The Devil Went Down to Germany

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Gounod: Faust (Highlights)

De Los Angeles / Gedda / Christoff

Orchestra and Chorus of the Theatre National de L’Opera / Andre Cluytens

RCA Victor

“Mozart should have composed for Faust”

-Johan Wolfgang von Goethe

In music, Goethe’s Faust is everywhere. Beethoven based on a song on it (even after the two men fell out when Beethoven remarked that the playwright was too chummy with aristocrats). Berlioz wrote an opera on the drama. Both Schumann and Mendelssohn musicalized the devil’s apprentice, and Franz Liszt composed not one but two Faust-centric works: a Faust Symphony and the Mephisto Waltz. Mussorgsky, Mahler and even the Soviet modernist Alfred Schnittke worked in material from the play (Faust Cantata in the the latter’s case. And that’s not even mentioning all the Fausts that show up in the songs of Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Frank Zappa and Tenacious D.

The Faust legend (reaching into anecdote with Robert Johnson’s crossroads encounter with the devil) is well suited to musicians and composers seeking mastery in exchange for their souls. Who wouldn’t? Thomas Mann was aware of that connection, updating Faust into pianist/composer in his Dr. Faustus (1947). Although Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus was the first mainstream version, some scholars believe that the origins lay with the medieval magician Simon Magus. But it wasn’t until Goethe’s 1789 Faust that the popular tone was set, and author was adamant that no one other than Mozart, who was already dead, should set it to music.

Charles Gounod’s 1859 opera is loosely based on that version. Taking place over 5 acts (sometimes shortened to 4), it dispenses with Goethe’s sprawling philosophical epic and instead focuses on the love angle between Faust and Marguerite. After the premiere, Gounod’s name fame was assured.

Castellon’s vivid depiction on this RCA Victor release from the 1950s has the devil looking like a Venetian nobleman, ogling the face-sucking couple in the background. He has untrimmed fingernails and a pervert’s leer, as the prince of evil should. Ideally attired in blood-red finery, he is portrayed at the moment when he’s about to do some soul-searching and romance-thwarting.

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