Discover the musical highlights in Berlioz's La damnation de Faust
This operatic tour-de-force that throws all of music’s capacity at one simple question: what is the price of the human soul? A vast orchestra and chorus conjure the composer’s fantastical visions in music that ranges from tender love-songs and ecstatic hymns to drinking songs and military marches.
You can enjoy some of the opera’s highlights below.
There’s real swagger and dash to the ‘Hungarian March’ (an authentic 18th century melody adapted by Berlioz) which provides the accompaniment to the army Faust glimpses in the distance. Its gilded brilliance and glib militarism contrasts with Faust’s complicated ennui which finds no easy answers in military glory or empty national pride.
The Song of the Rat
Student Brander entertains the tavern crowd with a lively drinking song – The Song of the Rat (‘Certain rat’) – whose lively, scampering melody and scuttling accompaniment in the strings (with their frequent tumbling scales) conjures the movements of the rat, which lives a happy life in the kitchen until poisoned. In a stroke of musical and dramatic brilliance, Berlioz ends this little satire with an Amen fugue sung by the students – an appropriately academic homage to a humble subject. It’s a wonderful moment of bathos – silliness sung with a very straight face
Song of the Flea (Une puce gentille)
Never to be outdone, Mephistopheles follows up Brander’s song with his own Song of the Flea (‘Une puce gentille’) – a ballad whose courtly beginning and faux-18th century spirit soon unravels to reveal a vulgar tale of a court infested with fleas. Musically it’s a symbol of all the worldly emptiness Faust wishes to escape and put behind him.
Voici des roses
As Faust sleeps on a bank, Mephistopheles sings a lullaby ‘Voici des roses’. The lulling, insinuating beauty of the melody seduces us even as it does Faust, rendering us complicit in his decline – we too would fall for this smooth devil, whose melody is framed by the uncanny forces of cornet, trombones and bassoons.
Autrefois un roi de Thulé/D’amour l’ardente flamme
Marguerite is the innocent at the centre of Faust – the only character who finds salvation at the end. Her music reflects this purity and vulnerability. Her first aria – the Song of the King of Thule (‘Autrefois un roi de Thulé’), with its awkward, distinctive rising interval at the start, and its meditative quality, has something of the folksong about it, and is ornamented with a solo viola – a plaintive voice that echoes Marguerite’s own. Her Romance (‘D’amour l’ardente flamme’) swaps viola for solo cor anglais to the same effect. This later Marguerite is sadder and wiser, but her essential innocence is preserved in one of Berlioz’s most beautiful melodies.
Having abandoned Marguerite, Faust is once again overcome with ennui. Like any good Romantic hero he looks to nature for consolation in his climatic aria ‘Nature Immense’. Ardent and impassioned, surging ever upwards, as though reaching for something always just beyond his grasp, Faust puts his hope in the natural world. Harmonically unstable and unsettled though, the music betrays his hopes, offering only temporary respite.
Ballet des Sylphes/Laus! Hosanna!
The orchestral music in Faust is every bit the equal of the vocal writing. Highlights include the ‘Ballet des Sylphes’ that accompanies his first sighting of Margeurite – a perfect female doll in this kitsch orchestral music-box – to the frenzied, apocalyptic musical vision of the ‘Ride to the Abyss’ with its hellish apparitions and grotesque orchestral exaggeration and propulsion, and the transcendent vision of the closing hymn welcoming Marguerite into heaven (‘Laus! Hosanna!’).