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

BBC Music Magazine - - Thefullscore - IL­LUS­TRA­TION: MARIA CORTE MAIDAGAN

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?

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