The principles which led Busoni to choose for his most ambitious work a plot so re mote from contemporary life; he asserts in an address from the Poet to the Spectators at the start of the opera:
As in a mirror seen, life's gestures pass Across this stage, but false and counterfeit; For all that's real 'tis a distorting-glass, But as a magic mirror, right and meet. True values it destroys. but justice does To those which claim the privilege of deceit; Thus realism to ridicule is brought; What's only play compels your serious thought.
Such plays of unreality require, The help of Music, for she stands remote From all that's CQUIMOD, she can wake desire That's bodiless.
The whole problem of realism and symbolism, and the significance of Aristotle's dictum that " art imitates nature," we will discuss later. It is not necessary to use machinery like magic and fairies to escape from the futilities of holding up the mirror to nature. But Busoni wanted to be on the safe side in his material and not to depend entirely on method of treatment. His " ideal of opera was represented for him by the Magic Flute," says Dent. And Busoni cast around for a story which should be rich in tradition and as free as possible from commonplace association.
He rejected Merlin and also Don Giovanni, for
Master Wolfgang, everyone must own, Made Hon Giovanni his and his alone.
Busoni finally settled on the great story of Faust, which Marlowe has raised to such sublime dignity, and rejected Goethe as an
impossible basis for the opera. Busoni wrote his own libretto from the old German puppet-play of Faust, and put in some fresh episodes of his own.
The Story Outlined
The story, in brief, is this. Three students give Faust a book of magic by which he summons evil spirits, and he signs himself away to Mephistopheles in return for the unconditional fulfilment of all, his desires during his earthly life.
There follows a church scene which gives Busoni the opportunity for a very fine piece of organ writing (which Fox Strangways thinks the ugliest thing written for the instrument). In this scene a soldier swears vengeance on Faust, who has seduced his sister. Mephistopheles, disguised as a friar, effects the soldier's death.
There follows a scene of grand pageantry in the Ducal Park at Parma. With the conviction, no doubt, that opera is more competent to express by sight and sound than by complex language, Busoni does not attempt to display the intellectual sublimity which Faust demanded as one of his principal desires, but allows him instead to conjure up Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, Samson and Delilah, John the Baptist, etc., and to seduce the Duchess of Palma, who takes the only female solo part in the opera. She sings a love-airia in which the music verges on the luscious.
So far we have watched Faust's career on the ascent; next week we will see it in the decline.