Brian’s use of the German language in Faust

Jürgen Schaarwächter

Brian’s use of the German language in »Faust« - Jürgen


Doubtlessly Faust (1955-6) is a theatrical work of Brian of major importance, especially when the Faustian nature of several aspects of Brian’s life and work are considered1. Similarly Faust however has also hardly ever been the topic of closer consideration, largely without question due to the German language which is used2.

Brian was fairly good in understanding German, though occasionally spelling errors slipped him in a way typical of many a Briton, e.g. "Prinz Kalaf (…) tritt aus eine Hause" (instead of "einem"). Such errors can be found in all of Brian’s German compositions, the Fourth Symphony (1932-3) as well as in Turandot (1950-1), from which the above example is taken. William Sterndale Bennett made similar slight errors in some of his letters to Schumann. Kaikhosru Sorabji on the other side complains Britten’s use of the Italian3, while on the other side showing that his understanding of German (which he pretends to have) is not free from faults – in this respect Brian or Bernard van Dieren had a better understanding of the language.

It is however in fact unimportant to realize that Brian was not perfect in German, important for the understanding of his use of the language, his word-setting, for the following reason: similar techniques can be found in many of his vocal compositions, on English words as well. In Faust as in many other works Brian uses melody quite freely to fit the words, often against the words’ spoken accentuation. Such technique can be found in many contemporary compositions, is e.g. also a feature in Bernard van Dieren’s Choral Symphony (1914) on texts in part identical to some from Mahler’s Lied von der Erde (1908-9), or also in Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (1912). In Faust this technique can exemplarily be found in the Prologue in Heaven:

This technique is not unique in Faust, Chris Kettle points it out also to be used in Wine of Summer_4, but in fact it is a stylistic means that is intended to avoid another stylistic means, i.e. the _expected way of composing this situation. Under all conditions composers to employ such a means intend to avoid a superficial impression. In Dieren’s symphony it is cheap exoticism that is to be avoided (the underlying text being drawn from Hans Bethge’s anthology of poems Die chinesische Flöte), in Wine of Summer not individual impressions are to constitute the work’s essence, but one general spirit which is best expressed in a way "sub-ordinating" (in the word’s most essential meaning) the words to the essential spirit. One cannot necessarily judge from the melodic line as to whether the composer stressed the words properly, or whether he re-draws the line of speech (as do Schoenberg and Dieren) – very much responsibility is given here to the singer who is to find the right pace and rhetoric for stressing not only the words’, but also the music’s meaning.

We can realize that this technique, critically looked at by Mike Smith, is not simply an attempt to deny all lyricism, as Smith has thought5, but rather to find a new way of lyricism, independent of the meaning of the single word and incorporating the words into the music. Another example may make clear what is meant. Sentimentality nearly always found in Der König von Thule, Gretchen’s undressing song (rehearsal marks 267 to 276), is far from Brian’s intentions, even the slightest bit of irony suggested by Goethe is reflected by Brian:

Brian changes techniques with the entry of Faust, whose part is of a vocal clarity and correctness matching Hindemith; tempo and text fit – there is no such hurry as in the Prologue in Heaven (cf. ex 1, where superficial lyricism is avoided in a scene inviting showiness) or in Turandot. (It may be added that in some places, e.g. full score p. 89, Brian forgot to add the words to the music.)

Brian shows us that he is capable to compose in several techniques. When Valentine finds out Gretchen’s loss of innocence (1 bar before rehearsal mark 309 onwards), Brian composes an increasing tension, just as suggested by Goethe, however again without regarding the single word:

A particularly odd aspect is the stressing of "soll" (in a following similarly built sentence he is to stress it again) – Brian here adds a meaning that does not even exist between the German lines, i.e. "interprets" Goethe’s play in his own individual way and thus showing perspectives never before seen or heard. Insofar Faust is of no less importance than The Gothic, the Fourth Symphony, or The Tigers.

NL 143 © Jürgen Schaarwächter 1999

  1. Cf. several references in HB: Aspects of Havergal Brian. Edited from the Havergal Brian Society Newsletter by Jürgen Schaarwächter. Aldershot/Brookfield/Singapore/Sydney: Ashgate, December 1997. ↩︎

  2. An important contribution on the research on Faust has been made by William E. Grim: Dramatic structure and innovation in Havergal Brian’s Faust, in: HBS Newsletter 129 (I-II 1997), pp. 4-5. ↩︎

  3. Kaikhosru Sorabji: Britten’s Michelangelo Sonnets, in: The New English Weekly, 4 February 1943, p. 138. ↩︎

  4. Chris Kettle: Words For Music Perhaps, in: HBS Newsletter 103 (IX-X 1992), pp. 2-3. ↩︎

  5. Mike Smith: Brian’s word-setting, in: HBS Newsletter 50 (XI-XII 1983), p. 6, republished in HB: Aspects of Havergal Brian, p. 345. ↩︎

Newsletter, NL 143, 1999