Dramatic structure and innovation in Brian’s Faust

Professor William E Grim

Dramatic structure and innovation in Brian’s »Faust« - Professor William E Grim Among the most woefully neglected of Havergal Brian’s unperformed major works is his operatic masterpiece Faust (1955-56). I use the word masterpiece without hesitation because Brian accomplished what has eluded so many other composers of the last two centuries, namely, to make a workable opera out of Part 1 of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust without bowdlerizing the text or subverting the author’s dramatic intentions. This, of course, eluded both Charles Gounod and Arrigo Boito even though their respective operas Faust and Mefistofele are very fine works in their own right. Even Ferruccio Busoni, perhaps the most literary-oriented opera composer of all time, found Goethe’s Faust to be too daunting as the text for an opera and fashioned his own libretto for Doktor Faust out of an unusual amalgam of Nietzschean philosophy and the traditional Faust puppet-play.

Brian, however, was able to fashion a masterful libretto out of Goethe’s text. Although entire scenes were eliminated for considerations of length, not one word is added to the text by Brian. His knowledge of the German language is shown to great effect in the brilliant way in which he was able to edit Goethe’s text down to a workable length without altering the dramatic structure of the play. Shown below is the scenic structure of Goethe’s Faust Part 1 in which omitted lines or scenes are indicated.

Scenic structure of Goethe’s Faust lines omitted

Dedication omitted

Prelude in the theatre omitted

Prologue in Heaven no omissions

Night 374-376 omitted
398-417 omitted
422-459 omitted
460-474 omitted
480 omitted
518-807 omitted

Outside the city gate omitted

Study (1) 1178-1529 omitted

Study (2) 1533-1655 omitted
1678-1685 omitted
1720-1733 omitted
1741-1802 omitted
1810-1833 omitted
1909-1967 omitted
1969-2000 omitted

Auerbach’s tavern omitted

Witches’ kitchen omitted

Street 2629-2662 omitted
2679 omitted

Evening no omissions

On a walk omitted

The neighbour’s house omitted

Street omitted

Garden omitted

A garden pavilion omitted

Forest and cave omitted

Gretchen’s chamber no omissions

Martha’s garden omitted

At the well omitted

By the city wall omitted

Night 3714-3715 omitted

Cathedral no omissions

Walpurgis Night omitted

Walpurgis Night’s dream omitted

Dreary day – a field Faust’s 2nd speech: words from ‘Hund!’ until ‘Die Erste nicht!’ omitted;
also omitted, ‘Mir wühlt das Mark und Leben durch das Elend dieser Einzigen’

Mephistopheles’ fifth speech omitted

Night - open field Orchestra alone, text not used

Dungeon 4466-4468 omitted
4510 omitted
2nd half 4511 omitted
1st half 4512 omitted
4532-4535 omitted
4553-4561 omitted
4581-4595 omitted

Brian’s editing of Goethe’s text actually allows for a smoother flow of the dramatic action than is found in its unedited version. The composer eliminates scenes that do not directly contribute to the dramatic tension between three pairs of characters; (1) God and Mephistopheles; (2) Faust and Mephistopheles; and (3) Faust and Gretchen. Unlike other composers of Faust operas, Brian wisely omits the ‘Walpurgis Night’ and ‘Auerbach’s tavern’ scenes. While these scenes provide excellent visual spectacles for operatic presentation, they are expensive to produce and require a large ensemble of performers. For instance, there are thirteen solo parts and separate choruses of witches and warlocks in Goethe’s ‘Walpurgis Night’ scene alone (and eleven of the solo characters appear only in that scene).

The economy with which Brian approaches Goethe’s text is seen in the fact that there is a total of only twelve solo characters in his opera, whereas in Goethe’s text the solo characters number over a hundred in Part 1 alone. Of the twelve solo characters utilized by Brian only Faust, Mephistopheles, and Gretchen appear in more than one of the opera’s five acts (to be precise, the ‘Prologue in Heaven’ and four acts). Brian is similarly economical in his use of the chorus which only appears in Act 3 of the opera. In Goethe’s text, however, choral possibilities are present in over half of the scenes of Part 1. Brian even goes so far as to eliminate Faust’s contemplation of suicide in the first ‘Night’ scene. This negates the need for the Easter Chorus which reanimates Faust’s conscience and desire to live. Faust goes on to confront the Erdgeist (Earth-spirit) and then almost immediately has his initial encounter with Mephistopheles.

The condensing of the dramatic action and the extensive editing that Brian gave to Goethe’s text clearly indicate that the composer was serious about the viability of the opera in performance. This was not an academic exercise nor a solipsistic musical excursion into Goethe’s drama. Brian’s high seriousness is further evidenced by his retention of the German language. Although this would seem to be a stumbling block for performing a new opera in an English-speaking country, the use of German rather than one of the many English translations of the drama allows Brian totake full advantage of the entire range of Goethe’s prosody, which would tend to be mitigated in translation. Goethe employs many different rhyme and metrical schemes in Faust and Brian is particularly sensitive to these in his musical settings.

Most telling is Brian’s retention of Goethe’s ‘Dreary day’ scene. This is a scene almost always omitted in other operas based on Goethe’s Faust; yet this short scene has an immense dramatic impact because it is the only scene in the entirety of Goethe’s Faust set in prose. Brian’s use of this scene and his musical setting for it reveal a subtle and sophisticated understanding of Goethe’s writing style. Indeed, the organic nature of Brian’s compositional style scans ideally united with Goethe’s text. It is not so much the linear progression of dramatic events in Goethe’s Faust that gives the work its structure as it is the interrelationship of all the parts of the drama to one another. Regardless of how convoluted the plot of Goethe’s Faust becomes and how riven with anachronisms and spatial displacements, the drama is unified by the fact that all events are ultimately being controlled by God. It is not for nothing then that Brian instinctively realized the central importance of the ‘Prologue in Heaven’ and retained it in his opera.

There are several minor dramatic problems with Brian’s edition of Goethe’s text. By eliminating the ‘Witches’ kitchen’ scene Brian has removed the explanation for Faust’s infatuation with Gretchen. In Goethe’s drama Faust becomes smitten with Gretchen only because she is the first woman he sees after having been given a love potion by the Witches. Brian, then, places the motivation and responsibility for Gretchen’s eventual degradation squarely on the shoulders of Faust. Brian’s Faust is more of a moral free agent than Goethe’s. On the other hand, by eliminating the half-hearted Easter suicide attempt by Faust, Brian has removed the sin of despair from that character’s list of offences. In the long run, however, Brian’s character Faust is remarkably similar to Goethe’s in both attitude and the dramatic situation in which he finds himself.

A number of philological problems exist in both the full and piano score manuscripts (both housed in the library of the Royal College of Music). The two scores do not always agree with one another. At times Brian changes the enharmonic spellings of chords and individual notes between the full and piano scores, thereby masking his harmonic intentions and producing problems in understanding his voice leading. Similarly, text underlay is at times problematic. Syllable divisions are rarely given by Brian, which is a problem for accurately notating melismatic passages of which, fortunately, few exist in the opera. Some variant spellings of words by Brian are irksome particularly regarding change of tenses, although it may be assumed that these variants are accidental given Brian’s scrupulous avoidance of altering Goethe’s text.

Finally, the question remains as to how to interest the world in yet another Faust opera, particularly how to interest the English-speaking world in the German Faust opera of a relatively obscure English composer? I would suggest that the ‘Cathedral’ scene would be magnificent by itself in an unstaged performance. This scene is one of the most dramatic in the opera and features Gretchen’s confrontation with the Böser Geist (Evil spirit) in the Cathedral after she is manipulated by Faust into murdering both her mother and her child. The chorus, performing a fugato on the dies irae of the Requiem mass, is used throughout except for a short portion at the very beginning of the scene. The large orchestra is augmented by organ and displays to great effect Gretchen’s mounting terror as the Böser Geist taunts her for her matri- and infanticide. Brian’s setting of this scene is, in my opinion, even more effective than Robert Schumann’s setting of the same from his Scenes from Goethe’s Faust.

In conclusion, it is hoped that one day in the not-too-distant fixture a performance of Brian’s Faust can occur. In the last two centuries over fifty operas have been composed based on the many versions of the Faust legend. Few of these operas have been memorable and none based on Goethe’s Faust has achieved more than a succès d’estime. Brian’s opera has the potential to change all of that.

NL 129 © William E Grim 1997


Newsletter, NL 129, 1997