Music in Goethe’s Faust: Goethe’s Faust in Music

Boydell & Brewer, 2017

That Goethe’s poetry has proved pivotal for the development of the nineteenth-century Lied has long been acknowledged. Less acknowledged is the seminal impact in musical realms of Goethe’s Faust, a work that has attracted the attention of composers since the late eighteenth century and played a vital role in the evolution of vocal, operatic and instrumental repertoire in the nineteenth century. From Beethoven to Schubert, Schumann to Wagner and Mahler, and Gounod to Berlioz, a floodtide of musical interpretations of Goethe’s Faust came into existence; and a broad trajectory can be traced from Zelter’s colourful description of the first setting of Goethe’s Faust to Alfred Schnittke’s Faust opera (1993).

This book explores the musical origins of Goethe’s Faust and the musical dimensions of its legacy. It uncovers the musical furore caused by Goethe’s Faust and considers why his polemical text has resonated so strongly with composers. Bringing together leading musicologists and Germanists, the book addresses a wide range of issues including reception history, the performative challenges of writing music for Faust, the impact of the legend on composers’ conceptual thinking and the ways in which it has been used by composers to engage with other contemporary intellectual concepts. Constituting the richest examination to date of the musicality of language and form in Goethe’s Faust and its musical rendering from the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries, the book will appeal to music, literary and Goethe scholars and students alike.

“A naked woman lies with her face hidden in her hands. A tattooed, bald-headed man rests his hand on her buttocks, with eyes closed and what may be a satisfied smile, from which wisps of smoke emerge. It is an arresting cover image, taken from a production of Gounod’s Faust directed by Àlex Ollé for the Dutch National Opera in 2014, which signals the distance between nineteenth- and twenty-first century conceptions of morality as expressed through art in responses to Goethe’s drama. It thereby neatly summarizes the purpose of this collection of essays, one of several volumes dedicated to the topic of Faust in music but unusual and welcome in its attention to productions as well as works.

The editor Lorraine Byrne Bodley’s expertise in Goethe is evident in her introduction, which neatly summarizes Faust and its appeal for musical adaptation. She concludes: ‘when tracing the musical afterlives of Faust across the centuries, it is important to see how Goethe’s text operates within its cultural context, how each setting responds to or exploits a myth, explicitly or implicitly, and participates in its culture’s discourse on the significance of Goethe’s text in general. Such criticism is not merely historicist, responding to specific historical and cultural contingencies informing each retelling of Goethe’s Faust, but rather a reassertion of a universal and transcendental value reaffirmed in each appearance’ (p. 20). Interestingly, the chapters in this volume are rarely both historicist and universalist but tend towards one or the other. It is a perhaps a tension within adaptation studies more broadly rather than something specific to Goethe’s Faust that the two critical strands cannot be reconciled.”

Professor Laura Tunbridge Oxford University
Music and Letters 99/2 (2018)

“Few legends have inspired artists in modern times as much as Faust, and no interpretation has found richer responses in music than Goethe’s Faust, a play – or rather, a complex of several plays – that was itself already imbued with musical elements on various levels. Guided by Lorraine Byrne Bodley, eighteen scholars of literature and music here shed light on the diverse ways in which music is used in Goethe’s Faust texts (and in their stagings) and on the even more diverse ways in which passages have resonated in musical works, including compositions by Schubert, Berlioz, Schumann, Gounod, Wagner, Mahler and Busoni. The book will be the standard by which efforts in addressing the inexhaustible topic will be measured in the future.”

Prof. Jürgen Thym
Professor Emeritus of Musicology, Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester

“Arising from an interdisciplinary conference held at Maynooth University in 2012, this rich and diverse yet focused collection of papers addresses the question of Goethe’s Faust in music, i.e. the various ‘musical engagements’ with Goethe’s dramatic poem. Opening Part 1 on the content and context of Goethe’s Faust, the volume’s editor, Lorraine Byrne Bodley, presents a chronological overview of Goethe’s reception in music, examines the role of music in Goethe’s Faust, and presents a detailed musicological analysis of Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade.

[…] This is an absorbing and fascinating volume […] Overall one senses that, with important exceptions, the more original and compelling arguments come from those commentators in the field of musical, rather than literary, studies. […] Somehow the insights of this splendid and immaculately edited collection of papers must find a wider audience beyond its immediate academic one in order to entice new readers and listeners to engage with the wondrous works discussed in these pages, for only in this way can we ensure that, so to speak, the music never ends.”

Paul Bishop
Journal of European Studies 47/4 (2017)

Responding to Bishop’s review article in her own reading, Sarah Neill writes:

“[…] Music in Goethe’s Faust, however, does not claim to be an introductory text. Rather, it fills a gap in the literature by both contextualizing the nineteenth-century responses within a broader reception history and engaging with intellectual concepts that have fascinated musicians, literary enthusiasts, and others for centuries. It is the role of scholarship to push boundaries, even when the subject may not immediately appeal to broad audiences. There is no doubt this volume accomplishes that task. […]

Music in Goethe’s Faust: Goethe’s Faust in Music is the result on an interdisciplinary conference from 2012, organized in honour of Nicholas Boyle, a Goethe scholar and author of the second chapter. At the core of the conference’s inquiry was a fundamentally multifaceted question: Why has Goethe’s Faust been so enduring throughout music history? Partly, this is a question of why the Faust myth has held such tenure in European musical thought, but more so it is a question of what Goethe’s version revealed that others did not. The answers that the contributors provide are both representative of the wealth of possibilities within the original work and the myriad cultural contexts of the musical responses to it. In short, Goethe’s Faust is not only a deeply musical text but also one that reflects matters – such as redemption and the human condition – that had deep significance in Goethe’s own time and have remained acutely relevant since.

The literary and poetic analysis is so sophisticated to such a level that scholars in multiple fields will find the volume to be valuable throughout, yet detailed music analysis is also not overlooked or avoided. This balance is due, in part, to the contributions by scholars with backgrounds in musicology, German literature, performance and theater, among others. For academics, a distinct strength of the volume is the wealth of sources consulted and generously cited, giving the book a secondary function as a research guide.

Undoubtedly, cohesion is the greatest challenge of a book that explores a topic of great breadth as Goethe’s Faust and the musical works it inspired. Particular credit is due to Lorraine Byrne Bodley for an in-depth introduction that acknowledges the unfeasibility of completing a comprehensive study while also reaching to frame the central question as completely as possible. The book is a success in that it touches upon the origins of the Faust myth in the sixteenth century, the wealth of reactions in the nineteenth century, and recent productions even within the last decade. It also does justice to the many angles of interpretation that Goethe’s Faust invites, from post-Christian modernity to existentialist questions about the value of life to the sheer variety of musical and poetic structures present within Goethe’s text. […]”

Sarah Elaine Neill, Duke University
Notes 75/2 (2018), 229–301


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