Literature and Music Unite in ‘Faust, Music, and Romanticism’ (MUSI 232)

Image courtesy of Anchor Books

It was a reflection I never thought I would make, but as I sat in the library one evening, it struck me: “Wow, writing this essay is pretty fun!” I was writing said essay for the course MUSI 232: “Faust, Music, and Romanticism,” which I had the chance to take with Professor Kathryn Libin of the Music Department earlier this semester. This six-week-long Music/German cross-listed course caught my eye late in the add period, and once I noticed it, I simply had to take it. As a lover of both classic literature and music, it seemed to tick all the boxes. Reading a literary masterpiece? Check. Exploring musical interpretations of said masterpiece? Check. And my expectations were certainly met, if not exceeded.

As its name implies, Professor Libin’s course centers around “Part One” of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Faust,” arguably Germany’s greatest literary work. Although it can at times be challenging, it is not a very long read, especially since we do not read the more complex and allegorical “Part Two.” Readings are usually coupled with listening, which consists of various Romantic compositions that depict certain scenes or characters in “Faust.” Class sessions are split up evenly between discussion of the play and then of the music. After the first few weeks of the class, the focus shifts to longer, more substantial musical works that explore the story of “Faust” as a whole, so reading assignments drop out in favor of more extensive listening or viewing.

Beyond these readings and listenings, the major assignments consist of four essays. The first three each focus on one of the play’s major characters and how the pieces from that week portray their specific traits. The fourth (the final for the class) allows you to build on your interpretation of one of these characters through a more comprehensive analysis that explores how certain musical compositions create their own unique visions of the character in comparison to Goethe’s vision. Intended as a discussion of the connections between the literature and the music, these essays are all very freeform and do not require a particular structure, which made them particularly enjoyable. The feeling of laying out a thick packet of musical scores to parse through helped elevate the writing process and almost made it feel like a scavenger hunt where I had to find specific instances of the music that helped corroborate my understanding of Goethe’s text.

In terms of accessibility, I came into the class with very limited music theory skills. My abilities do not extend far beyond identifying notes on the staff, though my understanding of rhythm is quite a bit better. Thus, I was initially leery of how out of place I would be amid higher-level music students. But I soon felt more at ease, and Professor Libin did an excellent job of engaging the class at a level accessible to non-music students. Even an amateur understanding of music allowed me to comment on the pieces we listened to. I should note, though, that reading along with the scores reminded me of when, in the past, I would follow along to YouTube videos of classical music with scrolling scores, so perhaps that familiarity helped me a bit. The inclusion of literature as a significant element of the course was also helpful, as it allowed me to comment on a subject I was more familiar with than music. However, I would still recommend at least some foundation in music; following musical scores (often for full orchestra) is a significant part of the class, and it is important to have some idea of what is happening in the sheet music in order to provide examples for the essays. 

In addition to being manageable in terms of workload, the course was great from both a literary and musical perspective. Analyzing “Faust” and its characters, with all their dark, philosophical complexities, was fun enough on its own. In fact, some scenes gave me that awesome feeling of “Damn, this is cool,” while others even made my heart rate speed up a bit. And the music that Professor Libin selects is similarly fantastic in its own right, but by putting it in the context of “Faust,” all the intricate melodic lines and rhythmic markings take on greater significance, which I think speaks to the heightened richness and depth resulting from the combination of literature and music. I especially enjoyed the transition from smaller pieces (Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” with its agitated piano line and haunting vocal melody, was a favorite of mine) to the longer, multi-act works that were the capstones of the course (Charles Gounod’s opera “Faust,” like Goethe’s play, had some scenes that were nothing short of epic). Studying both kinds of pieces allowed me to apply the themes of “Faust” in varying musical structures, which I appreciated. I ultimately came away from the class with a greater understanding not just of “Faust” and its various musical adaptations but also of how to delve deeper into musical scores and music in general in order to analyze them within a literary context. 

If you haven’t guessed it already, I would definitely recommend this class! It was one of my favorites this semester, and if I had to pick a single favorite, this might be it. The appreciation I had for the subject matter, the engaging assignments and the generally relaxed atmosphere of the course all contributed to my thoroughly positive experience. So those that are literary and/or musically minded, take note! 

I’m not sure when Professor Libin plans to offer this specific class again, but I do know that she will be offering “Jane Austen and Music” in the spring, which is another six-week class and has a similar structural approach. She also informed me that she intends to premiere a new class in Fall 2024 which will have a different topic each time it is offered and, like this class, will examine musical interpretations of a specific work of literature. According to her, Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” may be on the agenda for next fall! 

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