Robert Schumann, Szenen aus Goethes Faust

By Paul Griffiths

Written for the concert Robert Schumann: Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (1853), performed on April 9, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In October 1838, at a funeral mass in Vienna where Mozart’s Requiem was being performed, Schumann found himself standing next to the composer’s son, and was reminded of how in Weimar, the year before, he had attended a performance of Goethe’s Faust in the company of the poet’s grandson. He noted in his diary that he shared the fate of these descendants, to be, as he put it, “brave epigones,” latecomers. Already the composer of Carnaval, Kreisleriana, and other epoch-making piano works, he seems to have considered himself destined to failure when measured against such awesome predecessors. And yet in tackling Goethe’s cosmic drama—a work the poet had said only Mozart was fit to set—he would challenge that destiny. A fully accomplished realization might now be impossible, but he could create some magnificent fragments of such a work: fragments of a possible oratorio incorporating fragments of a possible opera—a project manifestly unfinished and one that may, more than any other, convey at once its composer’s grandeur of determination and doubt.

Schumann re-read the Goethe in February 1844, in May bought himself a new copy, and through the rest of the year worked fitfully at setting the culmination, not only starting at the end but also assailing the text at its most metaphysical. There he stopped, until having his music—Part III of the eventual work—copied for the Dresden choral society to sing in June 1848. Liszt gave a repeat performance in Weimar for the Goethe centenary celebrations, and Schumann was spurred to continue, composing Part I and half of Part II inside five and a half weeks in the summer of 1848. The following spring, in another two weeks, he added the scenes of Faust’s blinding and death, after which came another hiatus. At last the completion of the overture, in August 1853, signalled that the work was ready, nearly a decade after it had been initiated. The moment came, however, too late. By the end of that year, Schumann’s composing life was over, his sanity slipping.

The overture is a properly Faustian piece in D minor, with just a touch of light and calm to evoke Gretchen, her music introduced on clarinet at its reprise. It may then seem odd that a treatment of the Faust story should begin with a garden rendezvous, and that the overture’s storm should be followed by a charming siciliana in the relative major, even if we do briefly glimpse the snake in the flowerbeds. Clearly, Schumann—unlike Berlioz at the same time (La Damnation de Faust, 1845-6) or Gounod later—is concerned not so much to tell the story as to enhance treasured episodes.

This garden encounter is from halfway through the first part of Goethe’s play, and after it come two other isolated scenes: Gretchen’s address to the Mater Dolorosa and her taunting by the Evil Spirit in church. We are left to remember that the service in progress is the funeral of her brother, who has tried to safeguard her honor and been killed by Faust for intervening. D minor restores the atmosphere of the overture for this imposing scene, which Schumann set without cuts, even including the final line Gretchen addresses to a neighbour, delicately echoing in her music the choral sopranos.

Now the souvenirs of Romantic opera—love duet, prayer, and church scene—are over, and we move into the metaphysical second part of Goethe’s drama, the part that Schumann was unusual among his contemporaries in valuing so highly. We start at the beginning, with luminous music for Ariel and his fellow spirits as they sing to the exhausted Faust. Here Schumann follows the poet’s direction that solo voices should anticipate and overlap with the spirit choir. Faust awakes to greet the dawn, then moves, at a galloping tempo, into a passage of Schumannesque melodious recitative (with da capo) such as we find often later.

Jumping way ahead in the play, we come to the midnight scene of four gray beings: creatures midway between Mozart’s Three Ladies and Wagner’s Valkyries, introduced by the weird sound of woodwinds in octaves. One of them, at the end of a dialogue with Faust, blinds him, but does not extinguish his will. What follows is Goethe’s next scene, with Mephistopheles and the curiously named “lemurs,” to whom Schumann gives the curious sound of altos and tenors in a children’s choir. Faust has a final monologue and dies, the music settling spaciously into C major.

Another big cut in the play takes us to the closing scene, which Schumann sets entire (as Mahler did in his Eighth Symphony), to create a three-quarter-hour cantata with one or two longueurs but many beauties of orchestral and choral scoring—not least the muted strings in five parts at the opening of Dr. Marianus’s aria or the whole finale, with double choir and soloists joyfully reiterating the eight short lines of Goethe’s text. Schumann was to write a Requiem and a Mass, but this is where he celebrated his religion of the eternal feminine and of ancestor worship.