Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composer and the pieces

Robert Schumann
Overture to Genoveva
Piano Concerto
Symphony No. 2

Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann was a giant among German Romantic composers in the first half of the Nineteenth Century, along with Ludwig von Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Carl Maria von Weber, and Felix Mendelssohn. He idolized Schubert, knew Frederic Chopin, was a friend of Mendelssohn and Johannes Brahms, and married one of the era’s great pianists, Clara Wieck. He was considered the poet among the German Romantics, not only because many of his pieces were inspired by literary sources, but also because the music itself was poetic. Donald Tovey referred to Schumann’s music as “pretty,” though Edward Elgar, a composer born a year after Schumann died, more fittingly called him “my ideal.” He was deemed a miniaturist because his early work was mostly for piano, song, and chamber ensembles, but he wrote many works for orchestra and chorus. His orchestration has long been criticized as unsophisticated, pianistic, and filled with too much wind doubling. Many conductors tinkered with those scores, Mahler to the point of producing his own Schumann edition. In fact, Schumann had his own sound, which emerged from his lyricism, angular melodic shapes, tangy harmonies, and even his orchestration.

Robert Alexander Schumann (1810–1856) was born in Zwickau, Saxony in eastern Germany. His father, August Schumann, was a bookseller, publisher, novelist, and translator known for his German editions of Walter Scott and Lord Byron. It was from August’s library that Robert’s interest in literature was nurtured by writers like Schiller, Goethe, and Byron. He also took piano lessons from an early age, but the real spark for music was struck when the nine-year old youth attended a performance by pianist Ignaz Moscheles. When he was ten, he enrolled in the Zwickau Gymnasium (high school) where he composed short pieces and read and wrote novels and essays. His father was sympathetic to Robert’s musical interests, but the plan to arrange for his son to study with Weber was thwarted by Weber’s death in what turned out to be a tragic 1826. August also died, and Robert’s sister committed suicide.

A year later, Robert visited Dresden where he discovered the writings of Jean Paul and the music of Schubert. After graduation in 1828, he went to Leipzig to study law. The idea was to satisfy his deceased father’s will that he pursue an academic degree. Instead, Robert spent most of his time reading, composing, writing novels, and taking piano lessons with Friedrich Wieck (in the process, meeting Wieck’s nine year-old daughter, Clara, a piano prodigy). After a year, he followed a friend to the Heidelberg law school, where he repeated most of his Leipzig pattern while discovering Paganini and completing his Opus 1, Abegg Variations (1830) for piano. By then, he knew he wanted to pursue music as a career, so he enlisted Wieck’s aid in convincing his mother to allow him to do so. Despite misgivings over the boy’s indulgences and work habits, Wieck convinced Schumann’s mother that her son could be a great pianist.

Robert returned to Leipzig as a live-in student in Wieck’s house, but two months later Clara and her father went on a European concert tour, with another one planned for later in 1831. Realizing that Wieck’s main interest was his daughter’s career, Robert moved out and sought other instruction, finally settling for theory lessons from Heinrich Dorn. He continued composing and also wrote a novel, some of whose characters were based on people in his life. Two others, Florestan and Eusebius, famously represented the outgoing and inward aspects of his personality and appeared in later writings.

In 1832, serious problems to his right hand put an end to his ambitions as a pianist, and led Robert by default to his true callings of composer and writer. He soon published several works, including his Zwickau Symphony (1833) that was performed twice but never finished. In the spring of 1833, he moved to Leipzig, then to the Bergstrasse district, where a fever led to mental instability and fears of going mad. The deaths of his sister-in-law and brother pushed him into suicidal ideation, but a friendship with composer Ludwig Schunke helped him recover enough to compose such works as Études Symphoniques and Piano Sonata No. 2 in 1834. (Schunke’s death later that year was another severe blow.) That same year, Schumann helped found the journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which became a platform for his writing. He also became engaged to a Wieck piano student named Ernestine von Fricken. That ended soon after Robert and fifteen-year-old Clara Wieck got together after she returned to Leipzig from a tour. When her father learned of the relationship, he made things difficult for them. At one point Robert and Clara thought of moving to Vienna, but that plan was never realized. In 1839, another Schumann brother died, and for a while it appeared Robert would quit composing and take over the family’s publishing business. Clara was on tour at the time and had developed misgivings of her own about Robert. Their relationship nearly came apart, but it healed enough for them to declare a formal engagement. Wieck’s refusal to grant them permission (Clara was still a minor) led to lengthy legal maneuverings that, combined with the loss of another close friend, pushed Robert into depression. After their legal problems were surmounted, the couple married one day before Clara would have come of age at age 21. Three years later, Wieck finally made peace with the couple.

Amid these dramas, Robert feverishly composed Fantasy in C (1836, rev. 1839), Davidsbündlertänze and Phantasiestücke (1837); Kinderszenen, Kreisleriana, and Novelletten (1838). Arabeske and Humoreske followed in 1839. In 1840, his emotions stirred up over Clara induced him to compose nearly 140 songs, including Myrthen, the two Liederkreise, Dichterliebe, and Frauenliebe und Leben.

The Schumanns’ marriage was one of parallel careers. While Robert was a composer, Clara was a recognized virtuoso who provided the family’s financial support (they had eight children, with one dying an infant), shored up Robert’s emotional state, and exerted a strong influence on his composing. It was her urging that led Robert to write for orchestra. The immediate result was Symphony No. 1; Overture, Scherzo and Finale; and the Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra. A symphony in D-Minor was set aside, to reappear years later.

Not everything went smoothly, however. When touring together in 1842, Robert felt overshadowed by Clara’s fame, and returned alone to Leipzig to run Neue Zeitschrift. Things righted themselves upon Clara’s return, and Robert began composing chamber music. The result was three string quartets, a piano quartet, and what may be classical music’s first piano quintet—all masterpieces.

In 1843, Robert’s compositional focus switched to opera, for which he reprised a score begun two years earlier. The result was Das Paradies und die Peri (Paradise and the Peri), an oratorio whose lack of initial success may have been due in part to Schumann’s weak début as a conductor. In 1844, the Schumanns toured Russia. Again, Robert felt slighted and returned alone to Leipzig, in a foul mood and in ill health. Giving up the editorship of Neue Zeitschrift gave him the urge to try opera again (setting Goethe’s Faust), but his health deteriorated, with a breakdown filled with fears of death, insanity, vertigo, and sharp metal objects, plus tinnitus, weakness, and depression.

Symphony No. 2. Taking the advice of Robert’s doctor, the Schumanns moved in 1845 to Dresden where the composer had known happier times. He recovered enough to write a symphony that can be heard as a diary of his recovery. It did not come easily, and its orchestration took many months. Mendelssohn conducted the premiere in 1846, but its indifferent reception induced Schumann to make revisions, most notably adding trombones to inject a touch of majesty. A second performance was better received, and the revised score was published as Symphony No. 2.

The first movement of the symphony is in sonata form, but begins with a Bach-like chorale in the brass, played softly over a dark flowing river of strings. That brass “motto” is heard in other movements, particularly the finale. Two more themes are introduced in the faster music of the exposition. The first is one of nervous angular dotted rhythms. The second, more flowing but still nervous idea, with phrases beginning off the beat, dominates the development.

The Scherzo’s main sections can be interpreted as happy and gay, or as wild, yet focused and relentless. The two trios provide a marked contrast. The first is light and jaunty, the second is hymnlike, and the motto bursts out powerfully at the end. The gorgeous Adagio is nostalgic, nocturnal, and restful, with yearning expressed in its sighing intervals. Its middle section is a fugato, with the “walking” subject carried into the return of the main theme. The Finale is an exhilarating testimony to Schumann’s recovery. The rhythm of the first theme is dotted, as in the first movement, but here it is triumphant and determined rather than nervous. Its second theme is taken from the opening of the Adagio, but it is more flowing and lacks the tang of the original harmony. The motto returns victoriously at the end.

Piano Concerto in A Minor was the product of Clara’s advice to expand the one-movement Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra into a concerto. Schumann did so by adding two movements. Clara played the premiere in Dresden in December 1845 and continued promoting the work throughout her career.

The work is now considered one of the great piano concertos, but many in Schumann’s time found it lacking in melody. Others wanted more solo pyrotechnics, but Schumann was no advocate of fireworks. The piano carries much of the argument. The orchestra is a willing adversary, but much of its writing is in the style of chamber music.

The first movement is based on an opening theme that Schumann treats by varying keys, meters, rhythms, and speeds. (Some believe its first notes signify the Italian spelling of Clara.) The second theme is a modulated figure drawn out of the first. Schumann wrote the cadenza, probably to assure that no performer-written cadenza would overpower the work’s poetry. The tender Intermezzo begins with dialogue between soloist and orchestra, and a melody in the cellos emerges from that. After the opening theme is recalled in the woodwinds, the finale begins without pause. It takes its theme and subthemes from the work’s opening and treats them with clever rhythms and syncopation. After one last new idea, the coda ends triumphantly.

Overture to Genoveva. Opera was difficult for German Romantic symphonists. Only Beethoven’s Fidelio was a success. None of Schubert’s operas took hold, Mendelssohn never seriously grappled with the form, and Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri and a plan for Goethe’s Faust turned into oratorios. His only opera, Genoveva (1848), is based on the medieval tale of Geneviève de Brabant, a subject he settled on after a long search. Schumann wrote the libretto, based on texts by Hebbel and Tieck. The plot begins after Genoveva’s husband goes to war, and Genoveva spurns the advances of Golo, her husband’s servant. Golo sentences her to death, but her executioners take her to the woods and leave her there. Years later, her husband finds her hiding in a cave and they enjoy a rapturous reunion. Genoveva is a far more warm and lyrical work than its story suggests, but it was more poetry than drama, and it never entered the repertoire. (Its long delayed debut in 1850, forcing it to compete with Wagner’s Lohengrin, did not help.) Genoveva conjures Weber’s spirits and forests, but it was one of the first through-composed operas, without recitative or spoken dialogue.

The overture tells its tale in sonata form. A mysterious introduction sets the stage. The first theme is a strong one in the violins; the second is a hunting figure in the horns. The drama plays out in the development, resolves in the recapitulation, and concludes with horn calls, an exhilarating chase, and a triumphant coda.

After completing the Incidental Music to Manfred in 1849, Schumann moved to Düsseldorf in 1850 as its Director of Music. In Düsseldorf, the Schumanns met and befriended the violinist Joseph Joachim and the young Johannes Brahms, whom they recognized as a genius. Robert’s health began to decline in 1852, but he continued composing, essentially through 1853, the year he was dismissed from his director’s position. Early in 1854, he began an intervallic, but complete mental breakdown that included a suicide attempt by jumping off a bridge into the Rhine. He was rescued by a fisherman, and finally sent to an asylum where he spent his final years. His doctors prevented Clara from seeing him—though Brahms did several times—until two days before he died on July 29, 1856. Among his many last works were the Cello Concerto, the stirring and underrated Julius Caesar Overture, Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish”), Missa Sacra and the Requiem. After her husband’s death, the grief-stricken Clara soldiered on, tirelessly promoting Robert’s music and supporting her family. She performed until 1891 and died in 1896, after a difficult but full life. Robert Schumann, like Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn, was lost to the world well before his time.

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra, Lowell House Opera, and Bay Colony Brass (where he is the Operations/Personnel Manager). He is a former member of the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony. He is a regular reviewer for American Record Guide, contributed to Classical Music: Listener’s Companion, and has written articles on music for the Elgar Society Journal and Positive Feedback magazine. His latest fiction collection, The Audition and Other Stories, includes a novella about a trombonist preparing for and taking a major orchestra audition (English Hill Press, 2013).

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