The Genesis of Goethe’s Faust
Faust occupied Goethe for over 50 years and it faithfully follows the many twists and turns in his poetic development. In its first known form, the intense and concentrated Urfaust (1775) conceived in the Sturm und Drang, Goethe’s Geniezeit, it reflects two sides of his thinking at that time. On the one hand, we find the rebel against Enlightenment influences, whose spokesman is the thwarted academic Faust, a character which Goethe had taken from native German medieval sources (this part is sometimes termed the ‘scholar’s tragedy’ or Gelehrtentragodie). On the other hand, we have the work of a socially critical and compassionate young lawyer with first-hand knowledge of court cases such as the one presented in Urfaust, depicting, in the shape of the ‘fallen woman’ or infanticide, the victim of a harsh, unfeeling society, who is severely judged and sentenced to death (this part, known as the ‘Gretchen tragedy’, represents a popular dramatic form of the day in Germany, the bürgerliches Trauerspiel or ‘middle-class tragedy’ which often features such victims). The action proceeds swiftly but jerkily (in ‘Sprünge und kühne Würfe’ (‘leaps and bold thrusts’) as in a ballad) towards its stark denouement, moving from one high point—or ‘station’—to the next without making explicit the motivational details of the progression. Instead these are left to be grasped intuitively through such indirect devices as interpolated songs in the Shakespearean mode, which serve to externalize hidden subconscious processes, an obvious example of which is Gretchen’s ‘spinning song’, familiar through Schubert’s setting (‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’). This limited exploitation of musical interpolation compares with the more widespread and elaborate processes, involving choruses, employed in Part II.
The later stages of the Faust project—often after considerable gaps in time—involve a thorough reworking of this ‘Ur-form’ to create a fuller-bodied drama, though here too there were interruptions in the process of completion, the major reason being Goethe’s Italian journey (1786), a watershed experience in which he immersed himself in all aspects of Italian culture, the visual arts, architecture, sculpture, painting, and Italian music, especially opera buffa. The assimilation of these manifold experiences would profoundly colour virtually all Goethe’s subsequent work. At first little obvious benefit could be seen for the forward movement of the Faust project: some significant new scenes were created, but Goethe stopped short on his return to Weimar by publishing Faust, in a conspicuously incomplete form, (p.272) as Ein Fragment (1790). Thereafter, his return to finish the job was only reluctantly undertaken; the stimulus of Italy had triggered numerous new plans and his various duties at the Weimar court had landed him—not reluctantly—as Intendant or director in charge of the court theatre and opera. Indeed, Faust could have scarcely proceeded to a successful conclusion had not Goethe’s friend and near neighbour in Jena, Friedrich Schiller, made it his business to prod the reluctant poet and set up not only regular meetings and discussions (the distance between Weimar and Jena being only a few miles), but also, through an exchange of letters, the famous ‘Briefwechsel’, which extended right up to Schiller’s untimely death in 1805. By 1808, the final touches had been put on Faust, Part I, but not only that: the way forward to Part II had been mapped out by creating what is known as the ‘Prolog im Himmel’ (‘celestial framework’) in which the exploits of the hero are placed sub specie aeternitatis. Goethe had made some headway with Part II in the 1790s, especially in the section relating to Faust’s meeting with Gretchen’s counterpart, Helen of Troy, a motif which had in fact existed in his mind from the outset, having been a feature of the puppet theatre version of the Faust story with which he had been familiar as a child. For Goethe in his post-Italian journey period, however, the Helena theme had assumed a highly charged symbolic function, contributing to the idea of the coming together of ancient classical and the modern Romantic cultures as embodied by Helen and Faust respectively, a theme which would eventually form the basis for Act III. Notwithstanding this ambitious new possibility, the loss of his friend Schiller’s critical impetus and friendly nagging would lead to another big gap, during which the Faust text was put on one side to be replaced by other projects: scientific and theoretical works, for example, his Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Colours, 1810), the obligatory ‘memoirs’ Dichtung und Wahrheit (1812), and, most especially, the extended late-flowering lyrical collection entitled the West-östliche Diwan (1819), which was inspired by the happy conjunction of Goethe’s discovery of Persian poetry and a not entirely platonic association (as well as poetic collaboration) with a married friend, herself a poetess, Marianne von Willemer. Not until the late 1820s, however, could Faust be completed and in-between Goethe even went back to Part I to refashion the two big opening scenes into one self-contained unit. Having had a head start for Part II, the Helena section led the way in the form of a separate publication, Helena. Klassisch-romantische Phantasmagorie (1827), following which the remainder of Part II was finally dispatched to his publisher in 1831, even though Goethe still expressed some misgivings about the finished product. This, as we see in Chapter 3, may have had something to do with his disappointment with the various efforts of the many composers who had aspired over the years to set parts of Faust, and with his hankering up to a late stage for a composer who could do justice to those parts of the text where he had intended there should be a musical realization.