Daniel Harding conducts Schumann’s “Scenes from Goethe’s Faust”

15 Dec 2013

Berliner Philharmoniker
Daniel Harding

Christian Gerhaher, Dorothea Röschmann, Andrew Staples, Anna Prohaska

  • Robert Schumann
    Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (123 min.)

    Christian Gerhaher Baritone (Faust, Pater Seraphicus, Dr. Marianus), Dorothea Röschmann Soprano (Gretchen, Una Poenitentium), Andrew Staples Tenor (Ariel, Pater Ecstaticus, Tenor solos), Anna Prohaska Soprano (Marthe, Care, Angel, Soprano solos), Wiebke Lehmkuhl Contralto (Guilt, Mater Gloriosa, Maria Aegyptiaca, Contralto solos), Luca Pisaroni Bass-Baritone (Mephistopheles), Franz-Josef Selig Bass-Baritone (Pater profundus, Bass solos), Rundfunkchor Berlin, Knaben des Staats- und Domchors Berlin, Robin Gritton Chorus Master

  • free

    Daniel Harding in conversation with Matthew Hunter (18 min.)

Over time how many composers have had a try at Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust – and have failed more or less honourably! Robert Schumann is generally named as one of them. After all, with Scenes from Goethe’s Faust he wrote a work between 1844 and 1853 that until the present has led a shadowy existence in concert halls. But wait! Did Schumann truly shipwreck in compositional terms in grappling with the German tragedy for that reason alone? Or was his music quite simply not (yet) understood – then or now – by his contemporaries and by ensuing ages?

For Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who originally was to conduct this concert in the Berlin Philharmonie, Schumann’s Faust Scenes “are among the greatest music that there is.” Unfortunately, the conductor had to cancel his guest appearance with the Philharmoniker. Fortunately, Daniel Harding agreed to stand in for him.

Christian Gerhaher, Dorothea Röschmann and Luca Pisaroni take on the roles of Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles. In addition to other top class soloists, the singers include the Rundfunkchor Berlin in the performance of a work which moves between incidental music, cantata and secular oratorio. These are optimal prerequisites to (re-)discover – in Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s words – “the enigmatic, transcendental, ambiguous” in Schumann’s Faust music.

“Why write music to such consummate poetry?”

Robert Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust

The Secular Bible of the Germans

“My remaining days I may now consider a free gift,” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe confessed in a conversation with his faithful chronicler Johann Peter Eckermann in June 1831, “and it is now, in fact, of little consequence what I now do, or whether I do anything.” The relief expressed in this comment was the result of his completion of a veritable life’s work. During that summer the 82-year-old poet managed to conclude his Faust tragedy – an opus summum in two parts with more than 12,000 lines, which was not presented on the stage in a complete performance until 1876.

With the writing of the final mountain gorge scene, a project that had spanned the author’s entire life came full circle. After his first encounter with the character of Doctor Faust in his childhood at a puppet theatre in his native Frankfurt am Main, the young dramatist began work on the Urfaust during the early 1770s. He published the first part of the drama under the title Faust – A Tragedy in 1808. The tremendous appeal that his version of the Faust material, which had been circulating in various incarnations since the 16th century, held for his contemporaries may have surprised the Weimar poet himself. Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling enthusiastically recommended the tragedy of the scholar as compulsory school reading, and a year after Goethe’s death Heinrich Heine wrote of the early reception of the first part: “... it became the secular Bible of the Germans. ... From the greatest thinker to the most insignificant penny-a-liner, from philosophers down to the doctor of philosophy, everyone tries his wit on this book.”

The five-act second part of the tragedy, on which Goethe worked intensively between 1825 and 1831, fared quite differently. After the venerable author had made the final changes to the profound text in his coded language during the weeks before his death, it was published posthumously by Klett-Cotta in 1832. Soon afterwards, the Hegel student Karl Rosenkranz declared in a review of the complex late work: “... it is easy to foresee that the second part of Faust will never acquire the popularity of the first part, since it does not charm the nation like the latter and educate the people to a consciousness of itself, but will always have a sort of esoteric existence.”

A “New Genre for the Concert Hall”

Not only poets and thinkers but composers were also fascinated by Goethe’s magnum opus, among them – along with Spohr, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Wagner and Liszt – Robert Schumann. His idea of approaching Goethe’s work not on the opera stage but through the medium of a “new genre for the concert hall” was connected directly to his understanding of the text and his choice of scenes. Whereas composers like Louis Spohr and Charles Gounod felt themselves compelled to force the extensive dramatic text into the Procrustean bed of a libretto when writing their Faust operas, for the literary-minded Schumann such treatment of a masterpiece of world literature was unthinkable. Deeply moved by the – as he wrote to Mendelssohn – “sublime poetry” of the mountain gorge scenes, he decided to refrain from any attempt at dramatization and set the conclusion of Faust II using the original text.

Although he had already composed an initial version of the music for the mountain gorge scene in 1845, Schumann at first hesitated to continue the work in view of the difficulty of the task he had undertaken. On 24 September he wrote to Felix Mendelssohn: “The scene from Faust lies in my drawer. ... I do not know whether I shall ever publish it.” The public premiere of the third section of the Faust Scenes did not take place until four years later, after further development and revision as well as a private preview. In connection with celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of Goethe’s birth, Schumann’s composition of the final scene was performed simultaneously in Dresden, Leipzig and Weimar at the end of August 1849 under the title Faust’s Transfiguration.

A “Piece in Pieces”

At the time of this triple premiere, the Faust project had already progressed further, however. Schumann had begun composing three key scenes of the Gretchen tragedy from Faust I in July 1849: the declaration of love in the garden, Gretchen’s despairing prayer at the city wall after her union with Faust and the death of her mother, and the dramatic cathedral scene. Three pivotal scenes from Faust II followed by summer 1850: the opening scene of part II, Faust’s blinding at the hands of Care and his death. As the “capstone” of the “larger cycle of scenes”, Schumann finally composed the overture in August 1853 – almost ten years after beginning the project.

Schumann’s selective treatment of Goethe’s tragedy and his choice of scenes met with incomprehension until far into the 20th century. The composer was frequently criticized on the grounds that the work was – as Franz Brendel phrased it in 1859 – a conglomeration of “isolated fragments” which lacked inner continuity, coherence and dramatic power. The critics overlooked the fact that Goethe’s Faust is itself a “piece in pieces” (Theodor W. Adorno) whose fragmentary character was already emphasized by its author. Moreover, Schumann’s choice of scenes reflects an astonishing understanding of the text and a strong awareness of the key elements of the drama. Thus, from the perspective of the closing scene, in which there is a mystical reunion between Faust and Gretchen, it is perfectly logical to focus the first and second sections entirely on the two protagonists and push all other characters – including Mephistopheles – into the background. In contrast to an opera, which must function in and of itself and cannot assume that the audience is well-versed in the dramatic material, for the Faust Scenes Schumann counted on listeners who were familiar with Faust. As the composer proudly observed after the first performance of the final scene, the music can enable the listener to develop a deeper appreciation of Goethe’s difficult text: “Many people told me that the music made it easier to understand the text – and that pleased me very much.”

Faust’s Transfiguration

The dramaturgical goal of the work is the third section, the mountain gorge scene, which was composed first. With its numerous choral parts in various ensemble formations (chorus and echo, chorus of blessed boys, younger angels, etc.) and references to the paradigm of liturgical songs, it is one of the most music-filled sections of the Faust poem. At the same time, its mystical plot narrative – the transfiguration of Faust and his ascent from the mountain gorges to higher spheres – defies traditional staged forms of presentation in the dramatic theatre or opera house. In this respect, it is not surprising that Schumann decided against a scenic visualization of the action at an early stage. With the genre of the oratorio as a reference point, he instead relied on the evocative powers of the music and the imagination of the listeners.

Tobias Bleek

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Daniel Harding was born in Oxford and began his career by assisting Sir Simon Rattle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which he himself conducted for the first time in 1994. He later worked as Claudio Abbado’s musical assistant, and in 1996 became the youngest conductor to appear at the BBC Proms in London. That same year he also made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Berlin Festival, conducting works by Berlioz, Brahms and Dvořák. After holding appointments as principal conductor with the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra in Norway, as principal guest conductor with the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, as music director of the Deutschen Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (1997 – 2003) and principal conductor of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (2003 – 2011), Daniel Harding is now music director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, principal guest conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra and music partner of the New Japan Philharmonic. In constant demand in the world’s leading centres of music, he has appeared with many internationally acclaimed orchestras and conducted opera performances in houses as prestigious as the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala, Milan, the Vienna and Munich State Operas and the Salzburg and Aix-en-Provence Festivals. In 2002 Daniel Harding was awarded the title Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government and in 2012 he was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. As a guest conductor with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Daniel Harding last appeared with the orchestra in September 2013, when he conducted three concerts with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 10.

Christian Gerhaher studied not only singing but also philosophy and medicine. His lieder teachers include Helmut Deutsch, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. He has appeared both at home and abroad both as a lieder recitalist and as a concert soloist with such leading orchestras as the Vienna, Munich and Berlin Philharmonics, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the NHK Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra. In addition to his busy schedule in the world’s recital rooms and concert halls, he has also taken part in a carefully selected number of opera productions that have included the title role in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhäuser. The magazine Opernwelt voted him “Singer of the year” in 2010 for his performance of the title role in Henze’s Prinz von Homburg. Among the conductors with whom he has worked are Pierre Boulez, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons and Sir Simon Rattle. Christian Gerhaher has appeared several times with the Berliner Philharmoniker since his debut in December 2003, when he took the part of the baritone soloist in Britten’s War Requiem under the direction of Donald Runnicles. As this season’s artitist in residence, the baritone was heard most recently last November performing Schubert’s Winterreise with his piano partner Gerold Huber. Christian Gerhaher holds an honorary professorship in lieder interpretation at the Academy of Music and Theatre in Munich and has also given masterclasses at Yale University, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and elsewhere. His lieder recordings with Gerold Huber as his accompanist have won many prizes, including a Gramophone Award in 2006.

Wiebke Lehmkuhl, born in 1983 in Oldenburg, received her vocal training from Ulla Groenewold and from Hanna Schwarz at the Hamburg University of Music and Theatre. After guest engagements at Kiel Opera House and the state operas of Hamburg and Hanover, she joined Zurich Opera as a permanent ensemble member in the 2008/09 season. Here she appeared as Erda (Der Ring des Nibelungen), Magdalene (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), Annina (Der Rosenkavalier), Hedwige (Guillaume Tell), and in concert performances of Handel’s Messiah and Schumann’s oratorio Paradise and the Peri. The contralto has also appeared at renowned opera houses such as the Opéra Bastille in Paris and at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. In 2012, she made her debut at the Salzburg Festival as third lady in a new production of Mozart’s Zauberflöte. The following year, she performed there again in a concert performance of Walter Braunfels’ Jeanne d’Arc in the role of Lison. Wiebke Lehmkuhl is also successful as a concert and oratorio singer. In 2011 she made her debut at the Vienna Musikverein and at the Lucerne Festival in performances of Handel’s La Resurrezione, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Among the conductors she has also worked with are Reinhard Goebel, Thomas Hengelbrock, René Jacobs, Alessandro de Marchi, Marc Minkowski and Hans-Christoph Rademann. Wiebke Lehmkuhl now makes her debut in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Elisabeth von Magnus, born in Vienna, initially studied recorder at the Wiener Musikhochschule, founded the Ensemble Récréation, and was furthermore a member of the Concentus Musicus Wien, led by Nikolas Harnoncourt. While subsequently studying acting at what is now the Mozarteum University in Salzburg, she studied singing with Hertha Töpper at the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich, where she also attended the opera school. Moreover, she studied Lied interpretation with Paul Schilhawsky in Salzburg. Since her operatic debut as Polly in Benjamin Britten’s version of the Beggar’s Opera at Munich’s Marstalltheater, Elisabeth von Magnus has made guest appearances in the music capitals and festival venues of almost all European countries and in the United States and Japan, with a wide-ranging repertoire of musical theatre, oratorio and lieder. She has performed with both major symphony orchestras and the leading ensembles in the field of historically informed performance. The mezzo-soprano has worked together with conductors who include Claudio Abbado, Philippe Herreweghe, Sir Neville Marriner, Markus Stenz and Jaap van Zweden. Together with the pianist Jacob Bogaart Elisabeth von Magnus has presented an array of variously themed programmes, ranging from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic to the 20th century. Solo performances with music by George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Kurt Weill form aother focus of her activities. In mid-October 2000, Elisabeth von Magnus made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in concerts of Haydn’s Harmoniemesse, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt; her last guest appearance was in October 2011 in Beethoven’s Mass in C major.

Luca Pisaroni was born in Venezuela and grew up in Busseto (Italy). He received his musical training at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan, and in Buenos Aires and New York. Since his debut at the Salzburg Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Nikolaus Harnoncourt at the age of only 26, the bass-baritone has made guest appearances all over the world at leading opera houses and at international festivals in roles including Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro) at the Metropolitan Opera as well as at the Opéra National de Paris, the Vienna State Opera and the Salzburg Festival; as Leporello at Teatro Real Madrid and at Glyndebourne and the Tanglewood Music Festival; as Conte Dorval in Martín y Soler’s opera Il burbero di buon cuore at the Teatro Real Madrid, and as Enrico in Haydn’s L’isola disabitata at the Musikverein in Vienna. The bass-baritone has worked with renowned conductors such as William Christie, James Levine, Riccardo Muti, Seiji Ozawa, Sir Simon Rattle and Michael Tilson Thomas. In addition to his operatic and concert performances, the artist has enjoyed great success as a lieder singer at, among others, London’s Wigmore Hall, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Carnegie Hall, and at the Ravinia and Edinburgh Festivals. Luca Pisaroni made his debut in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts in January 2002 in the role of Zebul in George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Jephtha with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Dorothea Röschmann, born in Flensburg, is one of the world’s most respected sopranos of her generation. She attracted international attention at the 1995 Salzburg Festival as Susanna in Mozart’s opera Le nozze de Figaro,conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Since then she has appeared regularly at this prestigious festival in roles such as Ilia (Idomeneo) Servilia and Vitellia (La clemenza di Tito), Pamina (Die Zauberflöte) and Nanetta (Falstaff) under the baton of conductors such as Claudio Abbado, Daniel Harding, Sir Charles Mackerras and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Dorothea Röschmann, who recently made her debut at La Scala, is a regular guest at venues including the New York Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the State Operas in Vienna, Berlin and Munich. Lieder recitals have taken the singer to, among others, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Carnegie Hall, the Schubertiade Schwarzenberg, to the festivals in Edinburgh and Munich and – together with Daniel Barenboim – to the Staatsoper Berlin in the Schiller Theater. In concert, Dorothea Röschmann works with orchestras such as the Vienna and Munich Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. She made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 2000 and was heard most recently in Foundation concerts in May 2007 with the Berlin Baroque Soloists in a programme of cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Franz-Josef Selig graduated in church music from the Cologne University of Music before changing to the vocal classes there by Claudio Nicolai. Early in his career, he was a member of the ensemble at the Essen Aalto Theatre for six years. Today, the freelance singer appears regularly in opera houses all over the world and at international festivals in the great bass roles of Gurnemanz, King Marke, Sarastro, Rocco, Osmin, Daland and Fasolt. Guest engagements have recently taken Franz-Josef Selig to London, Vienna and New York as well as at the Salzburg Festival. In the summer of 2012, he made his Bayreuth debut as Daland (Der fliegende Holländer), after which he was immediately engaged for the role of Hunding in Die Walküre. Despite his numerous concert and opera engagements, Franz-Joseph Selig finds time for recitals, where he is also to be heard as a member of the ensemble “Liedertafel” together with Markus Schaefer, Christian Elsner and Michael Volle with Gerold Huber at the piano. The bass is also active in the field of early music, which is reflected in his work together with renowned orchestras such as the Concentus Musicus Wien and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, and with conductors such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Philippe Herreweghe and René Jacobs. Numerous CD and DVD productions document the artistic versatility of the singer who now makes his debut in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts.

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 November this year in Franz Liszt’s Faut Symphony, conducted by Riccardo Chailly.

The Staats- und Domchor Berlin is one of the most famous boys’ choirs in Germany, with a history that goes back to the 15th century. Its first golden age was in the 19th century under the direction of conductors such as Felix Mendelssohn, Otto Nicolai and Heinrich August Neidhardt. In 1923 the ensemble was renamed the “Staats- und Domchor Berlin” and became affiliated with the University of Music. Today, the choir provides music for services at the Cathedral of Berlin and also for state occasions. In addition, it participates in performances in opera houses and concert venues in Berlin, and holds its own concerts with a repertoire which includes the great works of the Western choral tradition from the Middle Ages to modern times. Since 2002, the choir has been led by Kai-Uwe Jirka, professor of choral conducting at the Berlin University of the Arts. In addition to many other awards, the Staats- und Domchor Berlin won the European Youth Choir Culture Prize in 2002. Tours have taken the choir to other European countries, Asia, the USA and Israel. The Staats- und Domchor most recently participated in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker in October 2013 in performances of Bach’s StMatthew Passion, staged by Peter Sellars and directed by Sir Simon Rattle.

EMIChristian Gerhaher appears by courtesy of Sony Classical.

Watch now

Try out the Digital Concert Hall!

Try out the Digital Concert Hall!

In our free playlist, Kirill Petrenko conducts works including Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Peter Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. The best seat in the house is reserved just for you!

View our free playlist