Tuesday, 26 July 2011

A Damn Big Noise

Hector Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust

Part of my reading round the concert tonight has taken me here, to Berlioz. Berlioz may be a ham, but what a magnificent ham! I only use the 'ham' term out of deference to my more pure minded friends to whom anything less pure than Bach or Mozart, or preferably even earlier, say Gabrieli, seems vulgar. Come to think of it, I am not sure I do have friends as pure as that, but have met with the temperament and think it well lodged at the intellectual heart of the English tradition.

Not that I don't want some of that purity myself - Schubert's Lieder is something I would never wish to be without, and Bach and Mozart are geniuses beyond all doubt. And Tallis is ravishing. But I want to make room for the romantic, or rather the Romantic.

This is Faust being carried off towards hell. It's a mighty gallop, past skeletons and strange birds, and it's all there in the music. The Romantic period is, surely, literary, in that both visual art and music constantly refer to literature, and primarily to poetry. This Faust is Goethe's, as picked up by Schubert, Liszt and Gounod as well as Berlioz. Never mind whether it is Faust or Prometheus or Milton's Satan, or Los in Blake, the point is the breaking of chains, the dive into the unknown.

You can do this in visual art by way of John Martin or Paul Girodet, but better go by Gericault, or Delacroix, through whom you can go directly to Faust.

Berlioz's Faust is much like his Grande Messe des Mortes (YouTube link here) in texture and mood. That Lacrymosa first blasted me about twenty years ago.

But you can quite see how Wagner's gesamtkunstwerk came about. It was practically all there already. And you can argue that Berlioz is a bad example of early stadium rock. (Pipe down there, old man, can't you?) You, meaning those who might so argue, can argue all that, but it still turns my legs to chocolate.

And while at it, you can find Boris Christoff's Mephisto singing about the Golden Calf here.

Damn big noises all. None silent but, when not in heaven, all damned.

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