Reading the Words of a Musical Portrait: Eternal-Marguerite in Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust


Sara Zamir

Like many of his fellow composers in mid-nineteenth century Paris, Berlioz had a close relationship with the world of literature. He was also known for giving priority to the dramatic aspects of his artistic agenda, both in his music and his critical writings. But his wish to achieve artistic uniqueness conflicted with his desire for a positive reception of his works. Berlioz’s dialogue with Goethe in La Damnation de Faust reflects his solution to this conflict, and shows how he succeeded in adapting Goethe’s Faust, while adhering to the innovations of French Romanticism. The characterization of the “Gretchen” Marguerite character, particularly with regard to the Eternal-Feminine riddle posed by Goethe in the final verses of Faust, is the most notable aspect of Berlioz’s adaptation.

Berlioz’s concept of the female heroine made him change the original plot of Goethe’s tragedy in some crucial respects. The most prominent change was Gretchen’s redemption (Faust is the one who is redeemed in Goethe’s Faust). The omission of the contract between Faust and Mephistopheles and of the murder of the illegitimate child born to Gretchen as a result of her affair with Faust, are two important additional modifications to Goethe’s story. The composer diverges from Goethe because of the artistic liberty enjoyed by the arts in France during the first half of the nineteenth century. By studying Marguerite’s musical characterization in La Damnation de Faust, we may therefore find out how Berlioz’s compositional process was influenced by literary aspects and by the historical underpinnings of the principle of the Eternal-Feminine.

©Sara Zamir, 2007

STM-Online vol. 10 (2007)


ISSN: 1403-5715