From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust is a tragic play in two parts: Faust: The First Part of the Tragedy and Faust: The Second Part of the Tragedy. Although written as a closet drama, it is the play with the largest audience numbers on German-language stages. Faust is Goethe's most famous work and considered by many to be one of the greatest works of German literature.
Goethe completed a preliminary version of Part One in 1806. The 1808 publication was followed by the revised 1828–1829 edition, which was the last to be edited by Goethe himself. Prior to these appeared a partial printing in 1790 of Faust, a Fragment. The earliest forms of the work, known as the Urfaust, were developed between 1772 and 1775; however, the details of that development are no longer entirely clear.
Goethe finished writing Faust Part Two in 1832, the year of his death. In contrast to Faust Part One, the focus here is no longer on the soul of Faust, which has been sold to the devil, but rather on social phenomena such as psychology, history and politics, in addition to mystical and philosophical topics. The second part formed the principal occupation of Goethe's last years. It was completed and sealed in 1831 and appeared only posthumously in 1832.
Goethe's Faust inverts and makes greatly more complex the simple Christian moral of the original legend. A hybrid between a play and an extended poem, Goethe's two part "closet drama" is epic in scope. It gathers together references from Christian, medieval, Roman, eastern and Hellenic poetry, philosophy and literature; ending in a Faust who is saved, carried aloft to heaven, as Mephistopheles looks on.
The legend of Faust was an obsession of Goethe's. Although by no means a constant pursuit, the composition and refinement of his own version of the legend occupied him for over sixty years. The final version, not completely published until after his death, is recognized as a great work of German Literature.
The story concerns the fate of Faust in his quest for the true essence of life ("was die Welt im Innersten zusammenhält"). Frustrated with learning and the limits to his knowledge and power, he attracts the attention of the Devil (represented by Mephistopheles), whom Faust makes a deal to serve until the moment that Faust attains the zenith of human happiness, at which point Mephistopheles may take his soul. Goethe's Faust is pleased with the deal, as he believes the moment will never come.
In the first part, Mephistopheles leads Faust through experiences that culminate in a lustful and destructive relationship with an innocent and nubile woman named Gretchen. Gretchen and her family are destroyed by Mephistopheles' deceptions and Faust's desires and actions. The story ends in tragedy as Gretchen is saved and Faust is left in shame.
The second part begins with the spirits of the earth forgiving Faust (and the rest of mankind) and progresses into rich allegorical poetry. Faust and his devil pass through the world of politics and the world of the classical gods, and meet with Helen of Troy (the personification of beauty). Finally, having succeeded in taming the very forces of war and nature Faust experiences a single moment of happiness.
The devil Mephistopheles, trying to grab Faust's soul when he dies, is frustrated as the Lord intervenes – recognizing the value of Faust's unending striving.
Goethe's Faust was the source material for at least two successful operas: Faust by Charles Gounod and Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito; and major works for soloists, chorus and orchestra such as the "dramatic legend" The Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust and the second part of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8. In September 2006, Oxford University Press created a controversy by publishing a translation of Goethe's Faust allegedly by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge famously insisted during his lifetime that he "had never put pen to paper as a translator of Faust", but the volume's editor, UCLA Professor Emeritus Frederick Burwick, claims to have assembled over 800 verbal echoes between the translation and Coleridge's other poetry.
Also Franz Liszt's The Mephisto Waltz.