Sunday, November 23, 2008

Creator and Creation

When I mentioned yesterday that I had seen a production of Johann Wolfgang Goethe's Faust in New York back in the Eighties, I neglected to mention that this production covered both parts of Goethe's drama. This was a major undertaking by the Classic Stage Company: Part One was performed in the afternoon, after which there was a dinner break, followed by Part Two in the evening. Taking time off for dinner was nothing compared to the interval in Goethe's life, since Part One was published in 1806, while Part Two was not completed until 1832, the year of his death. Just about any musical treatment of Faust is pretty much confined to Part One, and even dramatic stagings of Part Two are pretty rare. The reason for this is apparent from the Wikipedia summary:

In contrast to Faust Part One, the focus here is no longer on the soul of Faust, which has been sold to the devil, but rather on social phenomena such as psychology, history and politics.

I do not entirely accept this summary, but it is still a good point of departure. A better way of approaching Part Two is to view Part One in terms of how Mephistopheles manipulates Faust into signing his contract and what Mephistopheles then "delivers" to "seal the deal." Gretchen (Marguerite in Hector Berlioz' version, La Damnation de Faust) is the critical "deliverable." However, while Berlioz' libretto ultimately resolves the plot with Faust being condemned to Hell (true to his title) and Marguerite being received in Heaven, Goethe's Faust survives this episode and pretty much forgets it.

Part Two brings about a rather interesting role-reversal, in which Mephistopheles becomes servant to Faust; and Faust becomes a magus figure marketing his skill-set (which he only has by virtue of his contract with Mephistopheles). In the course of Part Two, Faust expounds on Goethe's theory of color, rescues a financially failing empire by introducing paper currency, encounters Helen of Troy, and mounts a major utopian urban renewal project that destroys the pastoral home of Baucis and Philemon. Ultimately, he runs out of things to do and succumbs to the same boredom that Berlioz captured so well at the beginning of his version. Mephistopheles finally sees the opportunity to seize his side of the bargain; but Faust is basically "rescued" by a "subjunctive loophole" in the contract, leading to a final scene of his salvation.

That final scene may best be described as "extreme spectacle," almost a reductio ad absurdum of the argument for spectacle delivered in the "Prelude in the Theatre" all the way back at the beginning of Faust Part One. The opening description depicts a setting that might give even the imaginative intellect Robert Lepage applied to Berlioz a hard time:

Mountain glens, forest, rock, solitude. Holy Anchorites sheltering in the clefts of rocks, scattered at various heights along the cliffs.

The first monologue is delivered by Pater Ecstaticus "floating up and down;" and it begins a prolonged meditation on Faust's salvation, in which his soul is received by angels and penitents (one of whom is Gretchen). In the production that I saw in New York, this scene was cut down to a bare minimum and with good reason. The audience had already been setting through quite a lot by this time!

However, the text of this scene formed the core of Gustav Mahler's eighth symphony in E flat major, meaning that yesterday I experienced a "day of Faust" that began at 10 AM in a movie house and ended at about 10 PM in Davies Symphony Hall. Mahler definitely had the right idea for this unwieldy material: Rather than approach it as opera, he let the music convey all the staging details; and, given the dramatic expressiveness of his music, even when text is not involved, the result is probably about the only approach that does justice to Goethe's over-the-top conception. All of this, however, is only Part II of Mahler's symphony.

Part I is a setting of the ninth-century hymn for Roman church ritual, "Veni, Creator Spiritus" (Come Creator-Spirit). It is not a stretch of the imagination to view this opening movement as Mahler's summoning of his own "creator-spirit" to assist him in the task of doing justice to this massive body of Goethe's text. (Remember, prior to this work, most of the texts that Mahler had set had been relatively short and of folk origins.) The prefatory nature of this movement is confirmed by a duration that is roughly one-third the duration of Part II. More important, however, is that Part I serves as a "listener's guide" to Part II. It lays out all of the thematic material, that material is arranged in a structure that serves as a "skeleton for prolongation" in the grammar of Part II, and the ear is introduced to all of the rhetorical devices summoned to manage a full orchestra (including organ, harmonium, and mandolin), two mixed choruses, boys' chorus, girls' chorus, three sopranos, two mezzo-sopranos, tenor, baritone, and bass. (When the impresario Emil Gutmann decided to call this the "Symphony of a Thousand," he was not far from the mark; the total "body count" for the first performance was 1030!)

The fact that the San Francisco Symphony performances of this work were sold out testifies to how successful Michael Tilson Thomas has been in cultivating an audience for Mahler in this city. Even the favorable review by Joshua Kosman for the San Francisco Chronicle could not get beyond the received opinion of this composition as an unwieldy monster, but Saturday night's audience seemed to have no sense of it being unwieldy in the way Thomas presented it. Yes, there is a certain artificiality to the episodic nature of Goethe's text; and Mahler deconstructed the text of the Roman hymn to prepare the ear for that episodic structure. However, Thomas knew exactly how to pace both parts of the symphony, guiding our ears through all of the twists and turns of Goethe's spectacle, leading us to a mystically hushed final text (the "Ewig-Weibliche" invocation of the "eternal feminine") followed by one last triumphant celebration of all the instrumental resources. Far from an unwieldy monster, this symphony emerged as what could well be Mahler's greatest triumph.

In writing these reflections I realize that I have focused entirely on why the music came out the way it did. This is not to slight the many soloists who responded so ably to Thomas' conception of this "finished product." Rather than running through all the names, I refer readers to the Chronicle hyperlink in the preceding paragraph, since I, too, may have had to confront the problem of straining my audience's attention span!

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