Faust Legend and Its Role
Tempo 63 (248) 2– 11 © 2009 Cambridge University Press doi:10.1017/S0040298209000114 Printed in the United Kingdom
Alfred Schnittke (photo: Maria Eggert)
the faust legend and its role in alfred schnittke’s work Lilia Khanina Alfred Schnittke (1934–1998) is among the most notable composers in the second half of the 20th century. Over the past 20 years his work has won wide acceptance and greater international attention. His music, performed by world-class musicians in countless countries and in the most prestigious concert halls, has become an integral part of Russian cultural heritage. Schnittke’s vast popularity is evident in the existence of so many publications, reviews, and dissertations not only in Russia but all over the world. However, some aspects of the composer’s life and music remain unexplored, and a study of Schnittke’s work would not be complete without examining one particular subject which influenced Schnittke throughout his creative life: the Faust Legend. The Faustian Legend ‘was among the forces that supported Schnittke’s dialogue with the past and shaped his identity’.1 Before delving into this topic it would be logical to give a brief excursus in the history of the Faustian legend itself. Many contemporaries left recollections of Faust, as one would of a real historical figure living at the turn of the 16th century. As often happens in history, an actual person becomes mythologized into an archetype. The main opposition in the Faust legend is that of the spiritual world and the material world, which then turns into a struggle between good and evil. As the price of rejecting original integrity and harmony, a man sacrifices his immortal spiritual essence to achieve concrete material benefits and assert himself as the master of this world. Similar figures had long since been part of folk culture. It was Faust, however, who was destined to become the archetypical exponent of these ideas and be transformed into a symbol of the man of the ‘New Epoch’. The first narrative about the well–known mage, healer, astrologist, soothsayer, and insurrectionist living in the first half of the 16th century came to light when he was still in people’s memories. The figure of Dr. Faustus quickly acquired the stuff of legend and wide popularity in the Renaissance, when the belief in magic and wonders was still strong and, on the other hand, where science, freed from the bonds of scholasticism, scored outstanding victories and seemed to many people to be the fruit of the union of daring reason and the Evil One. Mankind was beginning to lose its faith in God and in the laws by which the universe was created. The first records of the Faust legend are a testimony to the presentiment of danger of that path on which European civilization was moving. The first literary treatment of the Faust legend appeared in 1587 in the edition of Johann Spies, the so–called Faustbuch (also known as Volksbuch) under the title: ‘The History of Dr. Johann Faust, the notorious magus and necromancer: how he indentured himself to the Devil for a stated period, what strange things he therein saw and himself instigated and performed, until he finally received his just deserts. Chiefly 1
Victoria Adamenko, ‘Neo-Mythologism in Music: from Scriabin and Schoenberg to Schnittke and Crumb’ (Pendragon Press, 2006), p.256.
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compiled from his own posthumous writings and published as a horrid example, frightful instance and well-meant warning to all arrogant, cocksure and godless men. James 4: ‘Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.’ Blessed with a magnificent gift for literary matters, Spies personally collected the local stories and legends about Doctor Faustus and furnished them with excerpts from the scientific works of his time. Spies’s condemnation of Faust was characterized by having the hero himself become the source of his own misfortune. Spies’s book enjoyed enormous popularity in its time and was almost immediately translated into many languages. Christopher Marlowe was acquainted with the English translation (1588–1589) and wrote the first dramatic version of the legend, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (c. 1592). Marlowe poeticized the hero of the Spies’s Faustbuch, increasing his arrogance but endowing him with Promethean daring. The constant dialogue in Faust’s soul between the angels of good and evil exacerbated his doubts and torment. Marlowe’s tragedy became the material for numerous puppet comedies about Doctor Faustus, where throughout the subject’s many vicissitudes the result remained one and the same: the demise of the protagonist and the subversion of his soul to hell. The German writer, philosopher and critic Gotthold Lessing, one of the most outstanding representatives of the Enlightenment, was the first to provide Faust with justification and alter the hero’s tragic end. In Lessing’s hands, a drama of choice became a drama of knowledge. Faust was above all a fearless seeker of knowledge, and the light of reason could not be defeated by the powers of darkness. The thoroughly Enlightenment ideal of Faust, as the ideal of man in all his power and grandeur, was finally realized in the famous tragedy of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In Goethe’s drama, the moral and ethic pathos of the medieval legend gave way to a man’s fathomless inner world. Goethe’s a wide range of interests, as well as his excellent work as a scientist and naturalist, led him to imbue Faust with these similar characteristics. And it was precisely the Goethean variant of Faust which the 19th century, with all its anthropocentrism and unconditional faith in progress and the triumph of the human reason and will, took on as its own. After Goethe, 19th-century Germany saw the Faust theme move from literature to the field of philosophy; and perhaps the most important philosopher who espoused this ultimate development was Friedrich Nietzsche. His book Thus spake Zarathustra became an original manifesto proclaiming a new map for understanding of the world, a world in which ‘God’ was ‘dead’, in which morals had long since become a hopeless matter, a world that was both horrifying and cruel. The only meaning of existence was the will to rise above it, to become greater than human thoughts, than understandings of good and evil, to become a superman. In their attempts to sublimate themselves and become other, something greater than what they were, Nietzsche’s and Goethe’s figures came to challenge God. Having made a pact with the Devil, Faust turned away from God. In the grip of his genius’s arrogance, he looked upon his creative work as Creation itself, usurping the function of God and replacing Lucifer. Zarathustra, on the other hand, simply replaced God with himself, with the person he had to become, and in this way destroyed moral scruples and took Faust’s arrogance and ambition to an even higher level. A striking embodiment of the Faust idea can be found in the work of Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, completed the year the World War I started (1914). Spengler analysed world history and reversed the
positive world–view of the history of mankind as an unending evolution. Using simple logic, he showed that everything in this world had its birth and its death. According to Spengler any epoch subject to the law of the time incurred its demise sooner or later, as indicated by the coming of civilization. It was no coincidence that the figure of Faust appeared in The Decline of the West: Spengler considered the Faust legend the most important for the atmosphere of all European culture. Faust was the prototype of Western man with his striving for action and achievements. Beginning as a daring thinker, Faust managed in the end to build his own city, a state that in his eyes was just. Tormented by the search for truth the philosopher became, according to the author of The Decline of the West, a politician and socialist whose movement was complete, whose aims were achieved, and whose death was inevitable. Spengler believed in the utopia of the Enlightenment and prophetically foretold of coming totalitarian regimes in the guise of ‘good’ slogans. The great German writer Thomas Mann in his novel Doctor Faustus turned back the tradition of glorification of the figure of Faust by returning to the medieval model. Here everything could be explained by the time during which the novel was written and the time in which its events took place. ‘On the 23rd of May 1943’, a date on the first page of Doctor Faustus, signaled the start of work by a fictitious biographer (Zeitblom) on the biography of a fictitious composer (Leverkühn); 1943 was also the year in which Mann began work on his own novel; and the spring of 1943 was the final turning point in the course of the Second World War. Zeitblom writes: The advance of the Muscovites into our destined granary, the Ukraine, and the elastic retreat of our troops to the Dnieper line accompanied my work, or rather my work accompanied those events.2
The hero of the novel – partially modelled on Nietzsche – died in August 1940, ten years after his mind had dimmed to the point of dementia. As a result he could not speak out on the subject of fascism. Contained in this same chronology, however, was a deeper meaning: the life and descent into madness of a ‘German composer’ became, as Thomas Mann intended, a symbol of the life and ‘descent into madness’ of Germany itself. Zeitblom, who lived long enough to see his country’s disgrace, exclaims: Germany had become a thick-walled underground torture-chamber, converted into one by a profligate dictatorship vowed to nihilism from its beginnings on. Now the torture-chamber has been broken open, open lies our shame before the eyes of the world.3
Doctor Faustus is an extremely profound meditation on the fate of a country, a culture, a civilization, a world, and a reflection on the place and role of an artist in this world. One of the new developments in the Faust legend was Faust’s connection to music – in Mann’s opinion, the most demonic type of art. Against this historical backdrop (the end of the Second World War and collapse of Hitlerism), the writer began to imagine in music the evil that Mann, who adored the 19th century for its Romanticism, saw in modernist ethics ‘which allowed for the coldness of calculation to enter into creative work’.4 2
Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus. The Life of the German composer Adrian Leverkühn, told by a friend”trans. from the German by H.T. Lowe-Porter (London: Vintage/Random House, 1999), p. 174. Ibid., p. 481. Valentina Holopova, Kompozitor Alfred Schnittke, (Chelabinsk: Arkaim, 2003), p. 29.
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This book made a great impact on one of the leading Russian composers – Alfred Schnittke. It fascinated and influenced him so profoundly that Faustian drama became a recurrent topic in his life and music. Schnittke read Thomas Mann’s novel soon after its publication in 1947 in the original German and continued to be intrigued by the novel. As the cellist and musicologist Alexander Ivashkin remarked: Thomas Mann’s book attracted Schnittke’s attention to the Faustian theme as a global concept for mankind of a new age in which one has to live in a world of contradictions, melding good and evil, the personal and the collective, the high and the low, science and alchemy, reason and intuition.5
For Schnittke, ‘Faust is like a mirror reflecting the changes in human beings in recent centuries’.6 Mann’s book was an important source for Schnittke’s interest in contrast and dichotomy. The novel seemed to summarize the composer’s own philosophical viewpoint, addressing ‘eternal’ questions of the balances of life’s dualities of good and evil, banal and divine, sacred and sacrilegious, sinfulness and redemption. The following paragraph articulates the composer’s understanding of the Faust theme: But particularly important for me is what I have heard about [the Faust theme] from the priest who regularly visits me, Father Nikolai. I first heard from him the idea that when human beings die there is a certain eternal, moral reckoning connected with their lives that does not die. Not just in the sense that all the good they have done continues to exist in the life of others, although they themselves are dead. But the bad they have done also continues to exist, and not merely in the bad that continues to develop. Life can turn that in another direction – even in the direction of what is good. And this may happen long after the physical death of a particular human being. The moral reckoning that concerns every deed and every word contains hope, not a guarantee, but a hope of possible salvation (speaking from the point of view of a religious person), even for a character like Faust. Not, of course, a hope for the instantaneous salvation available to a person who has not made such improbable mistakes and committed so many sins. For me this was completely new and unexpected. I began to look at the character of Faust in a new way: he was no longer stigmatized as an utter sinner, cursed forever. This is because his destiny – I don’t mean his physical but moral destiny, which continues to exist – is not finally decided and contains this new potential … decided by the way people react to him and his posthumous fate.7
Doctor Faustus is also one of the most musical works in world literature. The novel showcases a panorama of music in its historical, aesthetic, and technical aspects. In the hands of Thomas Mann, the biography of the composer Adrian Leverkühn – ‘A Faust of Our Time’ – becomes an example of the fate of an artist and author of the 20th century. Mann recreated with striking authenticity the extremely complex persona of the composer as one tempted by all the epoch’s extremes of novelty. Therefore it is hardly surprising that the musical side of the novel most interested Alfred Schnittke on his burgeoning artistic path. He remarked, Everything that Thomas Mann wrote about music in Doctor Faustus produces a most powerful impression – at any rate it once produced such an impression on me. I can not say the same about descriptions of music written by musicologists.8
The young Schnittke familiarized himself with modern compositional techniques according to Mann’s novel. Interestingly enough, his models were in fact the works of Adrian Leverkühn. 5 6 7 8
Alexander Ivashkin, Alfred Schnittke (London: Phaidon Press, 1996), p. 152. Alexander Ivashkin, A Schnittke reader (Indiana University Press, 2002), p. 29. Ibid, p.30. Ibid, 9–10.
The first of these is Apocalypsis cum figuris. The virtual work made such a strong impression on Schnittke that in 1972 he echoed Mann’s literary apocalypsis by means of his own work, Symphony No. 1. As V. Holopova has pointed out, thus arose a situation unheard-of in the annals of musical history: a fictitious musical piece by a fictitious literary character became the prototype for a real musical piece by a real composer! Schnittke was also intrigued by the idea expressed in the novel ‘to take in the life-history of music, from its pre-musical, magic, rhythmical, elementary stage to its most complex consummation …’.9 This concept turned into the most important of Schnittke’s methods which he himself referred to as the polystylistic method. For him, exposure to a wide array of musical styles became a way of broader thinking in music. Polystylistics widened the range of expressive possibilities. No one particular style could give such broadness. In modern art, polystylistics created the possibility to combine any historical and social styles. Particularly important, according to the composer, was integration of ‘low’ and ‘high’ styles, banal and ‘recherché’; this created a wider musical world and a general democratization of style. It is doubtful whether one could find another musical approach that expresses as convincingly as the polystylistic method the philosophical idea of the ‘links between the ages’.10
Mann’s polystylistics in Apocalypsis was meant to convey ‘wantonness of hell’: ‘French impressionism is burlesqued, along with bourgeois drawing-room music, Tchaikovsky, music-hall, the syncopations and rhythmic somersaults of jazz…’11 – such is the kaleidoscopic panorama of suggested styles. In Schnittke’s Symphony No. 1 polystylistics is one of the principal methods of embodiment of the idea of apocalypse. Mixture of styles creates an effect of chaos, conveys the opposition of moral and depraved, life and death. The other Leverkühn creation that sank into Schnittke’s mind was the Symphonic Cantata The Lamentations of Dr. Faustus. The variety of ideas associated with Faust and Mephistopheles accompanied Alfred Schnittke’s creative work throughout his life. In 1983 he completed his Faust Cantata (‘Seid Nüchtern und wachet’), also called History of Dr. Johann Faustus.12 It is important to note that Schnittke perceived the Faust legend in inverse historical-chronological order. He read Mann’s book first, then conceived a plan to write an opera based on the second part of Goethe’s drama, and finally the Faust Cantata and his Faust opera appeared with a libretto from Johann Spies’s Volksbuch. Cantata and opera employ the same 1587 German text that was used in Leverkühn’s final composition. For the Cantata Schnittke chose the last two chapters of the book (67 and 68), which describe Faust’s confession to his students and his terrible death. And once again Schnittke drew inspiration from the nonexistent composer and wrote a real musical opus after a fictitious composition. Schnittke was attracted by the intensity of Spies’s text from the Volksbuch as if it were a real story about a real occurrence: an antiquated folk language, a somewhat naive statement in which a contradiction was revealed between his sympathy for a sinner and the blame expressed in 9 10 11 12
Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus, p. 374. Alexander Ivashkin, A Schnittke reader, p. 90. Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus, p. 376. The composer received a letter from the organizers of the Vienna Festival, who commissioned from Schnittke a composition for chorus, organ and orchestra (it was the year of the Vienna Singakademie’s 125-year anniversary). By an interesting coincidence the central theme of that year’s festival was also Faust; they asked Schnittke for something related to this idea.
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the words. The hero of the German folk book is dissimilar to Goethe’s philosopher and scientist. He makes a deal with the Devil because of curiosity and lust for the pleasures and delights of life. We see a man whose human frailties of impulsiveness and irreverence for conventional authority led him to his own demise. Faust here is unpredictable, much more real. The plot of the Volksbuch is more realistic and cruel than Goethe’s. There is no Goethean redemption here. Schnittke said himself that, ‘Faust is both a doctor and quasi–charlatan. His punishment was merited, but one feels sorry for him all the same’.13 The Cantata History of Dr. Johann Faustus, scored for countertenor, contralto, tenor, bass, mixed chorus, orchestra and organ, has become one of the best-known music works of the 20th century and has been recognized as one of Alfred Schnittke’s masterworks. Its ten movements follow each other without any break. The composer decided to pin the narrative to the older storyline in the historical aspect as well. As a genre model for his Cantata, Schnittke chose the Passion.14 As is characteristic of Bach’s or Schütz’s Passions, there is a narrator (tenor) who, similar to the Evangelist, tells the story as well as a chorus, and comments on it. As opposed to the Passions, the semantics of the Cantata were geared in a completely opposite direction. The idea of atonement became the idea of retribution. The composer defines his work as a ‘Negative Passion’. Schnittke also applies the stylization methods: the first movement – Folget nun (Follow now) – reminds one by its epic austerity of the opening bars of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, depicting ascending the mount Golgotha; the third movement – Gehen also miteinander (They therefore went there together) – is based on the simple texture and gracious alternating rhythms of 16th-century music; in the tenth movement (Chorale) – Seid nüchtern und wachet (Be sober and attentive) – Schnittke looks back to a Baroque idiom. The Faustian drama appeared in Schnittke’s Cantata not as the triumph of the human spirit or of daring efforts to gain knowledge of the world, but as a victory of the onset of Mephistophelean thinking. The emphases are shifted and the most brilliant and memorable pages of the Cantata are associated not with Faust, but with Mephistopheles. There are two principal complexes which can be distinguished in the Cantata’s music – the material and the spiritual. The material is associated with Mephistopheles. Schnittke embodied the devilish nature in a fascinatingly original way. He made it two-faced: the first (Mephistopheles) is the gentle and seductive infernal spirit – voiced by the countertenor; and the scornful, condemnatory, chastising, vampish infernal spirit (Mephistophila) – is voiced by the contralto. We can see that both these characters are deprived of the traditional male voice. Such a combination of voices in musical color presents certainly an unusual example in music history. There is a very interesting episode, namely the sixth movement – Doktor Faustus klagte (Doctor Faustus lamented and wept) – where this ‘charming’ couple sings together. Seductive countertenor Mephistopheles, trying to console Faust in a pure, sweet voice sings: ‘My dear Faustus, do not be so fainthearted! Even if you lose your body there is still a long way to go before your judgment …’. His female double, a vulgar cabaret-style contralto, singing with microphone, parodies the melody of the countertenor in canon, mocking Faustus’s grief and regret. 13 14
Valentina Holopova, Evgeniya Cigareva, Alfred Schnittke (Moscow: Sovetskij Kompozitor, 1990), p. 195. In this sense the Faust Cantata continues the sacred tradition in the composer’s creative work together with Requiem (1975) and Symphony No. 2 (St. Florian: Missa Invisibilia) for mixed chamber choir and large orchestra (1979).
The most original and memorable episode of the Faust Cantata is the contralto ‘aria’ in the Tango genre: the seventh movement – Es geschah (It came to pass). The composer’s decision to utilize this particular genre resulted from its emotional turmoil. At first, he planned to write the episode of Faust’s diabolical execution in directly dissonant style and employ distinctively jarring instrumental timbres. But he realized that it would not make the powerful impact he wanted. He remembered an idea expressed in Mann’s book that pushed against normative criteria of defined procedures and added an important dimension of interpretation. In Leverkuhn’s Apocalypse, says Zeitblom: dissonance stands for the expression of everything lofty, solemn, pious, everything of the spirit; while consonance and firm tonality are reserved for the world of hell … banality and commonplace.15
Schnittke decided to use this idea in his Tango of Death. He introduces overtly simple music: an intelligible melody, a sensuous syncopated rhythm of accompaniment, the apparent tonality of G minor, simple dance-like musical structures, solo saxophones, vocal glissandi, thundering electric guitars. Evil is revealed as a triumph of banality and the vulgar. The Tango of Death was written for a pop-style singer. Schnittke considered what is often called ‘pop-culture’ to be the most direct manifestation of evil in art. It is natural that evil should be attractive. It has to be nice and tempting; it has to take the form of something that can creep into your soul without difficulty, something pleasantly comfortable. Whatever it is, it must be fascinating. And pop culture is a good disguise for any kind of devilry, a way of creeping into your soul. So I can see no way of expressing evil in music other than by using elements of pop culture.16
This very music is employed to accompany the tremendously terrifying words, which one never comes across in Goethe’s Faust: When it became light, the students went into his chamber. They saw, however, no Faustus – nothing, for the chamber was splattered with blood. His brain was clinging to the wall, because the Devil had flung him from one wall to the other. His eyes were also lying there – and also a number of his teeth – a gruesome and frightening spectacle. Finally, however, they found his body outside in the dungheap; it was horrible to behold, for his head and all his limbs were quivering.
The music progressively illustrates all the horrors of the text; in order to increase the emotional charge, choral ‘wailing’ and orchestral ‘howling’ are employed. To the tango’s rhythm is added drumming. All the powerful modern musical languistic devices are concentrated in the climax: dissonant sonorities and dense polyphonic texture, polyrhythm, wide melodic leaps and so on. In constructing the Mephistophelian world Schnittke demonstrates his assured mastery of the technique of polystylism. There are many stylistic allusions. One may hear tense expressionistic phrases close to those of Berg’s Wozzeck, operatic melodies in 19th-century style, pseudo-Renaissance music, Stravinsky-like music, a banal waltz. For the Cantata, the Chorale – the tenth movement, Seid nuchtern und wachet (Be sober and attentive) – becomes a sign of a spiritual principle and emerges as the antipode to the Mephistophelean genres. Sustained outside of the ‘narrative’ framework, it fulfills the function of a certain ‘moralité’. It is a summary, a warning and an ethical admonition to the listener, the cantata’s spiritual balance sheet. This Chorale becomes the second finale, breaking the symmetry established 15 16
Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus, p. 375. Alexander Ivashkin, A Schnittke reader, p. 22.
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between movement No.1, Folget nun (Follow now) and No. 9, Also endet sich (Thus ends the entire true story), which are built on the same thematic elements. All the soloists take part in this movement, but here they are depersonalized. Though appearing at the end of the Cantata, the Chorale gradually makes its presence felt from the very first movements. Its tonal/harmonic structure (which is based on a combination of a major and a minor third separated by a minor second) is typical of Schnittke’s music. Such harmonization is associated with the BACH motto. This monogram appeared in the composer’s music as early as in the 1960s (music for The Glass Accordion, an animated film by Andrey Khrzhanovsky) as an embodiment of all sublime,17 and became a thematic symbol. Later Schnittke frequently used the BACH motto in some of his most important pieces.18 As the counterpoint to the Chorale’s theme, we hear from the violins the broken melody of Faust’s confession, both a recollection of the protagonist and his history as well as the ‘voice of a sinner’ against the backdrop of general moralizing. On the word ‘Amen’ the grotesquely simple, banal waltz intrudes. It is played by prepared piano: maybe reminding one about the joys and seductions of life, or maybe it is the devil’s grin? Faust’s story is finished, but the battle between good and evil continues. Soon after Schnittke had started working on the Cantata, he received a suggestion that he write an opera on the theme of Faust.19 He decided to continue working on Spies’s Faust story and to use his previously written Faust Cantata to form the major part of the last, third act. The completion of the opera was postponed several times: Schnittke confessed: ‘Faust is the theme of my whole life, and I am already afraid of it. I don’t think I shall ever complete it’.20 Despite the uncertainty and health issues he had to deal with, Schnittke heroically fulfilled his undertaking and after 11 years the opera Historia von D. Johann Fausten emerged. Schnittke wrote the libretto, based (once again) on the text of Spies’s Volksbuch, together with Jürgen Köchel (using a pseudonym, Jörg Morgener21). The opera has a three-act structure, with a single interval midway through the second act. The three-act division is to do with the overall dramatic structure, but the intermission separates two approximately equal parts. Apart from the concluding Chorale (epilogue), the 17
Schnittke’s words confirm his long-standing attachment to the Baroque composer: ‘Bach’s music produces its own form of physical effect, although not one of loudness or harshness. In fact, one could call it a spiritual effect. But in Bach’s music one ceases to be conscious of the boundary between what is spiritual and what is physical, or, to be more precise, the spiritual is a continuation of the physical, not something quite distinct from it’. Alexander Ivashkin, A Schnittke reader, p. 29. Sonata No.2 for Violin and Piano (Quasi una sonata) (1968), Piano Quintet (1978), Symphony No.3 (1981), Concerto Grosso No.3 (1985). The idea for this opera originated with Yuri Lyubimov, the director of Moscow’s Taganka Theatre, who was eager to persuade Schnittke to write an opera based on the second part of Goethe’s Faust. And although Schnittke was greatly intrigued by the character, he found it unrealistic to accommodate all Goethe’s ideas into a libretto for the opera, even if he were to use only the most important parts of the work. The project was put off for several years. While working on the Faust Cantata Schnittke received the commission from Christoph von Dohnanyi to compose an opera for the Hamburg Opera, where Dohnanyi was then chief conductor; but after the latter’s departure, the Faust project was abandoned again. Although Schnittke had been slowly working on an opera about Faust since 1983, this project remained near the bottom of his file of commissions. Then in about 1987 the Frankfurt Opera made an offer to stage the as-yet-unwritten opera. The first performance was planned for 1990, but Frankfurt Opera house was burnt down by a German fanatic, who had mistaken it for a bank. After that several European theaters discussed the project – in Salzburg, Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Hamburg. Finally in June 1995, after almost 20 years’ work, Schnittke’s masterwork, Historia von D. Johann Fausten, had its long-awaited world première at the Hamburg State Opera. Alexander Ivashkin, Alfred Schnittke, p. 208. Jürgen Köchel was head of the Hans Sikorski Publishing Company.
work is prefaced by a prologue on the same musical material, which is sustained outside of the framework of the narrative. The opera comprises 29 scenes from the 96 chapters of the Volksbuch, compacted into choruses, narrations and dialogues. There is no closed dramaturgy combining the individual scenes. Scenes succeed one another accompanied by the commentaries of a narrator. Each act represents a certain stage of Faust’s life. In the first act Faust has made a pact to sell his soul to the devil in return for 24 years of bliss and creative inspiration. The second act – the longest act in the opera – is a time-span that Faust has himself set in motion by making the devilish pact. The third act describes Dr. Faustus’s gruesome death with the music from the Faust Cantata. In comparison to the cantata, the dramatis personae of the opera is expanded slightly. There appears an Old Man, a god-fearing doctor who wants to dissuade Faust and turn him away from his godless life, and who is taken in the context of the given scene more as the voice of Faust’s own conscience. There are also three counts and a certain Bavarian Duke in a wedding episode in Munich. These characters do not perform any essential dramaturgic function. Emphasis is placed on the relationship between Faust and Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles, as in the Cantata, is two-faced. There is also a third hypostasis of the Devil in the opera: the fearful voice of Lucifer, performed by the chorus. Since the first two acts are devoted to first–hand descriptions of Faust’s existence with Mephistopheles, it is completely natural that the fulsome, seductive Mephistopheles should occupy the dominating position. He merely plays with Faust, completely manipulates his will and forces Faust to believe in his illusory world. Mephistophila, the contralto double of Mephistopheles, comes into view three times in Act II where she disguises herself as a Bavarian Countess (chapter 13 ‘Doctor Faustus wishes to wed’); in chapter 17 (‘The mocking jests of the devilish spirits’) Mephistopheles and Mephistophila mock Faustus with gloating comments, not even trying to conceal the truth about a truly dreadful finale prepared for him; and lastly in chapter 21 Mephistophila disguises herself as Fair Helen of Troy. In Act III Mephistophila appears in the fatal hypostasis of a punisher. The changes that occurred in Schnittke’s music in the 1990s due to personal circumstances (in 1985 and 1991 the composer suffered a series of strokes), as well as changes resulting from his creative evolution, could not but affect the opera. For that reason one senses a stylistic seam between the third act and the first two, where the manner of execution is much more frugal: these acts no longer retain the previous colorful musical texture, it is ‘as if a multidimensional film in color changed into black-and-white script’22. Both the opera and the cantata are connected, however, by a close musical thematic and symbolic unity. In the music of the opera, the constructive elements appear to be strictly subject to the word, to sense. The symbolism of the opera’s musical text is raised to a principle. With the help of rhetorical devices and audibly figurative methods, as if each word were scored for sound, Schnittke does something similar to what Bach did in his cantatas and passions. The tritone has a long history of expressive emphasis and it is heavily exploited in the music of the opera as a symbolic association with the devil’s realm. Since Mephistopheles is almost always present, the tritone becomes a major leitmotif of the opera. The words ‘devil’, ‘Mephistopheles’, ‘hell’, as well as the episodes referring to the asso22
Svetlana Savenko, ‘Lubov i krov – cherno-belij variant’ (Obshaja gazeta, 2000, No.48).
the faust legend and its role in alfred schnittke’s work 11
ciation with submission to the Devil or carrying out the Devil’s will are underscored by the use of this sonority. Consonant sonorities are rarely used, especially in the first two acts. They are reserved for specific purposes of depicting heightened expressions, and highlight such words as ‘paradise’, ‘sun’, ‘bright’. The BACH theme and the motives derived therefrom serve as an opposition to the ‘devilish’ tritone. For Schnittke, the BACH motif embodies the sacred symbols of the cross and the circle. BACH is the path of the Cross, which should lead Faust to God. In the opera’s prologue BACH, expressed as a vertical chord, enters as one of its most important thematic components, then goes on to illustrate those later moments that speak of an eternal soul and of repentance. The BACH formula embodies the genuine human essence: Faust’s eternal soul, which he exchanges for the opportunity of enjoying never-ending pleasures. In the cantata, and even more pronouncedly in the opera, Faust appears as a profoundly tragic figure. Schnittke in this regard even enters into a polemic with the original source. However horrible it may be, the conclusion of the Volksbuch is understood as a well-deserved requital. Faust initially evokes pity in Schnittke’s opera as a person lost in the labyrinth of life, tortuously trying to extricate himself from the horror in which he lives but realizing and understanding that this is an impossibility. The profound contradictions in Faust’s soul are also reflected in his musical characterization. Episodes that serve to characterize Faust are distinguished by the instability of their textural organization, intense leaps in the vocal parts, and easy transition from tonality to atonality. One of the dramaturgically important layers of the opera is the layer of Faust’s Laments (chapters 16, 22, 23) first appearing in the second act (part two) and culminating in the third act in his confession (chapter 26 ‘Faustus’ speech before the students’). In Spies’s Volksbuch Faust weeps and laments only right before his death. But Schnittke places Faust’s Laments earlier than Spies does. In the opera, Faust is constantly aware of damnation dawning on him for what he had done, and he realizes how it is going to end. One may mention several aspects of the Faust legend which are paramount for Schnittke. All of them are intertwined and emanate from one another. Temptation is the primeval impulse, the moment bearing the dichotomy and contradiction in the integral and harmonious image of the universe; a consequence of this is choice, either to return to that primeval harmony or to exacerbate the schism. Faust chooses the sensual pleasures of life only for himself, falling by these same means into the illusion in which time holds sway. Pleasure and seemingly unlimited power are only granted for a certain period of time, after which there ensues the retribution for all these iniquities. By not putting a conclusive end to Faust’s death, Schnittke breaks with the legend’s original doom and introduces repentance, which yields insight that brings back this lost integrity, although already at a new stage. In this way, the Faust legend becomes similar to the universal dialectic of human existence. As the main and recurrent theme of Schnittke’s work, the Faust legend comes to signify a certain informational field within which certain specific universal structures interact. The interaction of polar forces and the antinomy of Schnittke’s music is a reflection of the antinomies of life – with its predictability and unpredictability, its freedom and predetermination – expressed in the Faust legend. The very language of music, with its symbolic ambiguity and multidimensionality, becomes the ideal for talking about one of the most important myths of human existence, the legend of Faust.
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