Robert Schumann
(b. Zwickau, 8 June 1810; d. Endenich, 29 July 1856)

Scenes from Goethe's "Faust" (1844-1853)
for solo voices, chorus and orchestra


In 1849 the states and statelets that of Germany prepared to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of their greatest poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. All eyes were directed toward the court of Weimar, where Franz Liszt had just been appointed conductor and opera director and set out to reinstate Weimar as the pre-eminent cultural center of the German-speaking lands. On August 29, the second day of the festivities, Liszt conducted the finished portions of Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's "Faust." It was a "triple première": the work was performed simultaneously on the same day in Leipzig, Dresden and Weimar. The success was tremendous and took the composer fully by surprise: "I only wish I could have had Faust's mantle for that day," he wrote,
"in order to be everywhere and hear everything. How strange, the piece lay five years in my desk. Nobody knew anything about it, and I myself had almost forgotten its existence - and now in this unusual celebration it had come to light!"
With some allowances for exaggeration - he had revised the Chorus mysticus in 1847 and enlarged nos. 4 to 6 in 1848 - Schumann's surprise was fully justified. Previous admirers of Faust, from Spohr and Seyfried to Berlioz and Liszt, had concentrated on the more conventional Part 1 of Goethe's play. Schumann, however, had felt immediately drawn to the mystical and virtually unstageable closing scenes of Part 2. These had never been set to music before, and Schumann, having just completed his novel oratorio Das Paradis und die Peri (1843), was fully aware of the experimental nature of the undertaking. The Chorus mysticus was sketched in August 1844, but allowed to lie fallow. It was the impending Goethe celebrations and Liszt's ardent championship that caused him to review the unfinished score and to prepare it for performance during the Goethe centenary. The triple première of August 1849 (following a private performance the previous June) presented to an excited world of German Bildungsbürger what is now known as Part III of Schumann's Scenes from Faust.
The success of the 1849 premières rekindled Schumann's enthusiasm for the dormant work. In short order, in 1849-50, he completed a new Part I, mainly occupied with the character of Gretchen, and Part II, mainly concerned with Faust. The Gretchen section fell into three parts dealing respectively with her love (No. 1), remorse (No. 2), and despair (No. 3) to present a rounded portrait of this tragic young heroine. The Faust section likewise fell into three parts, but focused on Faust's regeneration in the allegorical second part of Goethe's play. The first scene depicts his reawakened interest in the world of nature (No. 4), the second his confrontation with the four hags of Want, Debt, Care and Need (No. 5), and the third his blindness and death, severely curtailed to function as a dramatic climax (No. 6). The transfiguration of the characters in Part III was allowed to remain, except for the final scene, which was recast to provide a more seraphic ending.
Then, once again, the work remained fallow for another three years. It was a rare sign of indecision on Schumann's part, and it revealed a certain unease with the magnitude of the project and the stylistic contrast between the earlier Part III and the later Parts I and II. The nature of this contrast can be summed up in a single word: Wagner. If the early sections of the Scenes from Faust were composed in Leipzig under the impress of secular oratorio, the later sections were written after Schumann's move to Dresden, where he could hardly help but fall under the sway of the dynamic and highly vocal director of the Court Opera. If Part III sounds like a natural continuation of the through-composed oratorio form that Schumann had explored in Paradise and the Peri, Parts I and II are more operatic in conception and owe more than a little to the "endless melody" of Tannhäuser. They include some of the most dramatic music to proceed from Schumann's pen, not excluding his opera Genoveva.
It was not until the final weeks of 1853, near the end of his creative career, that Schumann added the fine D-minor overture that finally brought Scenes from Faust to completion after a nine-year gestation that was unique in his career. Two months later he flung himself into the Rhine near Düsseldorf in a failed suicide attempt that led to his internment in an asylum and put an end his creative career. The subsequent history of the Scenes of Faust was thus taken out of his hands. The complete work was given its first performance only posthumously, when Ferdinand Hiller conducted it in Cologne on 13 January 1862. Its publication history, too, was entirely posthumous. A piano-vocal score was issued in 1858 and a full score the following year, both by the Berlin publisher Friedländer. Soon thereafter the Friedländer prints entered the catalogue of C. F. Peters in Leipzig, and the work quickly established itself among Europe's middle-class choral societies. A full score with French translation was published by Durand in Paris in 1865, and vocal score with English translation (by "Miss Louisa Vance") by Novello in 1870. Nor were Germany's educated classes silent about the work: analytical pamphlets on Scenes from Faust were published in 1860 and 1879. After entering a decline in popularity at the turn of the century, caused primarily by the demise of the choral society tradition and a disaffection with German Literaturmusik, Schumann's Scenes from Faust entered a revival in the latter half of the twentieth century. Since then it has never lacked for champions, from Charles Munch and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to Philippe Herreweghe, and has proved itself to be a masterpiece whose few flaws can be easily outweighed by a sympathetic emphasis on its strengths: nobility, dignity, and an impassioned attention to dramatic detail that represents the closest Schumann ever came to his ideal of opera.

Bradford Robinson, 2005

Performance material: Breitkopf und Härtel, Wiesbaden