In 1587, Johann Spies published a chapbook based on a mythologized and fantastical version of a real man’s life who lived in the early 16th century titled Doctor Faustus. It spread like wildfire throughout Europe. Thomas Mann wrote his novel of the same name, published in 1947, inspired by the Spies morality play. Alfred Schnittke, a Russian composer of German descent, read Mann’s Faustus and was eventually inspired, after digging into the Spies version, to compose a Faustus opera. One outcrop of that journey is his Seid nüchtern und wachet (Faust Cantata) from 1983.
From Mann’s Faustus:
Adrian’s capacity for mocking imitation, which was rooted deep in the melancholy of his being, became creative here in the parody of the different musical styles in which the insipid wantonness of hell indulges: French impressionism is burlesqued, along with bourgeois drawing-room music, Tchaikovsky, music-hall, the syncopations and rhythmic somersaults of jazz – like a tilting-ring it goes round and round, gaily glittering, above the fundamental utterance of the main orchestra, which, grave, sombre, and complex, asserts with radical severity the intellectual level of the work as a whole.
I have Alex Ross of The New Republic to thank for referencing this quote as it nearly perfectly describes Schnittke’s Faust. Polystylistic pyrotechnics are in full sway as Faust descends into his fiery frenzied downfall. While I hate to give away a climax, I couldn’t resist (the devil made me do it):
“…like some Ethel Merman of the apocalypse” Alex Ross famously wrote of Inger Blom’s performance and this line always brings a smile to my face as Ethel Merman always sounds apocalyptic to me. Schnittke adds the circus.
Faust is the theme of my whole life, and I am already afraid of it. I don’t think I shall ever complete it.
The Faust Cantata remains one of Schnittke’s most beloved works and a blockbuster of a listen for me going on 30 years(!). I cannot recommend owning and living with the world-premier recording (1989) from BIS highly enough—I visit it at least once a year and each time it digs its way deeper into my soul, lighting my fire.