Detail from Vision of Faust by Luis Ricardo Falero
To explore the musical legacy of Faust is to discover a treasure-trail rich beyond imagination. This legend has permeated more compositions than any other beyond the Bible. In the mid-19th century, it was so all-pervasive that it even affected musical language and performance style, making an indelible impression upon the following century.
Goethe's version of the traditional story concerns an ageing scholar who sells his soul to the devil, Mephistopheles, in return for regained youth and sensual pleasures. He seduces a young girl, Gretchen, who bears his illegitimate child, kills the baby and is sentenced to death, but her soul is spared from Mephisto's clutches. In Goethe's Faust, which inspired a dazzling network of composers, this is part of an extended philosophical adventure. Ultimately, Faust's soul is saved too, for his "endless striving". The book is a "closet drama", a play that is unstageable. This peculiar genre partly explains why different composers took such a variety of approaches to it, sometimes overt, sometimes not.
Ironically, Goethe, for whom Mozart was the ideal composer for Faust, loathed romanticism, regarding its excesses as a "disease". But it was another child prodigy who became closest to him in person: in 1821 the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter brought his pupil, 12-year-old Felix Mendelssohn, to stay with the poet in Weimar. The boy wrote home: "Every morning I receive a kiss from the author of Faust and of Werther, and every afternoon two kisses from Goethe, friend and father."
Mendelssohn wrote his Octet four years later. Goethe's Faust includes a "Walpurgis Night's Dream", a satirical episode showing an amateur cast performing a masquerade, with members of a Witches' Sabbath, a Kapellmeister, an orchestra of insects and frogs and a bagpipe that blows soap bubbles. Mendelssohn's sister, Fanny, wrote that the scherzo secretly portrayed a stanza from this scene while the Mendelssohn scholar R. Larry Todd has detected links to Faust throughout the Octet, with the climax representing the struggle for Gretchen's soul — which would explain the quote from Handel's Hallelujah Chorus.
By contrast, Mendelssohn's friend Schumann kept Goethe to the fore in his Scenes from Goethe's Faust (1844-53), in which he followed the poet beyond Gretchen's story to explore Faust's reflections, whether visionary or deluded, on the creation of a new world. By 1853, Schumann's deteriorating mental condition rendered him prone to delusions. This lent his Faust extra personal significance — it constantly preoccupied him after he went to the asylum at Endenich, where he eventually died.
Goethe's ideal Faustian opera was Don Giovanni. In the 1830s, he started a bizarre "tradition" that claimed a "demonic" element in Mozart's creativity. He wrote: "How can one say Mozart has composed Don Juan? Composition! As if it were a piece of cake or biscuit...It is...pervaded by one spirit and by the breath of one life; so that the producer...was altogether in the power of the demonic spirit of his genius..."
Why this, years after Mozart's death? When Niccolò Paganini toured Germany between 1829 and 1831, Goethe met and heard the great violinist, whose playing sparked a popular parallel with the devil and his traditional violin. Paganini had brought the myth of music's demoniac side into the ascendant.