Silent Faustus is John D'earth's made-for-Kandinsky adaptation [composed 2007] of a two-hour score he created for Mernau's 1926 silent film masterpiece Faustus. That composition, completed in 2003 and performed live to screenings of the film, features trumpet, multiple reeds, orchestral and jazz percussion, chapman stick and acoustic bass. The present adaptation for violin, cello and piano is a condensed version of the original score that relies less on the linear and literal unfolding of the famous tale than on a musical evocation of the four main phases of Faust's story.
Act I: The Wager/Faust Labors
The plot is set in motion with a celestial argument between an angel and Lucifer, who wishes to claim dominion over the earth. Like Job before him, Faust is the object of a wager between divine and diabolic agencies. When the angel challenges Lucifer's assertion that the earth is his domain Lucifer reveals the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. No human being is exempt from the twin forces of suffering and temptation, he insists. Therefore the earth is his. The angel shows Lucifer the philanthropic old philosopher, Faust, laboring on behalf of knowledge and humanity. If the pure and noble Faust can be turned to a life of sin and selfish evil then the angel will capitulate and surrender the earth to Lucifer. The bet is on!
Act II: Plague/Faust's Epiphany/The Crossroads/Temptation, Youth, Enchantment, and Sin
Lucifer descends to earth and creates the plague. An acrobat, dancing to a tune played by the violin, is the first victim. Faust, failing to find a cure, despairs and throws his learned tomes into the fire, accidentally stumbling on a spell for summoning Lucifer. He goes to the crossroads at midnight and recites the satanic invocation three times in the hope of asking the devil to give him the power to save humanity where all his knowledge and philosophy have failed. Lucifer appears as the humble and helpful (and scary!) Mephisto who dances a wheedling, legalistic tango with Faust to get him to sign his soul away: "Try it, you'll like it! What can you lose? It's only for a year!" Faust signs but discovers he cannot be near the good Christians he tries to save with his new powers. Their crosses, icons of their faith, terrify and repel him. As an antidote to Faust's dejection and defeat, Mephisto reveals a vision of the joys of carnality in the form of the naked Princess of Parma, the most beautiful woman in the world. He tempts Faust with the prospect of youth, vigor, lust and riches. When Faust agrees to let Satan make him young again Mephisto transforms into Lucifer himself. Together they fly to the princess' wedding party where Lucifer casts an enchantment over the proceedings and murders the groom allowing Faust to abduct the helpless princess. Lucifer is on his way to winning the bet and Faust is on his way to hell!
Act III: Faust Looks Back/True Love/Murder and Escape
Faust contemplates his year of sin with weariness and disgust. He wants only to return to the home of his childhood which he remembers as a place of decency and gentle simplicity. There he sees and falls in love with Gretchen, his one true love. Lucifer casts a spell over the virtuous Gretchen and arranges a love-tryst. He then alerts Gretchen's brother to her imminent seduction by the besotted Faust. The brother rushes to the scene to confront the lovers and raise an alarm. Lucifer stabs him in the back and escapes with Faust in the ensuing melee.
Act IV: The Shunning of Gretchen/Death of the Lovechild/Gretchen Condemned/Immolation and Redemption
Gretchen and her infant, the issue of her union with Faust, are shunned by the good citizens of her town as she begs for shelter and mercy during the holy celebrations of mid-winter. Held responsible for the death of her brother and judged for her illicit love affair she is consigned to the storm where she puts her dead infant "to sleep" in the snow. Drowsing toward her own weary and frozen demise she is discovered by a military detachment whose commander immediately accuses her of the murder of her child. She is taken into custody and condemned to burn at the stake. Gretchen cries out for her beloved Faust who telepathically grasps the situation from afar and forces Lucifer to transport him to her side. As he joins her on the pyre, which is beginning to burn, Faust is transformed back into an old man but Gretchen recognizes him anyway. Together they experience their reunion and immolation as the apotheosis of their true and legitimate love for each other. Lucifer returns to the heavens to confront the angel and claim his prize. Not so fast! True love has saved the day and trumped the wiles of Satan. Lucifer has lost!
John D'earth comments:
"It is with great pleasure that I find myself writing again for the Kandinsky Trio. After developing Natural Bridge with them, a few years back, I became hooked on working with Liz, Alan and Bendy. Their ideas and their willingness to explore new directions, both individually and collectively, are challenging and inspiring to a musician like me. As a jazz musician I like new approaches that push limits and involve some risk. The Kandinskies welcome risk and seem to thrive outside the usual classical comfort zones while informing their work with the highest traditional performance values. This combination of traditionalism and bold innovation has made them into the force they have become as a chamber group and as commissioners and champions of new works. It is also, perhaps, responsible in part, for their remarkable longevity and success as a working trio.
Silent Faustus pushes their limits in new ways, especially in the area of improvisation. They are all being asked to improvise their parts at various points in the piece both as soloists and accompanists. In Silent Faustus they engage in several different improvisatory techniques: the traditional jazz practice of soloing over set forms, thematic paraphrase that edges over into totally free improvisation and the spontaneous creation of the repetitive loops that occur at the end of Part II representing Faust's dead-end existence of selfish satiety. When the piano and cello swamp the violin's rendition of the acrobat's tune with a cacophonous free development of satanic themes at the beginning of Part II I'm reminded of Charles Ives' beloved colliding marching bands that were an early inspiration for his pioneering technique of allowing disparate musics to co-exist and co-mingle.
Finally, let me say, in all seriousness, that Mernau's treatment of the Faust legend, which has seen many incarnations, is extremely humorous in ways both intended and unintended. Melodrama, by definition, lampoons itself even as it insists on the seriousness of its themes which are, inevitably, over-heated renditions of timeless human verities like love, death, temptation, betrayal, and redemption. The Kandinskies are masters of inviting uproarious humor and irreverence to co-exist with the deep seriousness of their musical mission. That gift promises a rich rendition of the melodrama at hand.
So, let the play begin!"