The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Faust (Gounod)
FAUST. Grand opera in five acts by Charles François Gounod (libretto by Barbier and Carré, after Goethe's poem) first produced at Paris, 19 March 1859. Easily the most popular French opera of the second half of the 19th century, Gounod's masterpiece has penetrated to the farthest corners of the earth. The romantic story, the appealing figures of the lovers, with the sinister Mephistopheles in the background are admirable operatic material and Gounod's genius found its highest expression in the musical garment with which he clothed it. The opera abounds in sensuous melody that contains a potent magic. Its language was new to France, but the idiom was soon adopted by other composers to such an extent indeed that much of it has become hackneyed. It is not difficult to point to weaknesses, to dwell upon its cloying sweetness, to decry the soldiers' chorus as banal; but when all has been said, there remains a bulk of finely felt material used with skill and developed into stirring musical climaxes. There is a distinctive personal note throughout, traceable perhaps most directly in the striking combination of the voluptuous and the religious elements. It seems superfluous to single out the important numbers. The quartette in the garden scene is one of the most successful operatic ensembles, almost ranking with that in ‘Rigoletto’ in the success with which the diverse dramatic interests are harmonized. The succeeding love scene is borne along on an uninterrupted stream of delicious melody. The vigorous and dramatic kermesse scene and, above all, the thrilling final terzetto, which has done yeoman's service as a model for other composers, need but to be mentioned to be vividly recalled to mind.
Musical settings of Goethe's poem have been made by other composers. The most important are, Hector Berlioz's "La Damnation de Faust," a dramatic legend in four parts, first performed in Paris, 6 Dec. 1846, and generally given in concert form, to which it is better adapted, and Arrigo Boito's "Mefistofele," a grand opera in a prologue and five acts (later condensed to four) first produced at Milan, 5 March 1868. The latter, which still finds local and spasmodic favor in the opera house, was not without influence both on Verdi, with whom Boito, as librettist, was closely associated in his later years, and on Ponchielli and the later Italian composers.
An opera on the Faust legend by Ludwig Spohr was first produced at Frankfort, March 1818. The book has no connection with Goethe's poem and the work, which had a certain vogue in its own day, is of slight musical importance.