BBC Music Magazine
Dances with the devil
What would you sacrifice for fame and fortune? When Goethe explored the question in Faust, the impact on music was seismic, finds Tom Service
We like to think of the Faust story as a drama that couldn’t happen to people like us. Goethe’s dramatic creation in the early decades of the 19th century exploded into the consciousness of European culture. It’s a philosophical drama that built on centuries-old stories and archetypes of a tale in which a not-so-hapless-hero sells his soul to the devil for love and celebrity, and pays the ultimate existential price. ★e goes through it all so we don’t we have to. None of us would be so stupid as to sell our souls to Mephistopheles for fame and fortune, now would we?
Well, if we’re honest about it, we can see Faustian bargains being made and redeemed all of the time. In our careers, in our politics and in our businesses, deals with the devil – whether we’re talking about a Beelzebub of money, power, intoxication or talent – are what makes the world go round.
There’s a special connection with the Faust story for musicians. ★ere’s an eclectic handful of the composers, songwriters and performers who have told a version of Faust, or who have taken on the ideas and iconography of making Satanic pacts for their virtuosity. There’s Berlioz and his hyper-real orchestral phantasmagoria in The Damnation of Faust, while Mahler in his Eighth Symphony and Schumann in his Scenes from Goethe’s Faust dare to set the mystical second part of Goethe’s drama. Turning away from classical music, there’s Robert Johnson, the King of the Delta Blues, who was said to have sold his soul for musical mastery at a crossroads one night in Mississippi, The Rolling Stones and their Sympathy for the Devil, and Queen’s Faustian microopera, Bohemian Rhapsody.
All of these musicians are themselves Faustian figures, because of the deals they all made in their lives to further their talent and to pursue their dreams. 19th-century audiences thought that the era’s greatest virtuosos – Paganini on the violin, Liszt on the piano – must have been in league with the denizens of the dark side. ★ow else could they play their instruments the way they did, and what else could explain their bewitchment of their audiences? That’s the point. We the listeners are the true Fausts, obsessed by endowing virtuosos with uncanny abilities.
Yet the ultimate rendering of Faust in music is a piece by Alfred Schnittke. In the Russian composer’s Faust Cantata, Faust is dismembered and dragged to hell to music of luridly powerful grotesquerie; a diabolical musical carnival of distorted tango, pop, groaning chorus, amplified contralto and violently expressive orchestral sound. Whatever else the Faust story has given us, it has inspired musicians to dream of some of the most extreme soundscapes ever conjured. What price a deal with the devil, when the music it makes is this good? We’re all in league with Mephisto now…
What price a deal with the devil, when the music it makes is this good?