Riccardo Chailly conducts Liszt’s “Faust Symphony”

01 Dec 2013

Berliner Philharmoniker
Riccardo Chailly

Men of the Rundfunkchor Berlin

  • Richard Wagner
    Faust Overture in D minor (12 min.)

  • Franz Liszt
    A Faust Symphony (79 min.)

    Men of the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

Riccardo Chailly was not even 27 years old when he was invited by Herbert von Karajan to make his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in January 1980 – conducting Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth. “I can still remember exactly”, says the music director of Leipzig’s Gewandhausorchester, “how I was simply bowled over then by the sound of this orchestra, this power and warmth – it was unbelievable.” Immediately afterwards, Chailly was asked to become the new principal conductor of the RSO Berlin (now the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester). “That also offered the possibility of continuing to conduct the Philharmoniker and of developing my connection with Karajan.”

For his Berlin appearance in November 2013, Riccardo Chailly begins the programme with Richard Wagner’s seldom performed Faust Overture. The main work is Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony, whose first movement paraphrases a motif from the Wagner overture. The emotional music of the second movement (“Gretchen”) was praised by Liszt’s biographer Richard Pohl: “Even Liszt’s adversaries could not resist the spell of this Gretchen.” The ghostly third movement (“Mephistopheles”), in which the “Faust” themes are increasingly distorted and parodied, owes a debt to the finale of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (the opening bars of both finales are almost identical). At the end, the tension subsides – with a choral finale in radiant C major in which Liszt sets the last lines of Goethe’s Faust II.

A Fusion of Literature and Music

The Faust Compositions of Liszt and Wagner

The legend of Doctor Faust, who made a pact with the devil and was damned as a result, has long been a source of fascination. That is particularly true of Goethe’s version of the story, in which the protagonist appears as a more or less modern intellectual in search of worldly knowledge who will go to any length to achieve his goal. Composers have been inspired to depict Faust in music for more than five centuries. Richard Wagner did not devote an opera to the subject, but merely an overture, while Franz Liszt explored the theme in one of his greatest orchestral works, the Faust Symphony.

Richard Wagner: A Faust Overture in D minor

Richard Wagner worked on the Faust story intermittently over many years. He composed music for several sections of the first part as a young man in 1831, while Goethe was still alive. Wagner’s attendance at a rehearsal of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Paris in 1839 may have rekindled his interest in the genre of the symphony but probably did not provide the decisive impetus. The Paris premiere of Hector Berlioz’s dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette played a crucial role in Wagner’s renewed exploration of the Faust theme. Soon afterwards, he set about composing a symphony, the first movement of which he finished in short score the following month, completing the full score in January 1840. Wagner also made sketches for a Gretchen theme for the second movement but changed his mind and abandoned the plan to compose a complete symphony. As court music director in Saxony, he conducted the first movement under the title Overture to Goethe’s Faust (Part I) in Dresden on 22 July 1844. The work was performed in Weimar on 11 May 1852, conducted by Franz Liszt, who reported to his friend Wagner that the overture had made a “sensation”. Wagner replied: “I cannot be angry with this composition, although many detached things in it would not now flow from my pen; especially the somewhat too plentiful brass is no longer to my mind.” In September he wrote that he was tempted to revise the work. Liszt sent him the score: “The work is quite worthy of you,” he emphasized but also suggested several changes.

On 9 November 1852 Wagner wrote Liszt: “You have felt quite justly what is wanting; the woman is wanting. Perhaps you would at once understand my tone-poem if I called it ‘Faust in Solitude’. At that time I intended to write an entire ‘Faust’ symphony; the first movement, that which is ready, was this ‘solitary Faust’, longing, despairing, cursing. The ‘feminine’ floats around him as an object of his longing, but not in its divine reality, and it is just this insufficient image of his longing which he destroys in his despair. The second movement was to introduce Gretchen, the woman. I had a theme for her, but it was only a theme. The whole remained unfinished. I wrote my ‘Flying Dutchman’ instead ... If now, from a last remnant of weakness and vanity, I hesitate to abandon this ‘Faust’ work altogether, I shall certainly have to remodel it, but only as regards instrumental modulation.” As a title he had in mind Faust in Solitude or The Solitary Faust – a “Tone-Poem” for Orchestra.

The project was again left unfinished. Not until two years later did Wagner inform his friend, who had completed his own Faust Symphony in the meantime: “It is an absurd coincidence that just at this time I have been taken with a desire to remodel my old ‘Faust’ overture. I have made an entirely new score, have rewritten the instrumentation throughout, have made many changes ...”. For the first time, he referred to the work as A Faust Overture. Wagner himself conducted the premiere in Zurich on 23 January 1855. In February he sent the score to Liszt with the comment: “Herewith you receive my remodelled ‘Faust’ overture, which will appear very insignificant to you by the side of your ‘Faust’ symphony. To me the composition is interesting only on account of the time from which it dates; this reconstruction has again endeared it to me: and with regard to the latter, I am childish enough to ask you to compare it very carefully with the first version ...”.

Formally, the Faust Overture is a symphonic movement which begins slowly, then makes a transition to an animated tempo. Nearly all the motifs and themes from the subsequent Allegro are heard during the dark introduction. The principal theme, with its chromatic suspensions, depicts Faust’s inner conflict, and there are allusions to Gretchen in the subsidiary theme of the woodwinds. Wagner does not adhere strictly to sonata form: “The guiding principle is not the form but the subject matter. Themes and motifs are introduced on the basis of their expressive qualities and significance, as if they were leitmotifs in an opera” (Egon Voss). It is obvious that the instrumental style of the mature Wagner is already apparent in this overture.

Franz Liszt: A Faust Symphony in Three Character Sketches after J. W. von Goethe

In addition to his breviary, two of the greatest works of literature almost always accompanied Franz Liszt: the Divine Comedy of Dante and Goethe’s Faust. He composed a large work for orchestra based on each of these texts. Liszt described the nine symphonic poems he had composed up to that time as “prolegomena”, or prologues, to these works. The Faust Symphony, composed in 1854, was his most expansive and important instrumental work; he himself considered it one of his best compositions. After several changes, the most significant of which was the addition of the concluding Chorus mysticus, the Faust Symphony was performed for the first time in Weimar on 5 September 1857, conducted by the composer.

Liszt was not concerned with depicting literary elements in music but instead wanted to fuse literature and music and express the spiritual content of the Faust theme (in Goethe’s version) in his symphony. To this end, he created three “character sketches” of Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles. Liszt was less interested in the story than the three figures who dominate it. The musical “characterization” cannot be identified with particular passages of the literary narrative. The composer makes use of the Berliozian idée fixe or a leitmotif technique such as that found in Wagner. Whereas Liszt develops distinct musical personalities for Faust and Gretchen, however, Mephistopheles is essentially derived from distorted character traits of Faust. That provides a vital clue to understanding this figure. Mephistopheles is Faust’s adversary but is already embodied in him. He personifies Faust’s dark side – in modern terms, the unconscious or id.

Significantly, Liszt and Wagner entitled their compositions A Faust Symphony and A Faust Overture. “In both cases, the indefinite article expresses the fact that music can only achieve ‘an’ approximation of Goethe’s incomparable opus summum, never ‘the’ setting of it,” according to literary scholar Dieter Borchmeyer. The two composers may have been conscious of this fact. They draw their own facets from the theme and paint a characteristic portrait of the conflicted protagonist. In addition, Liszt’s Faust Symphony clearly has autobiographical relevance. Liszt was an ambivalent figure – on the one hand, a fascinating, evocative personality, not only because of his magical piano playing, in search of worldly pleasures, self-promoting as an artist; on the other hand, religious, particularly in his later years – whether genuinely or for show remains unclear.

Helge Grünewald

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Riccardo Chailly, born in 1953, studied at the conservatories in Perugia, Rome and Milan, and attended master classes with Franco Ferrara in Siena. At the age of 20, he became assistant to Claudio Abbado at La Scala in Milan. After his debut at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London 1979, commitments followed with internationally renowned companies such as the Vienna State Opera, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Bavarian State Opera and Zurich Opera. Riccardo Chailly also gave concerts with the world’s leading orchestras and performed at the Salzburg Easter Festival and the Lucerne Festival. From 1982 to 1989 he was chief conductor of the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (now the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin), and from 1982 to 1985, he was principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In the period from 1986 to 1993 Riccardo Chailly, who has received many international awards, was music director of the Teatro Comunale Bologna. For 16 years, from 1988 to 2004, he headed the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, and also conducted the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi (1999 – 2005) before taking up office as the 19th Gewandhauskapellmeister in Leipzig in September 2005. He has conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker on many occasions since his debut in 1980, most recently in January 2013, with a programme which included works by Felix Mendelssohn and Anton Bruckner.

The tenor Nikolai Schukoff, born in Graz, is a graduate of the “Mozarteum” University in Salzburg. His debut in 1996 in Gelsenkirchen as Alfredo in La traviata was followed by several years as a company member at the Nationaltheater Mannheim and the Staatstheater Nürnberg; During this period, he also made guest appearances in Dusseldorf, Salzburg, Lyons, Paris and Sydney. His international breakthrough came in 2006 with more dramatic roles such as Siegmund (Die Walküre) in Berlin and Geneva, Don José (Carmen) in Paris, Erik (Der fliegende Holländer) in Munich and at the Edinburgh Festival, and as Parsifal in Dresden, Munich and Paris. Nikolai Schukoff also made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as Don José last season. In concert, he has performed with the Munich Philharmonic, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the London Philharmonic and the Orchestre de Paris and has worked with conductors such as Riccardo Chailly, Christoph Eschenbach and Marek Janowski. With these concerts, he makes his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

The Rundfunkchor Berlin is a sought-after partner of leading orchestras and conductors all over the world, including long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. In around 50 concerts per year the chorus displays an exceptional breadth of repertoire and stylistic versatility. With it’s experimental series, “Broadening the Scope of Choral Music”, in collaboration with artists from diverse disciplines, the Rundfunkchor Berlin is breaking down the classical concert format and adopting new modes of choral music for a new audience: In 2012 an interactive scenic version of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem staged by Jochen Sandig / Sasha Waltz & Guests attracted great attention. Founded in 1925 and shaped by conductors including Helmut Koch, Dietrich Knothe and Robin Gritton, the Rundfunkchor Berlin has been directed since 2001 by Simon Halsey. Their work together is documented by many recordings and awards, including three Grammy Awards. Simon Halsey, who was awarded the “Bundesverdienstkreuz” (Cross of the Order of Merit) in January 2011, has also initiated many of the choir’s education and outreach projects, such as the annual Sing-along Concert and the “Liederbörse” (Song Exchange) for children and young people. The Rundfunkchor last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in October this year in Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

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