12 Sep 2010

Julius Röntgen: Aus Goethes Faust.

The release of Röntgen’s Faust setting on CPO makes available a recording of yet another composer’s perspective on Goethe’s famous dramatic poem.

Known in his day, Julius Röntgen (1855-1932), a prolific composer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, composed over 650 works in almost every genre, including a fascinating late work entitled Aus Goethes Faust (“From Goethe’s Faust”).

Composed in 1931, late in Röntgen’s career, this cantata-like work resembles Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust in his selection of episodes to set to music, and also calls to mind the way other composers set similar scenes: Boito in his setting of the “Prologue in Heaven,” Berlioz for the scene in Auerbach’s Cellar, and both Liszt and Mahler for their settings of the closing passage “Alles vergängliche ist nu rein Gleichnis” in the movement Röntgen specifically calls the Chorus mysticus. Notwithstanding the associations that emerge Röntgen approached this score in his own style that remains firmly tonal in an idiom that Brahms or Reger would use. In the latter Röntgen’s writing sounds at times like the scores Erich von Korngold would compose for Hollywood films a decade later. That stated, the music is facile and engaging, with clear structures, chromatic, but not atonal harmonic, and contrapuntal episodes that call to mind Röntgen’s association with the music of Bach.

In creating a secular cantata with its basis in Goethe’s Faust Röntgen used both instrumental and vocal movements that reflect the major episodes in the dramatic poem. The opening piece is an instrumental “Prologue in Heaven” that sets the tone with rich harmonies and sometimes ominous scoring of the thick chords. It is an evocative piece that works well because of the instrumental idiom that Röntgen uses, allowing the vocal movements to occur later.

In Röntgen’s selections from Goethe, he invokes the Erdgeist, the Earth-Spirit, rather than referring to Mephistofeles by name or calling the figure the devil. In this sense, the theology seems rooted in the dualist Manichaeism that juxtaposes heaven and earth, thus making one transitory, the other eternal, with Faust ultimately poised for heavenly things. In this sense, though, the drama of hinges on the confrontation between Faust and the Erdgeist, and this is expressed well in the eighth number, “Faust’s “Anrufung an den Erdgeist.”

While this piece may never supplant the conventional settings of the Faust story, this setting is of interest as another interpretation of the tale. Its structure suggests a scenic cantata, with the details of the story left to the audience, as the musical pieces depict various points of arrival that find expression in music. The use of chorus in “Faust’s Dream” is effective, and while the music for the concluding portion, the familiar lines “Alles vergängliches ist nu rein Gleichnis” suffers comparison with Liszt’s setting of the same text in the Faust Symphony and Mahler’s in the second part of his Eighth, Röntgen caps his own work fittingly. As much as this Faust is a curiosity, this recording makes a case for performing the score as another interpretation of the familiar legend.

James L. Zychowicz