Tanglewood 75 - From the Audio Archives: Day 43

BSO

Berlioz: The Damnation of Faust, Dramatic Legend in four parts, Op. 24
DURATION: 108:22
Koussevitzky Music Shed, August 14, 1960

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Charles Munch, conductor
John McCollum, tenor - Faust
Martial Singher, baritone - Méfistophélès
David Laurent, bass - Brander
Eleanor Steber, soprano - Marguerite
Festival Chorus, Hugh Ross, conductor (preparation by Ross, Lorna Cooke deVaron, and Alfred Nash Patterson)

Release: 08/01/2012

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Background on the Music

Tanglewood 75 Archival Program Cover Hector Berlioz composed three major operas, but most of his other music was narrative and theatrical in character. Throughout his career, Berlioz was inspired by great dramatists, Shakespeare above all, but also Goethe, whose Faust was the source of his La Damnation de Faust. Berlioz described this hybrid of opera and symphony as "a concert opera in four acts" before finally deciding to call it a "dramatic legend in four parts." It was first staged as if it were an opera early in the 20th century. Since then many prominent stage directors have been drawn to it, and after a shaky start at its concert premiere, it has become an important part of the repertory of every major orchestra.

Berlioz first came across Goethe's play in 1828 in a translation into French of Part I by Gérard de Nerval. Immediately he became obsessed with it, as he had been obsessed earlier by Shakespeare. He read and reread it, as he states in his memoirs-as he ate, as he sat in the theater, and as he walked down the street. He loved the poetry, the all-inclusiveness of the text, the three strong characters of Faust, Méphistophélès, and Marguerite. (Faust trades his soul to Méphistophèles in exchange for youth and the love of Marguerite.) Berlioz's creative response was almost as immediate-he produced a work he called Eight Scenes from Goethe's "Faust" and proudly labeled as Opus 1. That work was published-Berlioz sent a copy to Goethe-but it was never performed, and in later years he tried to obtain and destroy all the copies of it. He obviously did hold onto his personal copy, because nearly all of it, much revised, made its way 18 years later into one of the great masterpieces of Berlioz's maturity, La Damnation de Faust, Opus 24.

In a sense La Damnation de Faust is a grab bag of arias, ensembles, choruses, and purely orchestral pieces, not all of them originally intended for this score. The famous Rákóczy March,for example, was originally written by an anonymous composer early in the 18th century; Berlioz's brilliant orchestral elaboration proved such a hit in a concert he conducted in Hungary that he dropped it into his work-in-progress, La Damnation de Faust.

The range of mood in the work is as wide as the range of genres, from the extreme delicacy of the "Dance of the Sylphs" through raucous drinking songs, from Méphistophélès' pinpoint ironies through Marguerite's musing ballad to her outpouring of despair, from evocations of nature to a terrifying depiction of a wild ride into the jaws of hell. The effect, as Berlioz intended, was not miscellaneous but all-embracing, even cosmic.

The first conductor to lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a complete performance of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust was Serge Koussevitzky in 1934, but the identification of the orchestra with this work became complete and apparently permanent when RCA Victor made a recording with Charles Munch leading the orchestra in 1954, in two sessions in Symphony Hall and one in New York's Manhattan Center. Munch's soloists were soprano Suzanne Danco, tenor David Poleri, baritone Martial Singher, and bass Donald Gramm, with the Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society under the direction of G. Wallace Woodworth.

That recording has been pretty consistently available for nearly 60 years for the very good reason that it has not been surpassed; Munch felt the pulse of this music and transmitted it through the orchestra to the audience. Munch went on to lead the work twice at Tanglewood, first in 1954 with the same cast he had in Boston and on the recording, with the exception of Danco, who was replaced by Eleanor Steber. When Munch returned to the work six years later Steber was again the Marguerite, with John McCollum, an alumnus of the Tanglewood Music Center, as Faust, Singher again as Méphistophélès, David Laurent as Brander, and a new consortium of choruses.

Of his soloists, tenor John McCollum had the most extended career with the Boston Symphony; he appeared with the orchestra regularly for nearly 20 years between 1952 and 1971, singing Bach's St. Matthew and St. John Passions, Haydn's The Creation, the major works of Berlioz (the Requiem, L'Enfance du Christ, and Roméo et Juliette as well as La Damnation de Faust), Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and 20th-century works by Lukas Foss and Igor Stravinsky. McCollum was a very busy singer elsewhere during that period, both in opera and in concert; in the early 1970s he joined the voice faculty of the University of Michigan and gradually withdrew from performing. He is now 90 and living in retirement. His was a lyric tenor voice of considerable beauty, and he was a discriminating musician.

In 1960 Eleanor Steber (1914-1990) was near the close of a career at the Metropolitan Opera that had lasted two decades and embraced more than 400 performances. She was the most accomplished and versatile American soprano of her generation, singing a large repertory of French, German and Italian operas from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. She sang nearly all of them superbly and particularly excelled in the operas of Mozart and Richard Strauss. She was also popular on recordings, radio, and television, as well as a busy recitalist and orchestral soloist; her recording of Berlioz's Nuits d'été was famous; Samuel Barber composed his Knoxville: Summer of 1915 for her, and she created the title role in his opera Vanessa. She was a generous, open-hearted performer who invariably gave her all, whatever her "all" might happen to be on a particular evening; few singers have equalled the way she could communicate her joy in the physical act of singing. Her engagements with the Boston Symphony were infrequent, even though she acquired her formidable technique from William L. Whitney at New England Conservatory and began her career in the Boston area. With the BSO she sang only Berlioz's Nuits d'été, Barber's Knoxville, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and La Damnation de Faust. She recorded Marguerite in Gounod's opera Faust with the Metropolitan Opera. Berlioz's Marguerite was not as ideal a match for her voice, and by 1960 her instrument was no longer quite in prime condition. Nevertheless her singing remained opulent in tone, passionate in conviction, and richly communicative.

The French baritone Martial Singher (1904-1990) was the leading baritone at the Paris Opéra for more than a decade until the Nazi occupation; he was also a distinguished recitalist who sang the world premiere of Ravel's Don Quichotte à Dulcinée. Like other members of his extended family-he was married to the daughter of the conductor Fritz Busch, which connected him to the violinist Adolf Busch and the pianist Rudolf Serkin-he escaped to America, where he enjoyed an important career at the Metropolitan Opera between 1943 and 1958. He was famous for his roles in French opera-both Pelléas and Golaud in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande,the four villains in Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann-but also sang in Mozart operas (both Figaro and the Count in Le nozze di Figaro) and even Wagner (Amfortas in Parsifal). He appeared with Eleanor Steber in both Les Contes d'Hoffmann and Le nozze di Figaro. He was an aristocratic and stylish singer and a vivid stage personality; his diction was admirably clear in all languages, and particularly pointed and pertinent in French. Milton Cross, the radio announcer for the Met in those days, rolled out his name with unusual bravado ("Mar-SHALL Sang-GAIR"). After his retirement from the stage, Singher remained active as a teacher at the Curtis Institute, the Aspen and Marlboro festivals, and the Music Academy of the West, where he was active in training many singers who went on to prominent careers, including Benita Valente, Judith Blegen, James King, Thomas Hampson, and Donald Gramm. His only appearances with the Boston Symphony were in all 10 of Munch's performances of La Damnation de Faust.

Bass-baritone David Laurent (1928-2004) taught at Brown University for 50 years before his retirement and concertized widely in New England. He was primarily an oratorio and recital singer who specialized in art songs in French, German, and English. He also sang early music; back in the 1950s, a recording of a Passion by Alessandro Scarlatti, in which he sang the part of Jesus, won the Grand Prix du Disque. He was a president of the National Association of Teachers of Singing, and performed his last recital in 1987. A question about whether he was related to former BSO principal flute Georges Laurent was answered when the internet revealed that Laurent was the name he adopted for his professional career; he was born Cloyd Brown.

Music directors Seiji Ozawa and James Levine renewed the link between the BSO and The Damnation of Faust. Both of them had the benefit of stronger choral work than Munch at Tanglewood, but Munch and the orchestra are in compelling accord about the music, and announcer William Pierce tells us that Munch singled out two of the players for special applause, violist Joseph De Pasquale for his duet with Steber in Marguerite's ballad, and English hornist Louis Speyer for his contribution to Marguerite's aria, "D'amour l'ardente flamme." Speyer (1890-1980) made notable contributions to the Boston Symphony Orchestra's performances during his long tenure, but he belonged to musical history long before he came to America: as a young man, he had played the English horn in the notorious world premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913.

Richard Dyer

 

Reviews
"How the music [of The Damnation of Faust] must have crashed upon European ears in the Eighteen Forties. The ride to hell in Part IV still can create goose-pimples, and it makes nearly all subsequent essays of its type sound as tame as a nursery tune. But the Damnation is not all fire and brimstone. The duet between Faust and Marguerite is surely one of the most tender evocations in the literature, and there is some delicate nature painting that none but the mind of a Berlioz could have begun to conceive. Charles Munch did a little tinkering with the score. He made a few cuts, including Faust's first aria in Part II and a few additional trims here and there. There was no boys' chorus, and instead of Marguerite's voice sounding from the wings, as indicated in the score, Eleanor Steber sang the phrases pianissimo from her seat on the stage. None of these mattered much. Nor did a few seeming miscalculations of tempo, including the fastest Rakoczy March within the memory of man. By and large, the strength and poetry of the score came through. The singers . . .were experienced, the orchestra sounded superb, and the festival chorus was well-trained. Those who made the trip to hear the Damnation were well rewarded."
-Harold C. Schonberg, New York Times

"Eleanor Steber sang Marguerite in the Berlioz work, which was heard by 8,913 persons.  . .The work as a whole does not offer the hit tunes which mark Gounod's familiar opera on the subject, but this is remarkable music in its dramatic and emotional persuasion, its inventiveness and scoring; its performance calls for sensitiveness and dramatic sensitivity as well as range. The music of Berlioz is one of Mr. Munch's best media, and today's performance met all of its requirements in tone, hue, balance, and atmosphere. Miss Steber sang with laudable understanding of mood and appealing quality and color, along with an occasional ruffling of the vocal surface, which also was notable a few times in Mr. McCollum's eloquent singing. His tones were usually clear, and fluent, while Mr. Singher's distinct French enunciation and knowledge of the role and its expressive purport made his Mephistopheles consistently distinguished . . .the orchestral playing found the orchestra at its best."
-Francis D. Perkins, New York Herald Tribune