Reading the Words of a Musical Portrait

Eternal-Marguerite in Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust

Sara Zamir

[1] Berlioz adapts Goethe

The following discussion is an attempt to unravel the evolutionary process by which Berlioz constructed Marguerite’s musical portrait through the use of aesthetic principles drawn from nineteenth-century literary French Realism and the allusion to Goethe’s notion of the Eternal-Feminine (Ewig-Weibliche), mentioned at the conclusion of Faust. By introducing Marguerite at an early stage of La Damnation de Faust as a young, naive common “Gretchen,” and gradually adding psychological substance to her personality, Berlioz eventually concludes with an exalted, multifaceted feminine character ascending to her “natural” place in heaven. The composer’s approach to musical Realism drew on the artistic liberalism inspired by Victor Hugo’s ideas on drama and the arts. Berlioz shows aesthetic innovation by adding a new musical subtext to the original text and portraying a rich development of womanhood which appears natural and realistic. The unique aspects of the musical aesthetics of La Damnation de Faust will be discussed in this study, along with an analysis of the composer’s attitude towards the verbal text and his artistic manipulations of musical/cultural symbols.[1]

Victor Hugo’s poem, Le Sacre de la Femme (1858) was a milestone in the development of the principle of the Eternal-Feminine.[2] The poem revolutionized the fundamental principles underlying the concept of womanhood, principles which had already shifted as a result of the developments in the concept of the feminine that had taken place in the eighteenth- and nineteenth centuries. Le Sacre de la Femme is a culmination of a felicitous union and cordial intermingling of all portrayals of woman and the feminine from Biblical times and the period of ancient Greece, through early Christianity, up to the Romantic era.[3] This process also was expressed in the music of the nineteenth century, when the Eternal-Feminine became a formative principle in compositional choices. The unique aesthetics used by Berlioz in La Damnation de Faust can be interpreted as a reflection of this development that culminated in Hugo’s poem. This reflection will provide the foundation of my analysis.

As stated by Ellis Dye, the term Eternal-Feminine raises more than one question and opens a wide horizon of interpretations.[4] The current study proposes that Berlioz’s compositional style in the characterization of Marguerite was inspired by his familiarity with the term Eternal-Feminine and by his desire to give it a realistic interpretation. The freedom of interpretation he enjoyed was a result of the artistic climate that prevailed in early nineteenth-century France, largely because of innovators such as Hugo, and because of the changes that took place in French Grand Opéra. Under those circumstances, the free dialogue that emerged between composers and poetic texts became common practice, and turned composers into poetic voices.

A point of departure for the analytical approach in this study is Raymond Monelle’s discussion of Berlioz’s ideas on musical form in relation to that of the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Monelle noted that Berlioz completely ignored the structure of the movement and focused instead on the emotional and stylistic character of the piece.[5] The current analysis will depart from the literary aspects that serve as the basis for the compositional process in the characterization of femininity in La Damnation de Faust, and as a result does not necessarily assume any solid formal model as its framework.

The characterization of Marguerite throughout the work and her redemption as the work’s climax in particular are conveyed in pragmatic aesthetic terms. The composer strives to make the story logical and understandable to the audience. Over the course of the story, Marguerite’s personality is gradually constructed until she becomes a fully rounded feminine character, who could easily be part of the human landscape of the audience. In the final scene, when she ascends to heaven, she loses her “corruptive” characteristics and becomes an exalted type of woman, devoid of sexuality, will, and desire, but still magnetic and metaphysical in the Romantic sense. The fusion of the loving, spiritual, Christian character with the erotic, passionate property into a single feminine being is a gradual process. Marguerite’s sublime redemption at the end of the work, contrasts Faust’s condemnation, and is something that seems natural and very human. The fusion together of the various components of her character also gives credible meaning to Goethe’s Eternal-Feminine.

The textual typology, as expressed in the last verses of Goethe’s Faust, is rather vague and open-ended, since Goethe offers no explanation to the term Eternal-Feminine. Throughout Faust, the protagonist is busy looking for stimulation and challenges and he finds many. The final scene of the tragedy ends with the proclamation that, beyond our world and human life, there exists another world where aesthetic pleasure is the ultimate, absolute pleasure, and beauty itself is an ideal that comes true. In this world, sensuality signifies all that is beautiful. In Goethe’s Faust, the process of classical idealization represents a form of Romantic climax, reflecting the cultural horizon of early German Romanticism.[6]


Berlioz translates Goethe’s femininity proclamation into a “spoken” language by connecting it to human beings and to everyday situations. The psychological abnormalities of the protagonists, even non-human ones such as Satan, are portrayed in such a way as to render them humanly recognizable, as though they emerge from one’s own social environment and discourse. The Eternal-Feminine created by Berlioz is a living, loving, suffering woman who struggles with herself and abandons her moral principles in favor of passion and desire. She continuously evokes her inner struggle, in words and music. Even the metaphysical components of her salvation, when her soul departs from her body and ascends to heaven, are expressed in a combination of religious and pastoral music using familiar musical associations. Berlioz’s desire to be authentic, in the sense of literary French Realism, explains also his decision to omit implausible events, such as the murder of Marguerite’s illegitimate child, the fruit of her forbidden love affair with Faust, and the terrifying contract between Faust and Mephistopheles.[7]

Indeed, Berlioz’s Realism combines a pragmatic approach with the Romantic concept of femininity prevalent in mid-nineteenth century Paris. The Realists ofthe 1840s took as real what mankind shares in common, hence what is reasonable, ordinary, and clear.[8] Hugo’s ideas regarding the Romantic Drama and Romantic liberalism, as expressed in his Preface to Cromwell perfectly reflect the idea that sensations that recur, that are common and fixed in everyman’s experience, best convey reality.[9] As he wrote in the Preface, Hugo favored a dramatic environment that represented people’s daily lives such as use of clear forms of dialogue and recognizable characters. To further these goals, the dramatist was given the freedom to break formal conventions and do away with artistic models or frameworks.

Berlioz had been an enthusiastic fan of Hugo ever since 1831, when he read Notre-dame de Paris, and the two had later become personal friends.[10] Furthermore, Berlioz paraphrased Hugo’s terminology of “the Sublime and the Grotesque” in his Les Grotesques de la Musique (published 1859), and set to music two of Hugo’s poems (La captive and Sara la baigneuse). In La Damnation de Faust Berlioz makes use of Hugo’s artistic liberty, when he moves away from Goethe and develops a new musical genre and an innovative formal technique. He even goes beyond the freedom proposed by Hugo, and expands the geographic horizon of Goethe’s Faust while breaking the classical Rule of the Three Unities for musical reasons. Placing Faust in Hungary in order to justify the Marche Hongroise was a decision he had to defend in the preface to the score, responding to criticism.[11] According to Julian Rushton, La Damnation de Faust is the most innovative work in Berlioz’s oeuvre and the most aesthetically provocative, a characteristic which is clearly the result of the dramatic liberty the composer permitted himself, as well as of the synthesis of Realism and Romanticism he carried out.[12] In a recent work, Pierre Citron stresses the symbiotic relationship between music and literature that characterized French Romanticism and the important role it played with regard to Berlioz.

In that symbiotic respect, it was also necessary that Berlioz’s existence be rich in intrigue, in excitement and misery, in triumph and failure, in travel, in contact with famous women and men, and in love both varied and intense, in order for all of this to be worthy of continued interest and of recounting in written form. And perhaps it was most necessary of all-this third condition subsumes the second, at least in the main-that Berlioz lived during the Romantic era, that is to say during a period in which the arts and literature were closely united not by chance, but by one grand and common impulse.[13]

La Damnation perhaps needed that unique cultural atmosphere of the 1850s as well as a mature composer and critic[14] who had gone a long way since his days as a “young Romantic” or Jeune France.[15]

[3] Can Eternity Be Real?

My analytical discussion opens with the final scene of the work (Dans le Ciel, Apothéose de Marguerite[16]), which culminates in the exaltation of womanhood. The scene, by definition, is supposed to take place at the unnatural, metaphysical level and is, therefore, an ideal place to demonstrate how the composer transposes the most unreal environment into reality. It should be stated here that when Berlioz wrote Eight Scenes from Faust (1828), he was familiar with Nerval’s translation of the first part of Goethe’s Faust. Later, in the 1840s, when he was working on La Damnation de Faust, the second part of Nerval’s translation had already been published. Berlioz, nonetheless, completely changed the final scene of Part I, to make way for Marguerite’s salvation (Part I of Goethe’s Faust ends with Marguerite’s condemnation and execution, while Faust is redeemed). In so doing Berlioz is post factum alluding to the end of the second part of Faust, and gives an extra depth and power to Marguerite, shaping her character eclectically until she reaches her apotheosis. Salvation, the most significant event in Marguerite’s story, provides a retrospective metaphysical layer to her personality, shaped by pain. Suffering and torture are the constructs that cause Marguerite to abandon her life on earth in order to become a saint, carried away by heavenly forces. In the finale, Berlioz uses conventional cultural signals to create a new Marguerite, who is simultaneously woman and miracle.

The finale is divided into two parts: Dans le Ciel (in heaven) and Apothéose de Marguerite (Marguerite’s apotheosis).[17] Berlioz is known for the detailed verbal instructions he attached to his scores to ensure that performances adhered as closely as possible to his intentions. His desire to achieve precision and realism in the performance of the work was most probably the reason behind his decision to subdivide this scene. In the first part, the term “heaven” is explained and shaped in clear musical terms. In the second part, Marguerite is taken to heaven and saved, while Faust is condemned and left on earth. “Apotheosis” for Berlioz, has a clear meaning: ascending to heaven, an event which occurs after death, when the soul departs from the body and gains eternal life, while the body and all its wickedness remains behind and is reduced to ashes.

The musical environment created by Berlioz in the first part of the scene evokes a heavenly atmosphere reflecting purity, peace and asexuality. The inhabitants of heaven are principally feminine, but their sexuality is neutral. Two harps supplement the orchestra-the harp being traditionally associated with femininity and heaven-along with two choirs, one of which is a children’s choir. The mixed choir represents the “heavenly spirits,” a more apt match and name than Goethe’s “Chorus Mysticus.” Berlioz’s instructions call for a large choir of 200-300 children, to be placed slightly elevated behind the orchestra.[18] It is clear that Berlioz intended the children’s sonority to have a dominating effect. Since a child’s voice is not clearly defined by gender, with boys and girls sounding alike, the acoustic vision of 200-300 sexless heavenly souls helps to separate heaven from the world of flesh and desire in a way that is understandable to the audience. Berlioz accorded high priority to acoustic effects such as timbre and dynamics, which he greatly valued for their power of persuasion and used in service of his Realistic musical concept. Many examples of this notion can be found in his music, the Tuba Mirum in Requiem and the Dies Irae in Symphonie Fantastique, being the most remarkable. Apart from sonority, the final scene of La Damnation de Faust uses harmonic elements that reflect backwards and solve some of the harmonic riddles posed throughout the work. The meaning of the destructive-demonic-mysterious role of the pitch and the key of Db, which appears early in the work and is featured throughout, is one such riddle.

One of Berlioz’s aesthetic “servants” is tonality. The key signature for the first part of the scene (up to mm. 16) suggests C major, yet the tonality fluctuates between Eb major and C minor. The association of C major with radiant purity is not new, nor is the tradition connecting the harp to femininity or children’s voices to innocence. Berlioz uses the virtual tonality of C major to symbolize the heavenly atmosphere, giving a clean, diatonic tonality to the harmonic interpretation of salvation, while the acoustic interpretation is defined by immature voices without overtones and soft, quiet orchestration. When the tonality shifts between C minor and Eb major, the shift is smooth and natural, through the unchanging sonority. The implied introduction in Dans le Ciel ends with Marguerite’s name sung by pure human voices, making the relationship between Marguerite and heaven solid and transparent. This scene marks the first appearance of notes C and Db in a diatonic context, with C playing the leading tone in the dominant chord (V) of Db. Here, also for the first time, one finds Db major functioning as the principal key of a large-scale scene. From the beginning of the work till the final scene, the note Db appears as a chromatic event in relation to C, either as a flattened sixth of F major or a flattened second of C major. Db is also used as the harmonic interruption that causes the murky tonality in “Le Roi de Thulé” (The King of Thulé, to be discussed later). These harmonic events are loaded with dramatic symbolic significance and reinforce the totality and acceptance of Marguerite’s redemption. The transformation of the dramatic role of Db from an interruption into the key that represents the salvation scene symbolizes Marguerite’s spiritual catharsis. Previous harmonic interruptions are omitted: the music flows very smoothly, and Marguerite remains quiet even though the scene is a description of her death. The harmonic rhetoric throughout the scene is very soft and clear, lacking in almost any dissonance.[19]

The treatment of the text in this short explanatory introduction to the apotheosis is metaphorically similar to the dramatization of harmony. The musical representation of verbal text is important both in this scene and in the work in general. The Latin text: “Laus! Hosana” extends slowly across 7 measures of choral texture, while the winds create a religious context with their pseudo-organ sound. The words “Elle a beaucoup aimé” (“she loved too much,” m. 9) are sung by the children, accompanied by the winds, in a syllabic manner with short rhythmic values that are easily perceived. Once introduced against this background, Marguerite emerges as a heavenly character, represented by a solo child’s voice in Ab major, which acts as a bridge to the glorification scene written in Db major. The children’s sonority symbolizes, as noted, vocal and moral purity, naivety and innocence, and recalls the images of Renaissance child angels. The quality of genderless sonority is transferred to the orchestra, which is instructed to play very softly (ppp), and the strings play tremolo and sul ponticello (m. 12), creating a mood of peace and tranquility. In the short introduction to the redemption, Berlioz sets the scene unequivocally, both in musical and philosophical terms, for Marguerite’s salvation. We shall very soon demonstrate how this scene is gently and elegantly converted from salvation into temptation, recalling the previous seduction scenes in the work.

Through the repeated use of the word “viens” (come), Berlioz constructs an associative linkage between Faust’s seduction by Mephistopheles and Marguerite’s seduction by Faust (scene 11), and connects the two seductions to Marguerite’s temptation by the heavenly spirits to make her join them. Temptation, like seduction, usually has a negative connotation, the first being connected to a forbidden activity, and the second to sin, while both might result in pleasure as well as punishment. By transforming salvation into temptation, Berlioz seeks to present to his audience an unnatural situation dressed as a natural one. The text is given another subtext, which is made clear by prior events. The phrase “she loved too much” does not stand by itself any more: it is the outcome of Marguerite’s love for Faust. The allusion is punctuated by the words love, virgin, God, which were declaimed earlier by Faust (mm. 9-11,34, 52).

This special content is presented to the audience in a framework that departs from the aesthetic norm of finales of the time. French opera and theatergoers, in the first half of the nineteenth century, were used to spectacular finales of dramatic works. The finale of an opera was a tour-de-force involving the entire ensemble on stage, full use of high volume, rich texture, timpani tremolo, long chords and an extended, graduated “drive” leading to the final beat and closing cadence. As though in opposition to the norm, the finale of La Damnation de Faust, with its realism and tranquility, seems like an anti finale. From the very beginning of the finale, the music is pleasant, calm, homorhythmic and clearly distinguishes between melody and accompaniment. The acoustic uniqueness of the first part creates a mood of a sweet reality, restating again the new relationship between C major and Db major. The Ab-major chord in m. 14 firmly asserts itself as the dominant of Db major, which is now the main key. Ab major is the tonal color given by Berlioz to the heavenly spirits as they entice the innocent Marguerite (“âme naïve”-naive soul) to join them. It also gives new life to her “beauté primitive” (primitive beauty). The pastoral atmosphere created by the music evokes heaven, as sung by Faust in Invocation à la nature (scene 16): “Nature immense, impénétrable et fière” (nature, vast, unfathomable, proud).[20] At the same time, it portrays the sublime in simple terms and matches the concept of the flesh-and-blood woman incarnated by Marguerite. Berlioz uses this ambiguous simple and sublime aesthetic, making his musical means seem minimalist, even with many performers on stage. The aesthetic concept also contrasts traditional finales and the quiet mood of this extraordinary finale.


The finale of La Damnation de Faust in which Marguerite is redeemed is reminiscent of the tradition of happy-end legends. The promise of salvation is transformed into temptation, enticing Marguerite towards the beauty of catharsis (m. 38 on). As noted, the words “Viens, Marguerite” recall previous seductions, but here they are purified, devoid of evil and sexuality, and are sung repeatedly, then fade and disappear. The heavenly spirits seem to be holding Marguerite, lifting her slowly towards them, as though entreating her to join them. The perfect beauty of the final scene reaches its climax at this point. The words “Viens, Marguerite” repeated over and over are transformed into musical sound, rather than language, and become part of the musical paradise. The perdando-mood finale accords with the human religious character of Marguerite, and with the qualities of perfection and acceptance that dominate the redemption scene. Marguerite disappears, just as she first appeared, with no prior preparation or explanation. Her departure represents an associative reflection of her first appearance on stage and leads us to discuss this first appearance at scene 11.

Metaphorically speaking, Marguerite’s initial appearance is as subtle and sophisticated as her exit, since it is anticipated by an aria sung by Faust, in which he reveals his love for her and implies its tragic end. The dramatic role of the aria aims to establish Marguerite as the object of Faust’s dreams and desires. The formal definition of the aria is somewhat strange-it is neither an Aria-da-Capo, nor a Cavatina. It is relatively short in length and overloaded with harmonic and orchestral events, causing it to act as an intense dramatic exposition, charged with tension. This musical tension accompanied by a sweet, banal text creates an artistic paradox that presents Faust as a person who is disconnected from the real world. It is clear that Faust’s confusion is a result of his sexual attraction to Marguerite, and it is not yet known how she will respond. Faust’s pure, spiritual love is overshadowed by erotic desire and the dark, cynical forces of evil that emanate from Mephistopheles’s presence.

Marguerite’s introduction, following Faust’s aria, consists of the two traditional parts of an opera number: the recitative and the aria. Here, the aria is substituted by the ballade “Le Roi de Thulé,” and both the recitative and the ballade contribute authenticity to Marguerite’s “earthly” character, within a traditional structure. Berlioz gives us a realistic description of this aspect of her personality, directly through the recitative and indirectly through the ballade. The entire scene supports the transformation of the ideal, feminine woman desired by Faust into a convincing, ordinary character who becomes exalted when she is redeemed.

The beginning of the recitative apparently fulfills Faust’s expectations of the perfect, unblemished woman. The clear tonality of C minor, the solo flute accompanied by violas playing pizzicato, in rhythmic regularity, and the absence of a low register project an atmosphere of fragile certainty, which disappears after six measures, when the metric stability begins to collapse and the tonality shifts to Eb major. The shift predicts the tonal axis of the finale, a prediction that is supported by the appearance of the note Db (already marked as an interruptive element in the piece) at mm. 12. Even before a single word is uttered, the harmonic ambiguity expresses Marguerite’s anxiety and bewilderment. The vagueness matches Faust’s feelings in the previous scene. In the recitative, Berlioz exploits the tonal instability, which is a stylistic component of the declamatory genre and turns it into a dramatic tool to convey the described emotional state. He articulates human feelings without the human voice, not by imitating human voices, rather by creating an instrumental drama of emotions. Marguerite remains silent most of the time, and the emotional atmosphere is created primarily by the orchestra. The set directions also support the dramatic mood: they call for Marguerite to enter her dark room, carrying a lamp, thus creating all sorts of shadows and associations. This is how the object of Faust’s hallucinations and adoration is converted into a real woman in a very short period of time.

Marguerite now dreams of an ideal love (C major, m. 32), in an allusion to Faust’s image of the ideal feminine. Her dream is expressed in an enharmonic modulation leading to a distant tonality of B major (mm. 39-44), which evokes the impossibility of her dream. Marguerite is terrified by her powerful, overflowing emotions and tragic visions, and the anxiety of a permanent separation from her lover makes her sigh heavily on the word “folie” (insanity). The emotional connection between love and insanity is well known, but here it is not used in the pathological sense. The composer uses the word metaphorically, as is common in many languages, to denote an extreme emotion or misfortune.


As noted, Marguerite’s impossible love, her “folie,” is musically expressed by enharmonic modulations throughout the recitative. Since an enharmonic modulation means that different names are given to the same note, hence a different system of associations connected to a particular tonality, frequent changes of such context will result in a complete confusion of the listener. Marguerite indeed feels confused, anxious and insecure. When Berlioz takes the note D# and enharmonically changes it to Eb, he is leading it towards the F major of the song about the King of Thule, and at the same time he is connecting Marguerite to Faust (whose love song in scene #10 is written in F major), creating an intimacy that makes the situation credible. Marguerite’s recitative explains and interprets Faust’s dream, but also tells us about the difference in their emotions: he is in love, he dreams, hallucinates and is disconnected from reality and existence, while she is in love, bewildered, anxious, and confused by earthly matters. The musical comparison between the lovers gives Marguerite dramatic depth and credibility substantial enough to convince the listener that she really exists. Just before her monologue, the music depicts her as someone who is real and attractive, making the audience eager to hear what she has to say.

Marguerite’s Ideal love matches the Ideal, universal values, which constitute the subject of the Ballade “Le Roi de Thulé.” The story told in the Ballade differs radically from La Damnation de Faust, both in terms of place (being set in Greenland) and time. At first glance, it is not clear why Berlioz introduced the Ballade at this point in La Damnation de Faust. The answer probably lies in the dramatic character of Berlioz’s aesthetics, which will be discussed shortly. Before doing so, it is important to remember that the Ballade represents a neutral domain between two insanities-those expressed in the word “folie,” which concludes the previous part, and in Marguerite’s long sigh after singing the Ballade. There is no clear connection between the Ballade and the sigh, but there is an inherent, associative link.

While attempting to explain the reasons for the introduction of the Ballade at this point in the work, we need to examine how Berlioz interpreted the conventions of this genre. Le Roi de Thulé goes as follows:[21]

Autrefois un roi de Thulé
Qui jusqu’au tombeau fut fidèle
Reçut, à la mort de sa belle
Une coupe d’or ciselé
Comme elle ne le quittait guère
Dans les festins les plus joyeux,
Toujours une larme légère
A sa vue humectait ses yeux

Ce prince, à la fin de sa vie
Lègue ses villes et son or
Excepté la coupe chérie,
Qu’à la main il conserve encore
Il fait, à sa table royale
Asseoir ses Barons et ses Pairs,
Au milieu de l’antique sale
D’un château que baignaient les mers

Le buveur se lève et s’avance
Auprès d’un vieux balcon doré.
Il boit, et soudain sa main lance
Dans les flots le vase sacré.
Le vase tombe; l’eau bouillonne,
Puis se calme aussitôt après.
Le vieillard pâlit et frissonne:
Il ne boira plus désormais.

Autrefois un roi…de Thulé…Jusqu’au
tombeao…fut fidèle…

There was a king in Thule
Was faithful to the grave
Whom she that loved him truly
In dying a goblet gave.
He found no prize more appealing
Each feast he drained the cup,
stealing to his eyes the tears came
Whenever he held it up

and when he came to dying
The towns in his realm he entrolled
His heir no prize denying,
Except that cup of gold.
And at a royal wassail
With all his knights sat he In the hall
of his father’s castle
That faces toward the sea.,

The old carouser slowly
Stood up, drank life’s last glow,
And flung the cup so holy
into the flood below.
He saw it plunging, drinking
As deep in the sea it sank.
His eyes the while were sinking,Not a drop again he drank.

There was a king in Thule
Was faithful to the grave…

The text obviously obeys some of the genre rules regarding structure and rhyme: it is made up of three strophic stanzas, each consisting of eight lines, rhyming ABABBCBC, but the refrain, which is an essential component of the genre, is omitted. The refrain’s traditional role in a ballade is to reestablish its topic by repetition. Its absence, therefore, leaves the principal topic open to interpretation. The topic could be any of the issues discussed: love, loyalty, faithfulness, or morality. The genre’s roots go as far back as fourteenth century France, and its use by a nineteenth-century artist gives the Ballade a sense of perspective of time and place as well as authenticity of style. Thus in “Le Roi de Thulé” Marguerite can also look at herself from a distance and disconnect her thoughts from her emotional state of mind.


A considerable distance can also be found between the poetic development and the music. A close look at the text of “Le Roi de Thulé” reveals an emotional development that is reflected in the sound of the words, which become harsher as the poem proceeds. The agitation culminates in the dramatic climax and punch line of the poem-“Il ne boira plus désormais” (not a drop again he drank), which is the only line written in the future tense. If one compares the textual and musical narratives, it is clear that Berlioz deliberately ignored the poetic process of the text in order to enable Marguerite to ignore her troubles. The stanzas are musically connected by an instrumental passage, while the Ballade opens with a prelude and terminates with a postlude. The musical phrases are balanced and symmetric, and the 6/8 meter is associated with Barcaroles and Sicilianas, that is, light-hearted, tranquil genres. The music flows serenely, while Marguerite combs her hair and sings. The serene atmosphere contrasts with the previous recitative and its memorable deep sigh, as well as with the subject of the Ballade itself. The strange contradiction will be retrospectively understood as a threat that hints at a forthcoming tragedy. The threat is also expressed by the unusual, pizzicato, guitar-like accompaniment of the double bass and by the chromaticized F-major tonality that is interrupted by the Db note as early as m. 2, an interruption supported by the tritone that introduces the melodic contour at m. 14. But Marguerite is unaware of the threat: Berlioz is hinting to the audience, not to his protagonist.

The disjunction between the dramatic-poetic tension and the music can be understood by examining Marguerite’s psychological state at this point in the drama. As she sings “Le Roi de Thulé,” Marguerite takes a timeout from reality to speculate and dream about love, death and life. Her thoughts are not directly related to the content of the poem, but the audience associates the issue of fidelity with Faust’s infidelity to Marguerite and connects the ideal values extolled in the Ballade with the impossible nature of Marguerite’s love and yearning for Faust, implied in the music. Indeed, the audience senses the hidden threats very powerfully in “Le Roi de Thulé,” long before Marguerite identifies them herself. It seems that she uses the disconnection in time and place of the genre and its content as a way of disconnecting herself from reality and forgetting her fears and pains for a moment; she chooses instead to think and sing about sweet thoughts of love while taking care of her appearance. The Ballade’s demonic content is used by Marguerite to protect herself from reality, and to repress anxiety and sadness. Simultaneously, the content of the Ballade gives the audience a hint as to what will happen next. Berlioz brings reality to the stage in his music, by portraying a woman who is in love and sings while busying herself with an everyday chore. As she attends to herself, dreaming of her loved one and preparing herself for him, Marguerite does not pay much attention to the words of the song she sings, but the audience does.

The gap between her dreams and reality is symbolized by her deep sigh at the end of the Ballade, which represents a sigh of sobriety and an allusion to the word “folie” at the end of the previous recitative. Marguerite is no longer the innocent girl who was double-crossed by two gangsters; she is now a passionate, mature woman. The musical treatment of the material helps to neutralize the tension inherent in the text. The round, seemingly endless form makes time feel meaningless, as though the clock has stopped, and it is not important how many stanzas will be sung. The double bass pizzicato is taken from the soldiers’ march, which appears much earlier in La Damnation de Faust, when the soldiers celebrate their “reward” in the form of the young girls of the city. The allusion makes the hint of a threat perfectly clear. In addition, the first melodic phrase of the Ballade consists of the two harmonic interruptions that, from the very beginning, weave in and out of the work: the note Db and the tritone. These two elements are so well fused together, that their strangeness is already corrected in the second part of the phrase (mm. 16-18). The melodic content creates a modal quality reminiscent of the Middle Ages and folk music, and the sense of distance of time and place produces a mood of tranquility. The effect is strengthened when a Db chord (mm. 28-30) anticipates the musical closure that terminates each stanza in F major (mm. 31-34). The harmony has a symbolic function here: the fact that a tritone cannot exist happily for long with a flattened sixth degree within a diatonic F major framework emphasizes the impossibility of Marguerite’s love for Faust. The symbolism also carries the didactic message that, in real life, good cannot exist without evil, and vice versa.


One can conclude that the Ballade “Le Roi de Thulé” functions as a musical intermezzo in La Damnation de Faust. The Ballade ends quietly with a Grand Pause, leaving a sense of unfinished business-a natural state of affairs for a woman in love-and hints about future developments. Berlioz’s desire to achieve aesthetic authenticity can be seen in Marguerite’s first appearance as well as in the redemption scene, when temptation replaces seduction and her erotic sensuality is transformed into spiritual sensuality. The musical realism constructs a symbiosis between eroticism and spiritualism, which appears natural and accords with the audience’s expectations. The transformation is symbolized in the treatment of the interruptive element, that is, in the Neapolitan relationship C-Db in the final scene.

Having established the psychological evolution undergone by Marguerite in La Damnation de Faust, it is now appropriate to discuss the role of the Faust-Marguerite love scene (scene 13,[22]) in the realistic musical characterization of the female protagonist. It is clear that the love scene supports the psychological mood of “Le Roi de Thulé” and Marguerite’s dreamy state of mind, since the Ballade’s melodic line appears at the very beginning of the scene (mm. 5), played by the oboe in the same meter (6/8) although in a new key (G major). The new key belongs to the tonality of sharp keys, (which featured briefly in the recitative, and this is now retrospectively understood as more than mere coincidence), creating a distance from the Ballad’s flat-key, F-major. The distance symbolizes Marguerite’s wishful thinking, or even stupidity, for she ignores threats and evil. She most probably has not heard Mephistopheles’s warnings, since she continues to dream after the Ballade. An examination of the textual and musical aspects of the love duo reveals an immediate similarity to the traditional operatic love scene (the Gilda-Duke duo in Verdi’s Rigoletto, for instance). This is not mere coincidence: here Berlioz is sending a clear message to an audience familiar with the Italian opera repertoire. The aesthetic reason for using this type of formal structure is to create credibility by placing satanic characters within a well established formal framework. As Hugo noted, in his Preface, when credibility is desired in a work of art, it is advisable to place the protagonists in a natural dramatic situation, since realistic characterizations on their own are insufficient.[23]

The associative link between “Le Roi de Thulé” and the love duo brings the love theme into the world of real people, and the atmosphere enables the audience to enjoy the sweet melodies and peaceful text. They even forget that Faust is hiding in Marguerite’s room, having been allowed in by the devil himself. Like other operatic love scenes, the dialogue between the lovers becomes more and more passionate as the music proceeds. The seductive aspect is hidden under the surface and the scene culminates with Marguerite’s words: “Ah! Je meurs!” (Ah! I am dying!), implying future physical intimacy. Throughout the scene, the musical resources demonstrate the power of the protagonists’ love, but Berlioz is very consistent and he uses well-known operatic devices to keep the story in the realm of normalcy. He uses harmonic tension, with the lovers singing in thirds accompanied by delicate arpeggiating woodwinds (m. 63 onwards). The musical agitation towards the end of the scene makes dramatic sense. Time is extended through the use of long, low notes played by the French horn and the clarinet, accompanied by sextuples. Marguerite, in love and bewildered, cannot make up her mind whether to join Faust and say “yes” to his: “viens, viens!” or stay home, safe but frustrated. Just as Berlioz ignored the poetic development of “Le Roi de Thulé” to accentuate his realistic approach, so he uses musical tools to create an operatic love scene in which anxiety and evil are inseparable from daily life. In so doing, he endows the character of Marguerite with logic and enriches it. He also intimates to his audience the outcome of future events, thus neutralizing the element of surprise in the drama.

[8] Gretchen, the Epitome of the Eternal-Feminine

A discussion of Marguerite’s second monologue, the Romance (scene 15), is an appropriate conclusion to the present study for it is at this point that she emerges as a fully-rounded heroine. The Romance is connected to “Le Roi de Thulé” and also supports the argument put forward in this study. The genre of the Romance resembles that of the ballade, both having ancient origins and folk-like musical qualities, such as the strophic form, rhyme patterns and simple melodies. Like the Ballade, the Romance provides a soliloquy for Marguerite, but now she is mature and experienced enough to sing confidently about herself, without having to hide under an external story taken from another time and place. “Le Roi de Thulé” offered her a shelter in which she could hide and express her dreams, longings, secret desires and hidden passions. The Romance brings onto the stage a more clear-headed woman, a woman who is aware of her sexuality and realizes she will never see her lover again. Berlioz chose these two genres to represent her dream on the one hand, and its realization on the other. The Romance also identifies the threat implied in the Ballade and revealed to the audience-that of a hopeless, painful, unrequited, ideal love. Even though the two songs are positioned far from each other in the work, they complement each other and help to make Marguerite’s characterization psychologically coherent.

In this monologue, Berlioz adopts a completely different aesthetic approach from that of “Le Roi de Thulé”: he uses a text without an epic narrative, which focuses solely on the heroine’s emotions and resembles an operatic aria. The Romance is, metaphorically speaking, a meditation that re-articulates Marguerite’s love for Faust. In the Ballade, Berlioz stressed the musical strophic form at the expense of the poetic narrative; in the Romance, he breaks the strict strophic form of the text by using variations (which can be regarded as a free strophic form) that emphasize the psychological rather than epic development. Berlioz thus constructs an emotional narrative that culminates in Marguerite’s yearning for Faust’s unattainable embrace, and her insight into her inability to fulfill their love. The Romance is orchestrated as a duo for English horn and female voice, intimating that Faust is and perhaps always was unattainable, since the male voice is replaced by an instrument (as in Romeo et Juliet, and in the second movement of Symphonie Fantastique). The musical technique of the Romance functions as a metaphor for the Romantic yearning for the impossible.

As noted above, the treatment of the text here differs from that of the Ballade. The Romance consists of 9 identical stanzas (stanzas 6 and 9 are implied textual variations of stanza 1), with the last stanza being the only one written in the future tense (echoing the Ballade’s “punch-line”). The poetic structure is divided into four asymmetrical, musical variations, each of which opens with an English horn solo (mm. 1-40, 40-66, 67-95, 96-190). The last variation includes a march, which alludes to the soldiers’ march that anticipates Faust’s aria, while the postlude is a melancholic variation consisting of one word: “Hélas!” In writing variations that differ internally as well as in length, Berlioz was taking liberties with the strophic poetic form. However, he remained faithful to the cyclical structure and the character of the genre.

The progression from one variation to the next slowly recounts Marguerite’s insights, desires and sorrows, and musically prepares for her redemption. In the first variation, the note Db appears as C#, functioning as the leading tone of the natural sixth degree of the familiar F major, hence as a legitimate diatonic component. Berlioz incorrectly resolves the C# to C instead of D, implying a progression from F major to F minor via Ab major. The harmonic disorder is enveloped, as in the Ballade, by a balanced melodic structure of symmetric phrasing and metric regulation created by, among other means, a double bass pizzicato. The pizzicato renders the anxiety articulated in the Ballade and indeed, as the Romance reveals, Marguerite’s fears were justified. The audience is made aware of this by the musical agitation that gathers strength as the music evolves, while a contrasting musical, impressionistic climate, with a quiet, slow sonority, leads towards the finale. The soldiers’ march marks a striking return to reality. At this point Marguerite accepts the knowledge of “Il ne vient pas!” (He comes not!). Here Berlioz removes all dissonances and adopts a minimalist aesthetic approach, giving Marguerite just a soft tympani accompaniment. The Db functions as a passing note, leading from C to D (second violin, m. 191). After all these variations and the emotional process they constructed, the only appropriate word is the “hélas” of silent acceptance.

It should be emphasized that between this scene and the finale, Berlioz presents scenes of nature, which are neutral in character and free from human control. In the face of nature, which is also a common Romantic symbol for eternity and infinity, humans can only be astonished and amazed by its beauty. It is thus implied that, after everything Marguerite undergoes, there is nothing more to be said. The framework of nature makes it easier to understand Marguerite’s personality and offers an emotional pause to the audience before the redemption scene.

[9] True Redemption

The characterization of Marguerite is constructed layer by layer in a highly convincing, realistic manner, and becomes fully complete at the end of the work. Berlioz’s Marguerite is thus very different from Goethe’s Gretchen, who is a flat character compared to Faust and Mephistopheles (even though there are more feminine characters in Goethe’s Faust which are used to complement the feminine image). In the finale of La Damnation de Faust, Marguerite is not just a naive, lovesick girl, but a mature woman who is physically and mentally tortured by the pain of unrequited love. When she is redeemed and leaves the world, the musical atmosphere resembles that of Faust’s first dream about her, with its heavenly visions and hallucinations. Between the metaphysical poles of Faust’s heavenly visions and her redemption, Marguerite stands as an aesthetical, realistic anchor. Marguerite’s characterization and the Realistic aesthetics used by Berlioz make the redemption scene, which is the only unreal one in which Marguerite takes part, highly convincing. The philosophical paradox in Marguerite’s sin “She loved too much,” noted by Katherine Reeve, now appears logical and an inevitable part of forbidden love.[24]

Throughout La Damnation de Faust, the Romantic definition of femininity is expressed in glorious music within a unique musical architecture. Berlioz materializes the eclectic nature of the cultural concept of the Eternal-Feminine in Margureite’s portrait. Using his sense and understanding of the aesthetic principles and ideas of drama and literature of his time, he gradually creates a rounded character, culminating in the final scene of the piece, where the heavenly dimension of the Eternal-Feminine is projected, associated with love and temptation.


This essay is based upon my Ph.D. dissertation, approved April 2005, written under the supervision of Prof. Juliette Hassine, Department of Comparative Literature and Dr. Beth Shamgar, Department of Music, Bar-Ilan University, Israel.

[1] Jacques Barzun, “Berlioz as Man and Thinker,” in The Cambridge Companion to Berlioz, ed. Peter Bloom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 14.

[2] Victor Hugo, La Légende des Siècles (Paris, 1962), 19-25.

[3] Bonnie Anderson and Judith Zinsser, A History of Their Own, Women in Europe from Prehistory to the Present Vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 54.

[4] Ellis Dye, “Figuration of the Feminine in Goethe’s Faust,” in A Companion to Goethe’s Faust, ed. by Paul Bishop (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2001), 95:

The last words of Goethe’s Faust, sung by a Chorus Mysticus, are: “Das Ewig-Weibliche/Zieht uns Hinan.” These words raise many questions: Is there such an essence as “Das Ewig-Weibliche”? If so, what is it? Who can apprehend it, and in what way-a man through observation or a woman through self-reflection, or perhaps someone of either sex, by any of a variety of imaginative or introspective techniques? Must it be made visible by some example? Does the Eternal Womanly necessarily, as a manifestation of its essence, draw us “hinan” (and does “hinan” imply “onward” as well as “upward”)? Or does it merely attract or “pull” accidentally from time to time, depending on circumstances?

[5] Raymond Monelle, Linguistics and Semiotics in Music (Chur: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1992), 222.

[6] Julie D. Prandi, Spirited Women Heroes, Major Female Characters in the Dramas of Goethe, Schiller and Kleist (New York: Lang, 1983), 121.

[7] French Realism reflected the interest of progressively positivistic and scientific age in material facts, and the general distaste for the vague enthusiasms of the Romantics. The Oxford Companion to French Literature, ed. By P. Harvey &J.E. Heseltine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), 594.

[8] Jacques Barzun, Berlioz and the Romantic Century (New York, 1969), I, 386.

[9] Victor Hugo, Préface de Cromwell (Paris, Classiques Larousse). English version: Preface to Cromwell, translated by F. Bartelby (The Harvard Classics Page,

[10] Hugh Macdonald, ed., Selected Letters of Berlioz, trans. by Roger Nichols (New York: W.W. Norton & Co,1997), 95 (letter from Rome), 128-9 (letter from Paris).

[11] For Berlioz’s aesthetic explanation of the radical treatment of the Goethean text, see H. Berlioz, La Damnation de Faust, Preface (Zurich, 1964), V-VI.

[12] Julian Rushton, The Music of Berlioz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 314-5.

[13] Pierre Citron, “The Memoires,” in The Cambridge Companion to Berlioz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 127-8.

[14] Discussion of Berlioz’s Corsaire articles: Kerry Murphy, Hector Berlioz and the Development of French Music Criticism (Ann Arbor: UMI Studies in Musicology, 1988), 43.

[15] Théophile Gautier, who was a principal figure in les jeunes- France said: “The preface to Cromwell shone in our ease like the Tables of the Law on Sinai and its arguments seemed to us irrefutable.” Quoted in Tomlinson, Music and Drama (New York, 1988), 173. As cited in Gary Tomlinson, “Hugo, Donizetti, and Verdi…” in Studies in the History of Music Vol. 2: Music and Drama (New York: Broude Brothers Ltd., 1988), 173.

[16] In favor of clarity and convenience, I have numbered each scene separately, starting from m. 1.

[17] Daniel Albright, Berlioz’s Semi-Operas (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2001), 105: “As we approach heaven, we approach an omni sexual realm, where the blessed spirits are at once nude and naked-at once cool poised forms, and erotic lures. The source of the desire, the object of the desire is abstract and impersonal, not localized in a specific body but, seemingly, an attribute of the whole heavenly region.

[18] H. Berlioz, La Damnation de Faust (Zurich, 1964), Scene 20.

[19] See the same tonal axis in the Phantastique/ Rêveries.

[20] All translations by David Cairns, CD Jacket Notes of Berlioz, La Damnation de Faust (Philips 416 395-2, 1973).

[21] All translations by David Cairns, CD Jacket Notes of Berlioz, La Damnation de Faust (Philips 416 395-2, 1973).

[22] Faust: “Beloved angel, whose image divine Lit up my heart before I ever knew you, I behold you at last’ my love has driven away the jealous mists that still hid you from me, Marguerite, I love you…. Marguerite: “My beloved, you sweet and noble image Lit up my heart before I ever knew you; I behold you at last; your love has driven away the jealous mists that still hid you from me….F.:” Marguerite, my love, Yield to the burning passion that has led me to you!”…M.:”I know not what passion, Devouring, bewitching, Leads me to your arms. What languor seizes my whole being!” F.:” In my arms You will be born again to true happiness! Come!” M.:”In my eyes are tears…Everything’s growing faint…I’m dying…..Everything’s growing faint,…..”

[23] Op.Cit., Hugo, Préface de ‘Cromwell’.

[24] K. Reeve, “The Damnation of Faust or the Perils of Heroism in Music” in Berlioz Studies, ed. by H. Bloom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 166: Marguerite is saved, we are told, because she has “loved much”. By that token love would logically be the supreme value, something akin to the “Eternal-Feminine” towards which Faust is steered at the end of Goethe’s Part II. Yet in the next instant love is branded as the “error” that “altered” her “primitive beauty”. Only a very rarefied form of love evidently passes muster in this sphere.

©Sara Zamir, 2007

STM-Online vol. 10 (2007)


ISSN: 1403-5715