Five things you didn’t know about Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust

On 20 March Daniel Harding conducts Schumann’s dramatic work, Scenes from Goethe’s Faust. We learn more about Schumann’s personal anguish and the circumstances that gave rise to this fascinating work. 

1) The inspiration for the work came after travelling in Russia

1844 was the year that Clara, Schumann’s wife and virtuoso pianist, toured to Russia. It was during his time spent on tour with Clara that Schumann truly discovered Goethe’s tragic play, Faust, studying both Part I (1808) and Part II (1832) of the work in great detail. He initially thought of shaping the narrative into an operatic form, but was daunted by its expansiveness. For Schumann, there was only one way of doing justice to Faust – to select only a few intense, symbolic moments to be set to music.

Clara and Robert Schumann


2) It took the composer 9 years to complete the work as we know it today

This process of selecting important moments from the work was an ongoing project that would take the composer from 1844 to 1853 to complete. By the end of 1844 he noted that the project was ‘finished’. What was written at this stage would in fact become only the third section of the work, Faust’s Transfiguration

The work was sporadically added to and extended. In 1847, the composer added the famous ‘Chorus Mysticus’, and 1848 – 1849 saw a period of manic activity. In July 1849 he created the first section, including the 'Garden Scene' and ‘Scene in the Cathedral’. ‘Midnight’ and ‘Faust’s Death’ of the second section were added in 1850. Finally, the overture was added in 1853, three years before the composer’s death.

3) It was written during a time of poor health and emotional turmoil

This disjointed creative process was largely due to Schumann’s failing health. 1844 was a trying year for Schumann, who suffered from crippling bouts of depression and anxiety. The composer had moved from Leipzig to Dresden, in search of a change of scenery in a bid to restore his health. The period following his marriage in 1840, a time of self-confidence and prolific composing, was over, and Schumann was plagued by his debilitating illness. After composing the initial sections of the work in 1844, he claimed that ‘the Scenes from Faust lies in my drawer, I am too afraid to look at it again’. Further setbacks came in 1847, when his close friend Mendelssohn died of a stroke aged 38.

4) Scenes from Goethe's Faust is a liberal interpretation of Goethe’s poem

Schumann’s musical interpretation of Goethe’s iconic literary work is free and unrestrained by narrative. There is little sense of the overall story, the musical settings highlighting certain fragments of the work, to the extent that Scenes from Goethe’s Faust doesn’t obviously come under the category of 'oratorio’. The composer also chose to use excerpts mostly from Part II of Faust. This second half of the play, which sees Faust transcend his pact with the devil and ascend to Heaven, was published over twenty years after Part I in 1832, and in the 19th century was nowhere near as well-known and revered. Yet, influenced by his fluctuating health and desperation, Schumann’s disjointed dramatic work chooses to focus on the deeply spiritual and religious significance of redemption that is a central theme in Part II.


‘What gave me the greatest pleasure was to hear from many people that the music had made the meaning of Goethe’s text clear to them for the first time.’

5) Schumann never lived to see the performance of the complete work

The partly finished work was performed as part of the centennial celebrations of Goethe’s birth in 1849 in Dresden, Weimar and Leipzig. It was well received – somewhat surprisingly, given the story’s unorthodox treatment. This greatly pleased Schumann, who had been worried of being criticised for ‘writing music to poetry that is so perfect’.

Yet Schumann, who died in 1856, never lived to see a performance of the full work, the product of years of feverishly reworking this fledgling version. It wasn’t until 1862 that the complete Scenes from Goethe’s Faust received its premiere in Cologne, under the direction Schumann’s close friend Ferdinand Hiller. It is this version that we know today, with all its revisions and additions, its disjointed narrative flow, and its moments of intense beauty and power. Scenes from Goethe’s Faust remains a fascinating insight not only into Goethe’s iconic tale, but into Schumann’s own tragic story. 

Daniel Harding returns to conduct the Orchestra in Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust on 20 March, joined by Christian Gerhaher and Christiane Karg.




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