Goethe’s Faust and The Beatles’ Abbey Road

May 9, 2009


This is a topic first introduced to me by one of my college professors in a Gustav Mahler seminar. He mentioned it only in passing, essentially a very raw footnote to some other point I’ve since forgotten. This forced me to connect the dots myself.

But first, a glossary:

  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – (1749-1832) Arguably Germany’s greatest writer. Contemporary of Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher whose concept of the “will” (i.e. man’s basic motivation and desire) formed the foundation of his ideas.
  • Gustav Mahler – (1860-1911) Austrian composer and conductor. One of the most influential late-Romantic composers known for his rich and distinct use of the orchestra and all its colors. Many of the ideas of Goethe and Schopenhauer have made their way into Mahler’s work.
  • Goethe’s Faust – His magnum opus. A tragic play in two parts, based on the German legend of a man who makes a pact with the Devil in exchange for knowledge. Also the inspiration for the second movement of Mahler’s 8th Symphony.
  • Abbey Road – One of The Beatles’ finest albums, featuring the songs, “Come Together,” “Something,” “Oh! Darling,” and “Here Comes The Sun.”

The idea here is that Abbey Road has very strong connections to both Faust and Mahler’s 8th. Much like the supposed parallels between The Wizard of Oz and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, the connection between The Beatles and Germanic philosophical closet drama are likely equal parts serendipity, synchronicity, and unconscious inspiration.

The concept is best explained by making our way through Abbey Road’s sequential track listing:

  1. Come Together – Taken literally, the title of the first track mirrors the meeting of God and The Devil, propelling the album into the crux of the plot (The Devil bets God he can tempt Faust away from his ideals and pursuits). Through the lens of Mahler, it can also come to mirror the duality of his 8th Symphony–Part I being the setting of a hymn, and Part II being the setting of Faust. God and Goethe. Latin and German… both coming together to create one whole. I should also note that the first word of the first movement of Mahler’s 8th is “Veni,” the latin word for “Come.”
  2. Something – This is a love song, and pulls from Mahler’s hymn in its description of God’s love.
  3. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer – The cheekily bouncy tune describes Maxwell Edison, medical student, killing several people with a hammer, including the judge condemning him to prison. It juxtaposes nicely against the scholar Faust in his study late at night, pondering violent fantasies out of frustration.
  4. Oh! Darling – This song is a reassurance, an apology of sorts, that the singer will “never do you no harm.” I imagine Maxwell singing this song after awakening from his silver hammer daydreams, much like Faust is pulled away from his murderous reverie by the sound of an Easter celebration outside his window.
  5. Octopus’s Garden – An octopus’s garden, in which Ringo Starr sings that “we will be warm, below the storm, in our little hideaway beneath the waves,” is a sales pitch. Ringo is trying to convince the listener that “below” is where we should all spend our days. After Faust’s reverie is broken, he is approached by Mephistopheles in the same persuasive manner. This is when the Devil makes his offer.
  6. I Want You (She’s So Heavy) – This long, aching, humid tune is the epitome of raw desire. It mirrors perfectly Faust’s efforts to free Gretchen from prison and eventual death.
  7. Here Comes The Sun – This song opens up Side 2 of the Abbey Road LP. Part 2 of Faust opens with Faust awakening in a field of fairies, symbolizing a new beginning and a fresh start. The fact that both themes kick off the second part of their respective works is one of the more solid anchors of this theory.
  8. Because – This song echoes Mahler’s 8th more than Faust directly. The similarity is in the harmonies: Lennon, McCartney and Harrison all sing harmony parts that are tripled, thus sounding like 9 singers instead of 3. The second part of Mahler’s 8th is very much a “choral symphony.” In fact, Mahler once described it this way: “Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. These are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving.” Coincidentally (?), the song “Because” begins with the lyrics “Because the world is round…”
  9. You Never Give Me Your Money/Sun King/Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came in Through the Bathroom Window – These songs are short, interweaving pieces that form a “suite” of sorts and work together to build drama toward a theme of trancendence. This is the very same theme and technique employed by Mahler to set Faust in the second part of his 8th Symphony. The “here comes the sun king” lyric echoes the earlier song “Here Comes The Sun” and points to a higher power. In fact, the second part of Goethe’s Faust is said to be comprised of 5 acts—distinct episodes—”each representing a different theme.”
  10. Golden Slumbers – This song sits separately from the medley described above. It is not segued into, and introduces Faust to his “golden slumber”… that is, his final slumber, if you will…
  11. Carry That Weight – This song picks right up from “Golden Slumbers” and describes Faust’s striving and effort (this is Schopenhauer’s ‘will’). Goethe’s Faust is a troubled intellectual seeking “more than earthly meat and drink.” Mahler’s 8th describes the angels bringing Faust’s soul up to heaven. They even declare: “He who strives on and lives to strive/ Can earn redemption still.” The striving, this being Schopenhauer’s ‘will,’ is the “Weight” that Faust carried the whole time. It also features the vocals of all 4 of The Beatles, which is a fitting comparison to Mahler’s 8th, also referred to as the “Symphony of a Thousand” for its enormous use of singers and musicians. Themes from “You Never Give Me Your Money” are recalled, and the horns ring in a true transcendental sound.
  12. The End – “In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” This is how The Beatles brought their work to a close, and it’s as fitting an end as Goethe could have ever hoped for.
  13. (Her Majesty) – This curious track was “hidden” on the original Beatles album. It’s not even listed on the first printing of the album cover. In this way, it stands apart from the underlying theme described here. But consider this: Mahler’s 8th symphony had strong themes that dealt with the Sacred Feminine, and was dedicated to his wife, Alma Maria. Also consider this portion of a note Mahler wrote to Alma in June 1906, describing his 8th Symphony:

That which draws us by its mystic force, what every created thing, perhaps even the very stones, feels with absolute certainty as the center of its being, what Goethe here—again employing an image—calls the eternal feminine—that is to say, the resting-place, the goal, in opposition to the striving and struggling towards the goal (the eternal masculine)—you are quite right in calling the force of love. Goethe … expresses it with a growing clearness and certainty right on to the Mater Gloriosa—the personification of the eternal feminine!

This last quote by Mahler himself describes the end of his own work, as well as the end of Abbey Road: “Carry That Weight,” “The End,” “Her Majesty”… all three referenced nicely in the context of Goethe’s symbolism.



Chords as Math: Solving a Musical Puzzle

November 12, 2008


Believe it or not, nobody ever knew what the first chord of “Hard Day’s Night” was. It’s a clangy, jangly thing played on a 12-string Rickenbacker guitar, and kicks off one of the most famous songs in the Beatles’ extremely famous catalog. Despite repeated efforts and sophisticated methods, it remained a mystery sound–A stack of notes that couldn’t be identified for sure.

Until now.

The great blog NoiseAddicts has the whole story here. I won’t spoil the surprise outcome, but it involves a mathematical calculation called Fourier transform and James Brown.

It illuminates yet another way music influences mathematics, and vice versa. Some argue that music is simply audible math, but this doesn’t hit on the emotional power of the art. Still, math is the set of rules governing reality, and sounds are certainly real. But both math and music are intangibles; you can’t see or touch them, which makes them more like one another than other aspects of reality.

As the article points out:

“They’ve found that children that listen to music do better at math, because math and music both use the brain in similar ways. The best music is analytical and pattern-filled and mathematics has a lot of aesthetics to it. They complement each other well.”

Also, further evidence that the Beatles were geniuses.