The First Faust Opera
default, The First Faust Opera:
A Secret Polish History, Portrait of operatic Singer Edward Reszke in scenic costume, playing the part of Mefisto in Charles Gounod’s ‘Faust’ at Warsaw’s, faust-tw-mnw.jpg
Praised by both Chopin and Goethe himself, the first Faust opera was not written by one of the author’s German composer peers. In fact, a Polish duke called Antoni Radziwiłł was the one brave enough to first tackle the masterpiece. But his early 19th-century work isn’t just ‘the first’ operatic Faust – it’s a fine artwork in its own right, one that continues to be a source of inspiration today.
Music to play while signing a pact with the devil
‘Antoni Henryk Radziwiłł’, a portrait by Charles Joseph de la Celle, 1797, part of the collection of the Louvre Museum, photo: Fine Art Images/East News
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust doesn’t require much introduction. This German verse drama whose first part was published in 1808 is ‘sometimes considered Germany’s greatest contribution to world literature’ (as the Encyclopaedia Britannica puts it), and is equally famous as it is important. It revolves around the character of Doctor Faust, a scholar who makes a pact with the devil to develop his understanding of the world.
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The legend of Doctor Faust, in the broad sense a sorcerer and wizard in Frankfurt am Main, was first put into writing and published by Johann Speiss in 1587 (…). All the later literary treatments reference Speiss’ booklet and the legend itself (…). Among them a special place is held by Goethe’s ‘Faust’ which gave rise to the cultural category of a Faustic person striving against all odds to reach the boundaries of their existence and cognition. (…) Goethe made his Faust a positive character. A seeker of truth.
Quote from The Performances of Faust by Johann Wolfgang Goethe in Berlin and Warsaw with Music by Prince Anthony Radziwłł, a pap
Intriguingly, the first musical score for Goethe’s pivotal drama wasn’t written by one of the great German composers of the era. Neither Franz Schubert who is known to have sent his Goethe-inspired music to the writer, nor Felix Mendelsshon the author’s friend, or the somewhat less-recognised Carl Zelter whom Goethe personally asked to compose for Faust didn’t do it. The refusal of the latter – who probably sensed the task exceeded his talent – is described as follows in the splendidly informative book Antoni Radziwiłł i Jego Muzyka do ‘Fausta’ (Antoni Radziwiłł And His Music For Faust) published in 1957 by Zdzisław Jachimecki and Włodzimierz Poźniak:
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As if to apologise for not taking up the great poet’s proposition, Zelter wrote him in 1810 that ‘a certain music lover, an aristocrat, is putting much effort into writing music for his tragedy, and although he’s a foreigner, he does occasionally manage to strike the notes right for the words’. With these words Zelter introduced to the Weimar writer Antoni Radziwiłł.
Duke Governor with more musical than political talent
Antoni Henryk Radziwiłł was born a Polish duke on 13th July 1775. Where exactly remains unclear, but since his father had strong ties with the Eastern regions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (the Vilnius area) his birthplace most probably lies in those parts. The duke began soaking up German culture at a young age as he grew up both in Poland and in Germany where he studied at the University of Göttingen. In 1796, he married Duchess Louise of Prussia, niece of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, and the couple moved to a palace in Berlin’s Wilhelmstrasse street. They are said to have loved each other dearly and started a large family (according to different sources they had four, six or even eight children).
The pair were very fond of the arts. Their residence, which came to be known as the Radziwiłł Palace was frequented by musicians, painters, writers and politicians – it was a real ‘salon’. Every Thursday, a concert was held and Radzwiłł, an amateur musician, would often entertain the guests himself. He was a singer, guitarist and cello player, the latter being his instrument of choice. Although Radziwiłł wasn’t a professional musician, meaning he didn’t have to make a living from playing (his aristocratic standing secured his livelihood), he did take music rather seriously. The duke developed his cello talents to the point where they were acknowledged even by the likes of Fryderyk Chopin who dedicated a piece to him for piano, cello and violin: Piano Trio, Op. 8.
Fryderyk Chopin (Frédéric Chopin)
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However, Radziwiłł’s social position also placed him among the political players of his time. As a result, in 1815 he became Duke-Governor of the Grand Duchy of Poznań, an administrative region of Prussia formed from some of the lands taken from Poland in the partitions (in 1795, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned by its neighbours – Russia, Prussia and Austria – and lost its independence). Radziwiłł is said to have had less political than musical talent and little actual power, but nevertheless he tried to aid the Polish cause, such as helping Polish prisoners of war taken by Prussia from Napoleon’s armies, and by supporting Polish theatre in Poznań. His residence in Antonin near Poznań, much like the Berlin one, became a haven for the arts.
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The duke and his wife spent their time in Berlin and Poznań (…). Like in Berlin, also at the Poznań residence every Thursday evening there was a concert. The duke started his own orchestra with the eminent Polish violinist Karol Lipiński (compared to Paganini) as its leader. In 1819 the greatest singer of the era, the Italian Angelika Catalani visited Poznań. In 1829 Niccolo Paganini himself gave a concert.
Quote from The Performances of ‘Faust’ by Lech Kolago
Well-devised, thrilling, ingenious
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the Roman Campagna by Johann H.W. Tischbein, 1786-1787, oil on canvas. 164 x 206 cm. Located in the Stadel Museum, Frankfurt, Germany, photo: VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images
Before Radziwiłł started his musical adaptation of Goethe’s magnum opus, he had written only short compositions – songs and choral works described in Jachimecki and Późniak’s book as ‘trivial and conventional’. Yet, it was this rather inexperienced amateur and not some acclaimed professional who was the first to take up the bold task of writing a score for the lengthy and layered drama that is Faust.
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Intriguingly, it was the fact Radziwiłł was not a full-time composer that (quite possibly) put him in the right position to pursue this ambitious goal. He was under no pressure to deliver, and there was no deadline. He wasn’t at work, but rather doing what he pleased. The scope of the undertaking, potentially deterring to a professional, wasn’t a problem for him.
The duke began writing music for Faust: Part One around 1810 and kept working on it, basically for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, Goethe’s Faust: Part Two was only published as late as 1832, the same year the author died. Radziwiłł didn't get enough time to compose music for it – he fell ill and suddenly passed away in 1833. Before he passed away, this amateur had managed to create a work that gave him a well-deserved place among the important composers of his time. It’s not just that he created ‘the first’ Faust opera, but he had created a fine artwork. The 20th-century Polish musicologist Tadeusz Strumiłło describes Radziwiłł’s treatment as ‘clearly having the lyricism of mature Romanticism. A Romanticism (..) that’s true, artistically valuable and unfalsified’.
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Radziwiłł’s contemporaries also held his music for Faust in high regard. In his memoirs, Goethe wrote about when the duke visited him in Weimar in 1814 and showed him parts of the score:
Duke Radziwiłł’s visit has awakened a longing that’s hard to satisfy, his brilliant and thrilling composition to Faust gave us hope, still distant, of staging this unique piece in the theatre.
On another occasion, Chopin visited Radziwiłł‘s residence near Poznań in 1829. The duke presented parts of his operatic work to the virtuoso pianist who later wrote in a letter to his friend Tytus Woyciechowski:
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You know how fond he is of music. He showed me his Faust and I found many things so very well devised, ingenious even, that I never would’ve expected that of a governor.
One of the brightest pearls in all of lyrics
So what made Radziwiłł’s stage adaptation of Faust so successful? Firstly, he abbreviated the lengthy story so that it fit with the accepted time boundaries of a play. For example, he left out the prologue wherefore the opera starts in Faust’s study. Radziwiłł’s scene selection includes 25 musical parts. Grasping the nuances of the complex drama, he conjured music truly corresponding to particular scenes’ ambience. In Antoni Radziwiłł And His Music For Faust you find such commentaries:
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Both the general sound of the orchestra as well as the entire motific material of the introduction build the atmosphere for the first scene of the play superbly.
Or one revolving around Gretchen – a common-folk girl and the doctor’s love interest:
Gretchen’s first singing appearance is in the song of ‘The King In Thule’. Here Radziwiłł strikes a folk note (…). In this song Gretchen is faithful to her character, she doesn’t become a prima donna like in Gounod’s opera [1859 Faustic opera by Charles Gonoud – ed.]. She doesn’t step the least out of her psychological world. Therefore this composition, much like other parts of the score, completely fulfils the dramatic postulates of the story.
Also, the duke was conscious of his limitations and wasn’t too proud to ask for a little artistic help now and then. Zelter, a close friend, provided some corrections to the score (although the German composer is known to have said that his input was very limited). On the other hand, a sphere where Radziwiłł did rely heavily on the assistance of others was the instrumentation or the specific arrangement for an orchestra. The duke lacked the proper skills for this so he outsourced the task to professionals like bandmaster Georg Schneider and composer Carl Rungenhagen.
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A.Radziwiłł - Pieśń o szczurze, Bogdan Kurowski
But that’s not to say that the end result wasn’t in line with Radziwiłł’s original vision. That the duke’s Faustic music is indeed his, and not somebody else’s, can be recognised, for example, by its Polish influences. The choir of invisible ghosts is said to reference the style of the eminent Polish Renaissance composer Mikołaj Zieleńśki. The music for the ländler (a traditional Austrian folk dance) is highly evocative of music to which one would dance the ‘kujawiak’, a traditional folk dance from Poland.
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Among the most valued sequences in Radziwiłł’s music for Faust is the titular hero’s arioso to Gretchen.
The purity of heart of a man overwhelmed by tender love transpires from this melody in an exceptionally noble and direct way (…). The arioso’s melody, filled with truly poetical musical expression, lets one count it among the brightest pearls in all the lyrics of the first half of the 19th century.
Quote from Antoni Radziwiłł And His Music For Faust
Mefisto’s serenade is considered a weaker part of the opera though. In fact, the score has also been criticised for being somewhat incoherent – the stylistic differences between some of the respective parts result from the immensely long time over which Radziwiłł composed the music. Some also don’t appreciate the (very scarce) use of musical quotations which include Mozart’s Fugue in C minor, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 and the traditional student song Gaudeamus Igitur. But despite these criticisms, the duke’s adaptation of Faust proved worthy of the original – it has been inspiring artists ever since its creation.
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All kinds of aristocracy
The Saski Palace, ca. 1890-1899, a photo from the album ‘Vues de Varsovie’, photo: Mauryc Pusch / National Library, Polona
The first full staging of Radziwiłł’s opera took place in 1835 at the Berliner Singakademie. Sadly, both the composer and the writer had passed away by then. Nevertheless, the show was enthusiastically received and it wasn’t long before it was staged in other cities, for example, in Leipzig and Hannover. The popularity of Radziwiłł’s Faust didn’t fade as it was still being played in the 1840s, including in Weimar and Prague. In 1880, it was staged at London’s Hyde Park College.
Before all these public performances took place, Radziwiłł had only presented his work at private social gatherings. He would often stage parts of the opera at his palace, much to the amusement of his guests. On one occasion, in 1820, he organised a grand performance at Berlin’s Monbijou Palace, residence of Duke Charles of Mecklenburg. The aristocratic affair featured the host as Mefisto alongside a mix of other amateur musicians of noble birth and professionals. The audience watching included the King of Prussia and the philosopher Georg Hegel.
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The first Polish staging of Radziwiłł’s Faust had a similar, aristocratic character. Magdalena Łuszczewska, a lady of noble birth who ran one of Warsaw’s most prominent literary salons, saw the opera at the Singakademie during a trip to Berlin. Enchanted, she decided to stage it in her quarters in Saski Palace (a huge Warsaw building later destroyed). After a year of preparations, the show and its cast of amateurs were ready (the libretto having been translated into Polish by Włodzimierz Wolski):
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The performance took place on 7th February 1848 and it was fabulous (…). There was no stage, only a yellow ribbon cutting through the entire salon perfectly marked the line between the performers and the crowded audience. That there was a ‘crowd’ is clearly evidenced by the guest list which included all kinds of aristocracy: of merit, wisdom, beauty, talent and birth.
Quote from the memoirs of Paulina Wilkońska
Due to popular demand, the show was later repeated, also with much success. Further Polish performances of Radziwiłł’s opera followed in the 20th century and in the early 2000s it was put on at the Grand Theatre in Poznań. The year 2018 will see a new staging at the Radziwiłł Palace in the village of Nieborów (their large aristocratic family had plenty of residences throughout the country). Bożena Bujnicka, a young Polish director and operatic singer known for her role as Euridice in Orfeo ed Euridice directed by the acclaimed Mariusz Treliński, will co-create the show scheduled for 15th September. Here’s what she told Culture.pl:
After I debuted as a director at the National Opera with an abbreviated version of The Magic Flute, I was asked to take charge of the multimedia for Radziwiłł’s Faust which will be directed by Professor Jitka Stokalska at the palace in Nieborów. Since the palace’s façade would be at my disposal, I accepted the offer without hesitation. This will be a grand show, unlike any other Nieborów has seen! Acclaimed actors, young and upcoming operatic singers, an orchestra and choir conducted by Marta Kluczyńska and also light play and huge projections based on motifs from Bosch’s paintings.
Antoni Henryk Radziwiłł
johann wolfgang goethe
polish opera composers
polish classical music
Sounds like a treat. Perhaps it’s only appropriate to wish the creators the devil’s luck as they continue the story of this Polish-German Faustian bargain.
Author: Marek Kępa, July 2018