in France, he did, however, polarise abroad, especially in the German-speaking countries. Hence, a further comparison of Berlioz with a German icon is only appropriate. The Austrian cultural journal Wiener Allgemeine Theaterzeitung called him the “Faust in the world of composers, brooding and struggling for the infinite” in January 1846 after the Austrian premiere of Roméo et Juliette at the Theater an der Wien.
A prophetic analogy, as Berlioz’s dramatic legend La damnation de Faust was first performed at the Paris Opéra-Comique the same year. In 1828, 20 years after the German first edition, Berlioz had read the French translation of Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Faust. He had been very impressed and noted in his “Memoirs”: “This marvellous book fascinated me from the first. I could not put it down. I read it incessantly, at meals, in the theatre, in the street, everywhere!”
Manuscript La damnation de Faust by Hector Berlioz
Inspired by the tragedy’s first part, Berlioz had composed the incidental music Huit scènes de Faust. He had sent it to Goethe in duplicate, not omitting to express his deep admiration for Faust. Goethe had felt flattered, however, he had not dared to make a musical assessment. So Goethe had forwarded a copy to Carl Friedrich Zelter. The judgement of the conservative composer Zelter, an influential person in cultural policies, had been scathing. Accordingly, Berlioz had had to wait for a response from Goethe in vain and eventually destroyed all copies of the Huit scènes de Faust he could get hold of.
Almost 20 years later, in 1846, he resumed the project of setting the Faust legend to music. His intention for the composition was to “neither translate the master work nor to imitate it but just to draw inspiration from it and to extract the musical substance that it contained”. In the end, the performance was hardly appreciated and the premiere became a legendary failure and financial disaster. Nevertheless, the hybrid composition type between opera and oratorio has retained its importance in the French opera tradition to this day. At the beginning of the 20th century, excerpts from La damnation de Faust were very popular in potpourri concerts in Vienna. One of these melodies is still played by orchestras in many places, often as an encore: The Marche hongroise, Berlioz’s arrangement of the Hungarian Rákóczi March. He celebrated great successes with this in Hungary. He therefore included this melody in La damnation de Faust without further ado. For this reason alone, he decided to transfer the action in the first part to Hungary where Faust wakes up on a spring meadow in the Puszta. Berlioz also intervenes creatively at the end of Faust’s life: the wretched fool can expect an ecstatic ride to hell.