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Mefistofele

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THERE is no reason to question Gounod's statement that it was he who conceived the idea of writing a Faust opera in collaboration with MM. Barbier and Carré. There was nothing novel in the notion. Music was an integral part of the old puppet-plays which dealt with the legend of Dr. Faustus, and Goethe's tragedy calls for musical aid imperatively. A musical pantomime, "Harlequin Faustus," was performed in London as early as 1715, and there were Faust operas long before even the first part of Goethe's poem was printed, which was a hundred and one years ago. A composer named Phanty brought out an opera entitled "Dr. Faust's Zaubergurtel" in 1790 ; C. Hanke used the same material and title at Flushing in 1794, and Ignaz Walter produced a "Faust" in Hanover in 1797. Goethe's First Part had been five years in print when Spohr composed his "Faust," but it is based not on the great German poet's version of the legend, but on the old sources. This opera has still life, though it is fitful and feeble, in Germany, and was produced in London by a German company in 1840 and by an Italian in 1852, when the composer conducted it ; but I have never heard of a representation in America. Between Spohr's "Faust," written in 1813 and performed in 1818, and Boito's "Mefistofele," produced in 1868, many French, German, English, Italian, Russian, and Polish Faust operas have come into existence, lived their little lives, and died. Rietz produced a German "Faust," founded on Goethe, at Dusseldorf, in 1836; Lind-painter in Berlin, in 1854; Henry Rowley Bishop's English "Faustus" was heard in London, in 1827 ; French versions were Mlle. Angélique Bertin's "Faust" (Paris, 1831), and M. de Pellaert's (Brussels, 1834) ; Italian versions were "Fausta," by Donizetti (Mme. Pasta and Signor Donzelli sang in it in Naples in 1832), "Fausto," by Gordigiano (Florence, 1837), and "Il Fausto arrivo," by Raimondi (Naples, 1837) ; the Polish Faust, Twardowsky, is the hero of a Russian opera by Verstowsky (Moscow, 1831), and of a Polish opera by J. von Zaitz (Agram, 1880). How often the subject has served for operettas, cantatas, overtures, symphonies, etc., need not be discussed here. Berlioz's "Dramatic Legend," en-titled "La Damnation de Faust," tricked out with stage pictures by Raoul Gunsbourg, was performed as an opera at Monte Carlo in 1903, and in New York at the Metropolitan and Manhattan opera-houses in the seasons 1906–1907 and 1907–1908, respectively ; but the experiment was unsuccessful, both artistically and financially.

I have said that there is no reason to question Gounod's statement that it was he who conceived the idea of writing the opera whose popularity is without parallel in the musical history of the Faust legend; but, if I could do so without reflecting upon his character, I should like to believe a story which says that it was Barbier who proposed the subject to Gounod after Meyerbeer, to whom he first suggested it, had declined the collaboration. I should like to believe this, because it is highly honorable to Meyerbeer's artistic character, which has been much maligned by critics and historians of music since Wagner set an example in that direction. " `Faust," Meyerbeer is reported to have replied to Barbier's invitation, "is the ark of the covenant, a sanctuary not to be approached with profane music." For the composer who did not hesitate to make an opera out of the massacre of St. Bartholomew, this answer is more than creditable. The Germans, who have either felt or affected great indignation at the want of reverence for their great poet shown by the authors of "Faust" and "Mignon," ought to admire Meyerbeer in a special degree for the moral loftiness of his determination and the dignified beauty of its expression. Composers like Kreutzer, Reissiger, Pierson, Lassen, and Prince Radziwill have written incidental music for Goethe's tragedy without reflecting that possibly they were profaning the sanctuary; but Meyerbeer, compared with whom they were pygmies, withheld his hand, and thereby brought himself into sympathetic association with the only musician that ever lived who was completely equipped for so magnificent a task. That musician was Beethoven, to whom Rochlitz bore a commission for music to "Faust" from Breitkopf and Hartel in 1822. The Titan read the proposition and cried out : "Ha! that would be a piece of work ! Something might come of that!" but declined the task because he had the choral symphony and other large plans on his mind.

Boito is not a Beethoven nor yet a Meyerbeer ; but, though he did what neither of them would venture upon when he wrote a Faust opera, he did it with complete and lovely reverence for the creation of the German poet. It is likely that had he had less reverence for his model and more of the stagecraft of his French predecessors, his opera would have had a quicker and greater success than fell to its lot. Of necessity it has suffered by comparison with the opera of Barbier, Carré, and Gounod, though it was far from Boito's intentions that it should ever be subjected to such a comparison. Boito is rather more poet and dramatist than he is musician. He made the book not only of "Mefistofele," but also of "Otello" and "Falstaff," which Verdi composed, "La Gioconda," for which Ponchielli wrote the music, and "Ero e Leandro," which he turned over to Bottesini, who set it with no success, and to Mancinelli, who set it with little. One of the musical pieces which the poet composed for this last opera found its way into "Mefistofele," for which work "Ero e Leandro" seems to have been abandoned. He also translated Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" into Italian. Being a poet in the first in-stance, and having the blood of the Northern barbarians as well as the Southern Romans in his veins, he was unwilling to treat Goethe's tragedy as the Frenchman had treated it. The tearful tale of the love of the rejuvenated philosopher, and the village maiden, with its woful outcome, did not suffice him. Though he called his opera "Mefistofele," not "Faust," he drew its scenes, of which only two have to do with Marguerite (or Gretchen), from both parts of Goethe's allegorical and philosophical phantasmagoria. Because he did this, he failed from one point of view. Attempting too much, he accomplished too little. His opera is not a well-knit and consistently developed drama, but a series of episodes, which do not hold together and have significance only for those who know Goethe's dramatic poem in its entirety. It is very likely that, as originally produced, "Mefistofele" was not such a thing of shreds and patches as it now is. No doubt, it held together better in 1868, when it was ridiculed, whistled, howled, and hissed off the stage of the Teatro la Scala, than it did when it won the admiration of the Italians in Bologna twelve years later. In the interval it had been subjected to a revision, and, the first version never having been printed, the critical fraternity became exceedingly voluble after the success in Bologna, one of the debated questions being whether Boito had bettered his work by his voluminous excisions, interpolations, and changes (Faust, now a tenor, was originally a barytone), or had weakly surrendered his better judgment to the taste of the hoi polloi, for the sake of a popular success. It was pretty fighting ground ; it is yet, and will remain such so long as the means of comparison remain hidden and sentimental hero-worship is fed by the notion that Boito has refused to permit the opera or operas which he has written since to be either published or performed because the world once refused to recognize his genius. This notion, equally convenient to an indolent man or a colossal egoist — I do not believe that Boito is either — has been nurtured by many pretty stories ; but, unhappily, we have had nothing to help us to form an opinion of Boito as a creative artist since "Mefistofele" appeared, except the opera books written for Verdi and Ponchielli and the libretto of "Ero e Leandro."

Boito's father was an Italian, his mother a Pole. From either one or both he might have inherited the intensity of expression which marks his works, both poetical and musical; but the tendency to philosophical contemplation which characterizes "Mefistofele," even in the stunted form in which it is now presented, is surely the fruit of his maternal heritage and his studies in Germany. After completing the routine of the conservatory in Milan, he spent a great deal of time in Paris and the larger German cities, engrossed quite as much in the study of literature as of music. Had he followed his inclinations and the advice of Victor Hugo, who gave him a letter of introduction to Emile de Girardin, he would have become a journalist in Paris instead of the composer of "Mefistofele" and the poet of "Otello," "Falstaff," "La Gioconda," and "Ero e Leandro." But Girardin was too much occupied with his own affairs to attend to him when Boito presented himself, and after waiting wearily, vainly, and long, he went to Poland, where, for want of something else to do, he sketched the opera "Mefistofele," which made its memorable fiasco at Milan in March, 1868.

To show that it is impossible to think of "Mefistofele" except as a series of disconnected episodes, it suffices to point out that its prologue, epilogue, and four acts embrace a fantastic parody or per-version of Goethe's Prologue in Heaven, a fragment of his Easter scene, a smaller fragment of the scene in Faust's study, a bit of the garden scene, the scene of the witches' gathering on the Brocken, the prison scene, the classical Sabbath in which Faust is discovered in an amour with Helen of Troy, and the death and salvation of Faust as an old man. Can any one who knows that music, even of the modern dramatic type, in which strictly musical forms have given way to as persistent an onward flow as the text itself, must of necessity act as a clog on dramatic action, imagine that such a number and variety of scenes could be combined into a logical, consistent whole, compassed by four hours in performance? Certainly not. But Boito is not con-tent to emulate Goethe in his effort to carry his listeners "from heaven through the earth to hell"; he must needs ask them to follow him in his ex-position of Goethe's philosophy and symbolism. Of course, that is impossible during a stage representation, and therefore he exposes the workings of his mind in an essay and notes to his score. From these we may learn, among other things, that the poet-composer conceives Faust as the type of man athirst for knowledge, of whom Solomon was the Biblical prototype, Prometheus the mythological, Manfred and Don Quixote the predecessors in modern literature. Also that Mephistopheles is as inexhaustible as a type of evil as Faust is as a type of virtue, and therefore that this picturesque stage devil, with all his conventionality, is akin to the serpent which tempted Eve, the Thersites of Homer, and — mirabile dictu ! — the Falstaff of Shakespeare!

The device with which Boito tried to link the scenes of his opera together is musical as well as philosophical. In the book which Barbier and Carré wrote for Gounod, Faust sells his soul to the devil for a period of sensual pleasure of indefinite duration, and, so far as the hero is concerned, the story is left unfinished. All that has been accomplished is the physical ruin of Marguerite. Méphistophélès exults for a moment in contemplation of the destruction, also, of the immortal part of her, but the angelic choir proclaims her salvation. Faust departs hurriedly with Méphistophélès, but whether to his death or in search of new adventures, we do not know. The Germans are, therefore, not so wrong, after all, in calling the opera after the name of the heroine instead of that of the hero. In Boito's book the love story is but an incident. Faust's compact with Mefistofele, as in Goethe's dramatic poem, is the outcome of a wager between Mefistofele and God, under the terms of which the Spirit of Evil is to be permitted to seduce Faust from righteousness, if he can. Faust's demand of Mefistofele is rest from his unquiet, inquisitive mind ; a solution of the dark problem of his own existence and that of the world ; finally, one moment of which he can say, "Stay, for thou art lovely !" The amour with Margherita does not accomplish this, and so Boito follows Goethe into the conclusion of the second part of his drama, and shows Faust, at the end, an old man about to die. He recalls the loves of Margherita and Helen, but they were insufficient to give him the desired moment of happiness. He sees a vision of a people governed by him and made happy by wise laws of his creation. He goes into an ecstasy. Mefistofele summons sirens to tempt him, and spreads his cloak for another flight. But the chant of celestial beings falls into Faust's ear, and he speaks the words which terminate the compact. He dies. Mefistofele attempts to seize upon him, but is driven back by a shower of roses dropped by cherubim. The celestial choir chants redeeming love.

Thus much for the dramatic exposition. Boito's musical exposition rests on the employment of typical phrases, not in the manner of Wagner, indeed, but with the fundamental purpose of Wagner. A theme which begins the prologue, ends the epilogue. The reader may label it as he pleases. Its significance is obvious from the circumstances of its employment. It rings out fortissimo when the mystic chorus, which stands for the Divine Voice, puts the question, "Knowest thou Faust ?" An angelic ascription of praise to the Creator of the Universe and to Divine Love is the first vocal utterance and the last. In his notes Boito observes : "Goethe was a great admirer of form, and his poem ends as it begins, — the first and last words of `Faust' are uttered in Heaven." Then he quotes a remark from Blaze de Bury's essay on Goethe, which is apropos, though not strictly accurate : "The glorious motive which the immortal phalanxes sing in the introduction to the first part of `Faust' recurs at the close, garbed with harmonies and mystical clouds. In this Goethe has acted like the musicians, — like Mozart, who recurs in the finale of `Don Giovanni' to the imposing phrase of the overture."

M. de Bury refers, of course, to the supernatural music, which serves as an introduction to the overture to "Don Giovanni," and accompanies the visitation of the ghostly statue and the death of the libertine. But this is not the end of Mozart's opera as he wrote it, as readers of this book have been told.

This prologue of "Mefistofele" plays in heaven. "In the heavens," says Theodore Marzials, the English translator of Boito's opera, out of deference to the religious sensibilities of the English people, to spare which he also changes "God" into "sprites," "spirits," "powers of good," and "angels." The effect is vastly diverting, especially when Boito's paraphrase of Goethe's

Von Zeit zu Zeit seh' ich den Alten gem
Und hüte mich mit ihm zu brechen.
Es ist gar hübsch von einem grossen Herrn,

is turned into : "Now and again 'tis really pleasant thus to chat with the angels, and I'll take good care not to quarrel with them. 'Tis beautiful to hear Good and Evil speak together with such humanity." The picture disclosed by the opening of the curtain is a mass of clouds, with Mefistofele, like a dark blot, standing on a corner of his cloak in the shadow. The denizens of the celestial regions are heard but never seen. A trumpet sounds the fundamental theme, which is repeated in full harmony after instruments of gentler sung a hymn-like phrase.

It is the first period of the "Salve Regina" sung by Earthly Penitents in the finale of the prologue. The canticle is chanted through, its periods separated by reiterations of the fundamental theme. A double chorus acclaims the Lord of Angels and Saints. A plan, evidently derived from the symphonic form, underlies the prologue as a whole. Prelude and chorus are rounded out by the significant trumpet phrase. One movement is completed. There follows a second movement, an Instrumental Scherzo, with a first section beginning thus and a trio. Over this music Mefistofele carries on converse with God. He begs to disagree with the sentiments of the angelic hymn. Wandering about the earth, he had observed man and found him in all things contemptible, especially in his vanity begotten by what he called "reason" ; he, the miserable little cricket, vaingloriously jumping out of the grass in an effort to poke his nose among the stars, then falling back to chirp, had almost taken away from the devil all desire to tempt him to evil doings. "Knowest thou Faust?" asks the Divine Voice ; and Mefistofele tells of the philosopher's insatiable thirst for wisdom. Then he offers the wager. The scene, though brief, follows Goethe as closely as Goethe follows the author of the Book of Job:---

Now, there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them.

And the Lord said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the Lord and said, From going to and fro in the earth and from walking up and down in it.

And the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God and escheweth evil?

Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought?

And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord.

Boito treats the interview in what he calls a Dramatic Interlude, which gives way to the third movement, a Vocal Scherzo, starting off with a chorus of Cherubim, who sing in fugacious thirds and droning dactyls.

It is well to note particularly Boito's metrical device. He seemingly counted much on the effect of incessantly reiterated dactyls. Not only do his Cherubim adhere to the form without deviation, but Helen and Pantalis use it also in the scene imitated from Goethe's Classical Walpurgis Night, — use it for an especial purpose, as we shall see presently. Rapid syllabication is also a characteristic of the song of the witches in the scene on the Brocken; but the witches sing in octaves and fifths except when they kneel to do homage to Mefistofele; then their chant sounds like the responses to John of Leyden's prayer by the mutinous soldiers brought to their knees in "Le Prophète." Not at all ineptly, Mefistofele, who does not admire the Cherubs, likens their monotonous cantillation to the hum of bees. A fourth movement consists of a concluding psalmody, in which the Cherubs twitter, Earthly Penitents supplicate the Virgin, and the combined choirs, celestial and terrestrial, hymn the Creator.

The tragedy now begins. Boito changes the order of the scenes which he borrows from Goethe, presenting first the merrymaking of the populace outside the walls of Frankfort-on-the-Main, and then the interview between Faust and Mefistofele, in which, as in the opening scene of Gounod's opera, the infernal compact is agreed upon. There is some mediaeval pageantry in the first scene, — a cavalcade headed by the Elector, and including dignitaries, pages, falconers, the court fool, and ladies of the court. Students, townspeople, huntsmen, lads, and lasses pursue their pleasures, and up and down, through the motley groups, there wanders a gray friar, whose strange conduct repels some of the people, and whose pious garb attracts others. Faust and Wagner, his pupil, come upon the scene, conversing seriously, and stop to comment on the actions of the friar, who is approaching them, supposedly in narrowing circles. Wagner sees nothing in him except a mendicant friar, but Faust calls attention to the fact that to his eye, flames blaze up from his footprints. This friar is the "poodle" of Goethe's poem, and Mefistofele in disguise. It is thus that the devil presented himself to Faustus in the old versions of the legend, and as a friar he is a more practicable dramatic figure than he would have been as a dog; but it cannot but provoke a smile from those familiar with Goethe's poem to hear (as we do in the opera a few moments later) the familiar lines turned into : "This, then, was the kernel of the friar ! A cavalier?" The music of the score is characterized by frequent changes from triple to double time, as illustrated in the opening measures.

The rhythmical energy and propulsiveness thus imparted to the music of the merrymaking is heightened by the dance. Peasants rush upon the scene with shouts of "Juhé !" and make preparations to trip it while singing what, at first, promises to be a waltz-song.

The dance, however, is not a waltz, but an obertass — the most popular of the rustic dances of Poland. Why should Boito have made his Rhinelanders dance a step which is characteristically that of the Poles? Sticklers for historical verity could easily convict him of a most unpardonable anachronism, if they were so disposed, by pointing out that even if German peasants were in the habit of dancing the obertass now (which they are not), they could not have done it in the sixteenth century, which is the period of the drama, for the sufficient reason that the Polish dance was not introduced in North Germany till near the middle of the eighteenth century. But we need not inquire too curiously into details like this when it comes to so arbitrary an art-form as the opera. Yet Boito was his own poet, master of the situation so far as all parts of his work were concerned, and might have consulted historical accuracy in a department in which Gluck once found that he was the slave of his ballet master. Gluck refused to introduce a chaconne into "Iphigénie en Aulide." "A chaconne?" cried the composer. "When did the Greeks ever dance a chaconne?" "Didn't they?" replied Vestris ; "then so much the worse for the Greeks!" A quarrel ensued, and Gluck, becoming incensed, withdrew his opera and would have left Paris had not Marie Antoinette come to the rescue. But Vestris got his chaconne. In all likelihood Boito put the obertass into "Mefistofele" because he knew that musically and as a spectacle the Polish dance would be particularly effective in the joyous hurly-burly of the scene. A secondary meaning of the Polish word is said to be "con-fusion," and Boito doubtless had this in mind when he made his peasants sing with an orderly disorder which is delightful : ---

Tutti vanno alla rinfusa
Sulla musica confusa,

or, as one English translation has it : —

All is going to dire confusion
With the music in collusion.

Perhaps, too, Boito had inherited a love for the vigorous dance from his Polish mother.

Night falls, and Faust is returned to his laboratory. The gray friar has followed him (like Goethe's poodle) and slips into an alcove unobserved. The philosopher turns to the Bible, which lies upon a lectern, and falls into a meditation, which is interrupted by a shriek. He turns and sees the friar standing motionless and wordless before him. He conjures the apparition with the seal of Solomon, and the friar, doffing cowl and gown, steps forward as a cavalier (an itinerant scholar in Goethe). He introduces himself as a part of the power that, always thinking evil, as persistently accomplishes good — the spirit of negation. The speech ("Son lo Spirito che nega sempre") is one of the striking numbers of Boito's score, and the grim humor of its "No !" seems to have inspired the similar effect in Falstaff's discourse on honor in Verdi's opera. The pair quickly come to an understanding on the terms already set forth.

Act II carries us first into the garden of Dame Martha, where we find Margherita strolling arm in arm with Faust, and Martha with Mefistofele. The gossip is trying to seduce the devil into an avowal of love ; Margherita and Faust are discussing their first meeting and the passion which they already feel for each other. Boito's Margherita has more of Goethe's Gretchen than Gounod's Marguerite. Like the former, she wonders what a cavalier can find to admire in her simple self, and.. protests in embarrassment when Faust (or Enrico; as he calls himself) kisses her rough hand. Like Goethe's maiden, too, she is concerned about the religious beliefs of her lover, and Boito's Faust answers, like Goethe's Faust, that a sincere man dares protest neither belief nor unbelief in God. Nature, Love, Mystery, Life, God — all are one, all to be experienced, not labelled with a name. Then he turns the talk on herself and her domestic surroundings, and presses the sleeping potion for her mother upon her. The scene ends with the four people scurrying about in a double chase among the flowers, for which Boito found exquisitely dainty music.

There is a change from the pretty garden of the first scene, with its idyllic music, to the gathering place of witches and warlocks, high up in the Brocken, in the second. We witness the vile orgies of the bestial crew into whose circles Faust is introduced, and see how Mefistofele is acclaimed king and receives the homage. Here Boito borrows a poetical conceit from Goethe's scene in the witches' kitchen, and makes it a vehicle for a further exposition of the character and philosophy of the devil. Mefistofele has seated himself upon a rocky throne and been vested with the robe and symbols of state by the witches. Now they bring to him a crystal globe, which he takes and discourses upon to the following effect (the translation is Theodore T. Barker's) :

Lo, here is the world !
A bright sphere rising,
Setting, whirling, glancing,
Round the sun in circles dancing;
Trembling, toiling, Yielding, spoiling,
Want and plenty by turn enfold it —
This world, behold it !
On its surface, by time abraded,
Dwelleth a vile race, defiled, degraded;
Abject, haughty, Cunning, naughty,
Carrying war and desolation
From the top to the foundation
Of creation.
For them Satan has no being;
They scorn with laughter
A hell hereafter,
And heavenly glory
As idle story.
Powers eternal ! I'll join their laugh infernal
Thinking o'er their deeds diurnal. Ha ! Ha !
Behold the world !

He dashes the globe to pieces on the ground and thereby sets the witches to dancing. To the antics of the vile crew Faust gives no heed ; his eyes are fixed upon a vision of Margherita, her feet in fetters, her body emaciated, and a crimson line encircling her throat. His love has come under the headsman's axe ! In the Ride to Hell, which concludes Berlioz's "Damnation de Faust," the infernal horsemen are greeted with shouts in a language which the mystical Swedenborg says is the speech of the lower regions. Boito also uses an infernal vocabulary. His witches screech "Saboé har Sabbah !" on the authority of Le Loyer's "Les Spectres."

From the bestiality of the Brocken we are plunged at the beginning of the third act into the pathos of Margherita's death. The episode follows the lines laid down by Barbier and Carré in their paraphrase of Goethe, except that for the sake of the beautiful music of the duet (which Boito borrowed from his unfinished "Ero e Leandro"), we learn that Margherita had drowned her child. Faust urges her to fly, but her poor mind is all awry. She recalls the scene of their first meeting and of the love-making in Dame Martha's garden, and the earlier music returns, as it does in Gounod's score.

"Here," says Boito, "is a myth both beautiful and deep. Helen and Faust represent Classic and Romantic art gloriously wedded, Greek beauty and Germanic beauty gleaming under the same aureole, glorified in one embrace, and generating an ideal poesy, eclectic, new, and powerful."

The contents of the last act, which shows us Faust's death and salvation, have been set forth in the explanation of Boito's philosophical purpose. An expository note may, however, profitably be added in the poet-composer's own words : "Goethe places around Faust at the beginning of the scene four ghostly figures, who utter strange and obscure words. What Goethe has placed on the stage we place in the orchestra, submitting sounds instead of words, in order to render more incorporeal and impalpable the hallucinations that trouble Faust on the brink of death." The ghostly figures referred to by Boito are the four " Gray Women" of Goethe — Want, Guilt, Care, and Necessity. Boito thinks like a symphonist, and his purpose is profoundly poetical, but its appreciation asks more than the ordinary opera-goer is willing or able to give.

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