Robert Schumann (1810–1856) Overture to Scenes from Goethe's “Faust” from WoO 3
Urtext edited by Christian Rudolf Riedel [orch] Duration: 8'
18.104.22.168. - 22.214.171.124. - timp - str
The Faust Overture in its First Urtext Edition
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The question “Why add music to such perfect poetry?” preoccupied Schumann long and intensively. His first compositional approach to Goethes “Faust” began in 1844, but it was not until 1851 that he finally completed the Scenes. At Liszts suggestion, Schumann added an overture in 1853, a symphonic “instrumental introduction” which atmospherically evokes the action of the Scenes but has no direct thematic reference to them. As an independent overture, the work has been played relatively rarely in concert halls to this day; the general prejudice towards Schumanns late works was no doubt partly responsible for this. The first Urtext edition of the overture was based on the autograph score that was revised by Schumann and served as the principal source. It should give new impulses to the future reception of this work which Paul Dukas hailed as “a miracle, from beginning to end.”
Written within the space of a few days in August 1853, the Overture to the Scenes from Goethe’s “Faust” marks the end of Schumann’s intensive preoccupation with Goethe’s poetic oeuvre. The composer’s thoughts had been circling around the Faust subject since 1837 at the latest. Between February 1844 and May 1850 he poured much energy on giving form to the Faust Scenes, but had to interrupt his work several times for longer stretches in order to move ahead on other works. No other work of his had engaged him for so long. Goethe’s Faust was a major source of inspiration not only for Schumann, but also for many other composers before and after him, and it provided a stimulus for the composition of incidental music, operas, oratorios, symphonic works and songs. A musical transposition of the Faust subject as opera or oratorio must have been in the air for Schumann. And it is practically certain that he was familiar with some of the Faust settings of his fellow composers, or at least had heard about their existence. We can assume that he considered it a challenge to make an original contribution to a field that he regarded as his most innate: the domain of poetry in music.
“Wherefore music for such consummate poetry?” The point of departure and, probably, the core of Schumann’s compositional approach to Goethe’s Faust in July 1844 was the closing scene of the second part of the tragedy with Faust’s transfiguration and the closing Chorus mysticus “Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis” [All that is transitory is but a metaphor]. He had previously extracted scenes that appeared suitable to him, and notated his first musical sketches in Dorpat in February 1844, while on a concert tour to Russia with Clara. “What made me dare to undertake the work was the profound emotion that I had been overcome with through the sublime poetry of that very ending,” Schumann wrote to Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy in September 1845, adding: “I do not know whether I shall ever publish them [the Faust Scenes]. But if I find the courage again to complete them, I shall most certainly remember your kind words of encouragement, for which I am grateful.”
This part of the Faust Scenes (the future Part III), the first section to be written, was at first performed at Dresden’s Coselsches Palais on 25 June 1848 in a benefit concert before invited guests with the orchestra of the Königliche Hofkapelle and Schumann’s choral society under the composer’s direction. While he felt motivated by the performance’s success, he had nevertheless been “overcome by great despair several times” in the closing chorus, “always in the belief that it was not yet right.” He thus reworked the closing chorus, and it is in this new version that Part III was performed on the occasion of the festivities marking Goethe’s 100th birthday in three parallel concerts held on 29 August 1849 and conducted in Dresden by Schumann, in Leipzig by Julius Rietz and in Weimar by Franz Liszt.
Schumann had already taken up the composition of further scenes (Part I, No. 1, Scene in the garden; No. 2, Gretchen before a picture of the Mater dolorosa; No. 3, Scene in the cathedral and Part II, No. 4, Sunrise) in mid July 1849, for one because he felt that what he had written up to then was “too brief for the time and effort it demands,” and for another, because he had begun to envision its publication, even though he did not yet have an overall plan of the work at this point in time. In September 1849, Liszt – referring to his experience with the Weimar performance – suggested “adding a substantial symphonic introduction” to the work “as an overture before having the work published.” It is impossible to determine whether Liszt was suggesting something that Schumann had already thought of. At all events, Wasielewski reports that at the beginning of the year 1851 Schumann “often had the idea of writing an overture for the Faust Scenes, and came to the conviction that this task, which he considered most difficult, could hardly be solved in a satisfactory manner; for there were too many, and too gigantic, elements to master.” What is certain is that Schumann continued to write out the vocal sections of the Faust Scenes in late April/early May 1850 while still in Dresden (Part II, No. 5, Midnight and No. 6, Faust’s Death). After his relocation to Düsseldorf, his new home and workplace, he prepared a piano reduction of the vocal sections with Clara’s help. By February 1851 at the latest, he must have considered his work on the Faust Scenes as completed, and most likely decided to make the best of the fragmentary character of the selected scenes.
Clara’s birthday must have been the reason for Schumann to take advantage of a “moment of inspiration” and round off the Faust Scenes with an “instrumental introduction.” Indeed, in late summer 1853 he had an extremely productive phase and was able to place the finished overture on the new piano which he gave Clara for her birthday on 13 September 1853. There was no complete performance of the Faust Scenes, or even of the Overture, during Schumann’s lifetime due to his forced resignation as music director of the Düsseldorf orchestra in late November 1853 and his confinement at the sanatorium in Endenich on 4 March 1854. In any event, Schumann was still showing interest in the work in Endenich in September 1854, inquiring whether it had perhaps already been published.
The first performance of the Faust Scenes together with the Overture took place at Cologne’s Gürzenich Hall on 14 January 1862 under the direction of Ferdinand Hiller, after the work had been heard once before in a private audition at the home of the singer Livia Frege in Leipzig on 30 January 1859 with Johannes Brahms at the piano. The first edition of the Overture was released posthumously in the framework of the Complete Works published in Berlin in November 1858 by Julius Friedlaender.
Schumann claimed that he feared the central question “Wherefore music for such consummate poetry?” and it challenged him “to a greater tightening” of his “powers” in the hope that “precisely music would be able to give it greater resonance.” As far as the Overture is concerned, Schumann did not follow Liszt’s advice to place at the center “the mystical element, the actual setting of the entire scene” and to borrow the musical material “from the very core of the vocal composition.” On the contrary, he gave it a musically independent shape as a sonata movement with a slow introduction and a lengthy coda which – now recast in the parallel major key – has the character of an apotheosis, but does not musically stand in any direct connection to Faust’s transfiguration (Part III of the Faust Scenes). The Overture prepares the “various moods” of the Faust Scenes, but follows its own musical logic based in the lay-out of the piece. Schumann does not seem to have selected the key of D minor by chance, since its dark connotations in the works of Mozart and Beethoven most certainly did not escape him. Schumann used it for the appearances of Mephisto and the Lemures (Part II, No. 6) and the beginning of Faust’s transfiguration with the image of the “Anchorites settled between the crevices of the mountain chasms” and the appearance of “Pater Ecstaticus who hovers between heaven and earth” (Part III, No. 7).
The Overture to the Scenes from Goethe’s “Faust” has always been less popular in the concert hall than, for example, the overtures to the opera Genoveva or the incidental music to Manfred, which might largely be due to the problematic evaluation of Schumann’s late works and the shift in their reception that set in around 1850, and that was stamped by the conflicts between the “New German Music of the Future” and the “Conservatives.” In addition, another determining aspect was probably the fact that Schumann’s Overture was not really able to emancipate itself from the Faust Scenes which, in spite of a certain resonance in the 19th century, had a hard time imposing themselves because of their hybrid genre-historical position between opera and oratorio. It is thus not surprising that there is a disparity between the appreciation of the work by, for example, Schumann aficionados – including Paul Dukas, who esteemed Schumann’s Faust music as “a miracle from beginning to end” which “ranks among the most moving products of modern art” – and the relatively scarce performances in the 20th century.
The present first source-critical and practice-oriented edition aims to help the work gain the esteem in the concert hall that its high quality deserves, without forcing it to be measured against an overpowering subject or against prejudices concerning Schumann’s late works. The autograph score revised by Schumann and housed today at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin served as the main source for this edition. For details concerning the sources and the edition, see the Critical Report. The publisher and editor are grateful to the institutions mentioned there for putting the sources at their disposal.
Wiesbaden, Fall 2012
We offer a PDF of the complete text with all notes for download.