Paganini and the Faust legend

I recently attended a brilliant performance of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D, Op. 6 by Hilary Hahn with the South Bend Symphony Orchestra. I had never heard (seen!) left-hand pizzicato before. In short, it was a brilliant performance.

What does Paganini have to do with Catholic art, you might ask? Wasn’t he an alleged atheist and an altogether unsavoury sort? Well yes, you are right, dear reader, and he was even refused burial in consecrated ground by the Catholic Church. But one of the myths that surrounded Paganini during his lifetime was that he had committed the Faustian pact, and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his virtuosity on the violin. Christopher Marlowe’s treatment of the Dr. Faustus legend has briefly been mentioned on this blog, but I thought the Faust legend deserved some more discussion.

Now Marlowe’s play, as well as its source text, are pretty anti-Catholic pieces. The performance I saw (in a strange twist of reality and the blogosphere (via Fr. Z and others) showcased the mockery of the Papal Court scene with giant puppets. In this scene, Faustus ridicules, amongst other things, a Catholic liturgy for its ineffectiveness at casting him out.

Like these anti-Catholic insults endemic to the Elizabethan era, the play and the source text are ill-conceived children of the reformation, albeit with hints of the Catholic imagination still tangible. At the end of the play, Faustus cannot repent, cannot be saved, and cannot believe that forgiveness is still available to him.

The old Faust legend as presented in the chap-books and the plays is essentially a tragedy of sin and damnation, a characteristic product of the age of the Reformation. In older legends of great sinners like Robert theDevil, the efficacy of penitence was proclaimed, the saving power of theChurch was emphasized. With the Reformation this was changed. The rigidLutheran orthodox theology denied the redeeming powers of the ancientChurch and this harsh spirit is reflected in the legend. The sinner who leagues with the Devil was irrevocably damned. Goethe, the enlightened humanitarian, disagreed with this conception. For him Faust was not a presumptuous sensualist, but a titanic striver after truth, a representative of humanity’s noblest aspirations, and, whatever his sins and errors might be, in the end he was to be saved. In Goethe’s “Faust” (see GERMANY, loc. cit. supra) the legend has received its classic form. (From The Catholic Encyclopedia)

Which brings us back to Paganini – the Church eventually allowed his body to be re-buried in consecrated ground. I can’t seem to find any more information about the change in decision, but let’s hope his soul too can find forgiveness and redemption.

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One Comment on “Paganini and the Faust legend”


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