It's not hard to imagine what is meant by the term "dramatic music." With film scores and music videos familiar even to people who don't follow popular culture, the idea that music can enhance or tell a story on its own is unremarkable today. But in the early part of the 19th century, it was nothing short of revolutionary. On Friday night, the Spokane Symphony Orchestra will present one of the mature masterpieces of the composer who did more than perhaps anyone else to establish the form, when it presents Hector Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust. Inspired by Goethe's famous dramatic poem but not based on it, Berlioz's work draws on an oversized orchestra, four soloists and a full chorus to tell the story of the infamous Faust, who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for romance and power.
The Faust story is fitting for a composer like Berlioz, who started terrifying audiences decades before composers like Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg liberated music from the rhythmic and harmonic conventions that had ruled it for years. For Berlioz, anything that helped him better express his dramatic and musical intentions was put into his scores. In his early Symphonie fantastique, he broke down the traditional forms in which music had always been composed, placing various themes and dramatic developments wherever it suited his desire, rather than trying to locate them in the pre-developed structures that had served Beethoven and Mozart. When Berlioz required a strange effect -- say, a musical representation of distant thunder -- he unhesitatingly wrote an extended passage for a solo English horn, plaintively evoking an open landscape while four kettledrums rumble in the distance. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, even the most conservative concertgoer anticipates such tactics from composers from time to time, but when Berlioz was writing, strange sounds from the orchestra were rare and extremely shocking.
Berlioz's use of these tactics gained him a terrific reputation, even if praise was sometimes slow in catching up with the attention. By the time he began writing The Damnation of Faust, he had already achieved success with not only the Symphonie fantastique, but also with his epic viola concerto Harold in Italy and the musical drama Romeo and Juliet, each of which took listeners on an increasingly extreme musical journey. And The Damnation of Faust is something of a culmination of these efforts. In one scene, depicting the use of nature by Mephistopheles to seduce Faust and Marguerite, two piccolos flicker above a careening orchestra, simultaneously suggesting the tranquil movements of insects at night and the alarming evil of Mephistopheles. At the end of the second of the work's four parts, two groups of people -- students and soldiers -- carouse around town, singing in different languages in different meters, accompanied by their own orchestras. And Faust's aria, "Invocation to Nature," takes the tenor to the almost inhuman extremes of both musical range and volume.
Nevertheless, when The Damnation of Faust was first performed to two half-full concert halls in Paris, Berlioz was surprised that audiences were taken aback. "Nothing in my artistic career hurt me more deeply," he wrote, "than this unexpected indifference. It was a painful discovery, but it was at least salutary, in that I learned from it, and from then on I have not gambled even 20 francs on the popularity of my music with the Parisian public."
After more than a century, however, many of the selections from The Damnation of Faust have become orchestral favorites. For all of Berlioz's extreme demands on his musicians and listeners, the final effect of the music itself is not only rewarding -- it's astonishing. From the famed "Rakoczy March," which comes early in the piece with its locomotive drive, to the "Ride to the Abyss," which depicts Mephistopheles dragging Faust to hell on horseback, complete with anguished oboes screaming above the galloping strings, The Damnation of Faust is full of "hits." Many of them are usually heard on their own, divorced from the context of Berlioz's story. But at Friday night's concert, listeners will have a rare and valuable chance to encounter what the composer ended up calling a "Dramatic Legend."
Transcending the bounds of traditional orchestral music and dramatic music alike, the entire work is truly an opera for the mind.
Publication date: 05/08/03