Program Notes, ©2012 Lori Newman


Hector Berlioz
Born 1803, La Côte-Saint-André, Isère, France
Died 1869, Paris, France

“Hungarian March” from The Damnation of Faust, op. 24 (1846)

The young Berlioz was drawn to Goethe’s Faust in such an intense manner, it almost lacks reason or sagacity. Berlioz was merely twenty-four years of age, and immediately upon reading Gérard de Nerval’s translation of the work, began writing a musical composition based on Goethe’s play. He entitled it Eight Scenes from “Faust,” more often referred to as La Damnation de Faust. The proud and eager composer sent his work to Goethe and fervently awaited a reply. To say that Goethe was unappreciative of the offering is not nearly a harsh enough account of the work’s receipt. Berlioz actually never heard from Goethe himself; however, the words used to describe Berlioz’s work by Goethe’s musical advisor, Friedrich Zelter, are far too vulgar and risqué to be printed for our purposes.

Not completely disillusioned, Berlioz held off on any further work on his initial attempt at Faust, but continued to consider his options. In 1845 he decided he would author his own text based on the Faust legend. When he chose to set his text to music, he created new music, as well as revisiting some of his earlier Faust compositions from the 1820’s. Berlioz initially envisioned his Faust to be an opera, or as he put it, a “mon grand opéra de Faust,” but labeled it “opera de concert en quatre actes.” Berlioz’s Faust premiered in 1846 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris to unfavorable reviews. Berlioz blamed the French for no longer possessing the ability to appreciate fine music or art. The premiere was fraught with other issues as well, and by the end, Berlioz had given up on the idea of making it an opera and resigned himself to categorizing the work as a “Légende dramatique en quatre parties.” (“Dramatic Legend in Four Parts”)

For the famous “Hungarian March,” Berlioz states in his memoirs that in 1846 while preparing to tour to Pest (now part of Budapest), he was contacted by an amateur musician who counseled him the following, “If you want the Hungarians to like you, write a piece on one of their national tunes.” Berlioz did want the Hungarians to like him, so he chose a song composed in 1809 by János Bihari (1764–1827), written in honor of Ferenc Rákóczi, a Hungarian military leader and politician who was at the heart of Hungary’s quest for independence from Austria. It is not known if the tune by Bihari was based on a Hungarian folk melody of the time or if he composed it himself without use of pre-existing material.

Regardless, Berlioz was so enamored and inspired by the march, he changed the locale of his Faust from Germany to Austria, and added a scene, having nothing to do with Goethe’s vision, just so he could include the march in his version of the legend. The “Hungarian March” plays while Faust sees an army pass by “on a plain in Hungary.” Faust utters the words, “With such fire their eyes blaze! Every heart thrills to their song of victory—mine alone stays cold, indifferent to glory.”

Allegedly, the march so moved George Bernard Shaw that he later wrote that he longed to, “charge out and capture Trafalgar Square single-handed” if the rousing march continued any longer. The “Hungarian March” received such a reception in Pest that the coda was completely drowned out by the throngs of cheering. This burning desire for independence would finally and violently manifest itself two years later in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. An interesting aside to the discovery of the march is that the musician who had suggested Berlioz use something nationalistic, later contacted the composer to request his name never be revealed for fear of retribution. Very rarely is Berlioz’s Faust fully staged, or even semi-staged today, but a few of its selections are often programmed, not needing the two-and-a-half hour precursor to translate nicely with audiences. The Faust legend of good versus evil has inspired scores of composers: It is reported that Beethoven was interested in writing an opera on his good friend Goethe’s play; the Franz Schubert song “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” is a setting of Gretchen’s lines from Faust, Part I; Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 uses Faust’s plot points of rescuing Faust’s soul from Mephistopheles and Faust’s journey into heaven; Arrigo Boito’s opera Mefistofele used Goethe’s play as a starting point before Boito ultimately wrote his own libretto; and of course Wagner’s Faust Overture, Charles Gounod’s opera Faust, and Liszt’s Faust Symphony.

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