|Triumph over Fate|
Manfred Overture, Op. 115
The arch-Romantic Robert Schumann was captivated by the poetry of Lord Byron, in particular with the gloomy self-indulgent poem Manfred. The poem has no real plot or action. Rather, it describes a Faustian anti-hero consumed by guilt over an unnamed sin involving his half-sister, Astarte. Manfred conjures seven ghosts to cast a spell of forgetfulness, but they cannot change the past, and he commits suicide by jumping off the Jungfrau. (Byron himself was forced to flee England because of a scandal over his incestuous affair with his own half-sister, Augusta Leigh; the poem was written shortly thereafter.) Not surprisingly, the poem appealed also to Tchaikovsky – tortured by his own sexual conflicts – who used it as the inspiration for his Manfred Symphony.
In 1848-49 Schumann composed an overture, 15 accompanied recitations and choruses for the poem. The overture, which was first performed and published in 1852, is the only segment currently in the repertoire. The rest of the music has rarely been performed, mainly because of the questionable value and lack of drama of the text. From the start, Schumann considered the overture one of his most successful orchestral works, “one of the finest of my brain-children.” Among his other “brain-children” at the time of its composition were auditory hallucinations, manifestations of the mental disorder that led to his confinement and death.
The music begins with a slow introduction, which claims nearly a minute to settle into a key, and is a piece of harmonic tone painting representing Manfred’s unresolved guilt. It highlights Manfred’s brooding nature and leads into an Allegro labeled, “In a passionate tempo.” The overture’s narrative quality is apparent in sudden shifts in tempo, but Schumann holds it together by developing a few central musical ideas. After the slow introduction, Schumann introduces two principal melodies, but there are also substantial and evocative transitional passages.
Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 29
Edward MacDowell is the first American composer of concert music to gain wide acceptance in Europe. Born in New York, he moved with his family to Paris and, later, Germany so that he could receive European training in both piano and composition. Influenced by the German late Romantic tradition, his music reflects the language of one of his main supporters, Franz Liszt, then the resident guru in Weimar, and that of his composition teacher in Frankfurt, the composer Joachim Raff. MacDowell returned to the United States in 1888 teaching, composing and performing his own music. In 1896 he was appointed as the first Professor of Music at Columbia University but resigned in 1904 amidst a growing public conflict with the university administration. He died four years later from complications of neurosyphilis.
MacDowell was active in the founding and promotion of several academic societies, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy in Rome, which are still flourishing. At the end of his life, MacDowell founded an artists’ colony at his summer residence in Peterborough, New Hampshire that remains a haven for emerging and established artists in all fields to pursue their work in this quiet retreat.
MacDowell’s unabashedly romantic music, especially his many songs, was popular around the turn of the century. But his popularity faded quickly and today his music is seldom heard. The Second Piano Concerto, composed in Germany in 1884-86 and premiered by the composer in New York in 1889, became his most popular orchestral work. It is a virtuosic work, with many technically demanding episodes, especially in the first movement, where they alternate with melancholy lyrical passages. The influence of Liszt is apparent throughout.
The concerto opens with a slow introduction for the orchestra followed the piano entrance with majestic chords and swooping double arpeggios. It is quintessentially Romantic music of the sort that later shows up in mid-twentieth-century film scores of Erich Korngold. ( The expected Allegro is a long time coming. MacDowell’s phrase structure is notable in that he creates themes that turn back on themselves into a chain that has the potential to go on forever as in the first theme – and sometimes does, as in the second. Usually, the piano writing is separated from the orchestra, as if the young composer was not sure how to balance the two in order to showcase the soloist in Lisztian pyrotechnics. Surprisingly, the movement comes to a quiet close.
The structure of the Concerto is unusual in that the second movement replaces the customary Andante or Adagio with a delicate rondo, more characteristic of a finale. The rondo theme alternates between two episodes, which are based on the same theme but allow for the soloist to display increasingly flashy bravura.
The last movement presents a somewhat structurally and emotionally chaotic journey of tempo changes and melodic ideas. The anticlimactic ending of the first movement clearly signaled that the composer must have more to say, and the finale takes up some old issues, redefines them and moves on to some new ones generally as a series of melodies and a short piano riff on each one. It begins with a stormy Allegro theme from the opening of the Concerto, now slowed to a menacing Largo followed by the romantic piano introduction, also from the first movement – both of them considerably shortened. This reprise serves as an introduction that finally takes off into a majestic Allegro theme reminiscent of Schumann and Tchaikovsky. Then everything halts for an alarming pianistic recitative. But the ominous announcement turns out to have been something of an overstatement, and MacDowell follows it up with a cheery melody. In yet another theme, the cellos demand a piece of the action in this Concerto, taken up by the rest of the orchestra and finally, the piano. The Concerto concludes with trumpets blasting out the “Schumann” theme and the expected flourishes for a coda.
In reviewing the Concerto as a whole, it is clear that the young composer was aiming at something different from the usual bravura piece in sonata allegro and ABA forms. Like his mentor, however, in addition to the plethora of themes, he takes a stab at Lisztian thematic transformation when he recasts the melodies from the first movement to the finale.
Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61
No other composer symbolized the Romantic Movement in music as did Robert Schumann. Talented both in music and literature, as a music critic and publisher of Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, he was the principal spokesperson for the Romantic ideal and the future of music. He was a true elitist, pitting “us,” the enlightened (the Davidsbündler), against “them,” the masses, whom he termed the Philistines. The latter appellation has, in fact, remained part of the international elitist vocabulary.
Schumann was emotionally unstable and suffered from repeated severe bipolar episodes as well as neurosyphilis. Together the diseases undermined his health, and at 44 he made an unsuccessful suicide attempt by casting himself into the Rhine. He died two years later in an asylum. His beloved wife, Clara, a brilliant concert pianist for whom he felt an underlying professional envy, supported their eight children for the rest of her long life with a relentless series of concert tours.
In the summer of 1844, after returning from an arduous concert tour to Russia, Schumann suffered a nervous breakdown that left him barely able to work. By the end of the following year, he managed to finish the Piano Concerto and in a sudden rush of inspiration sketched out his Symphony No. 2 in a few days in December. Nevertheless, it took him ten more months to flesh out the sketch and orchestrate it. He finished it on October 19, just in time for the premiere in Leipzig on November 5 under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn. In a letter to a colleague Schumann wrote: “I wrote my symphony in December 1845, while still in a semi-invalid state; it appears to me that one can hear this from the music. I began to feel more like myself when I wrote the last movement, and was certainly much better when I finished the whole work. All the same it reminds me of dark times.”
The unusually long, slow introduction to the Symphony combines and interweaves two contrasting themes, recalling Schumann’s contrasting state of mind at the time: a slow horn fanfare combined with a dark and uncertain theme on the strings. There follows a brief duet for the oboes in a transformation of the opening horn call that will recur throughout the movement and even later in the Symphony. The Introduction includes an unorthodox acceleration in tempo, designed to maximize the musical tension until the audience is on the edge of their seats. One of the most interesting features of this symphony is the way in which Schumann incorporates the motivic material from the Introduction into the Allegro. The tempo and tension of the introduction increase until the aggressive main allegro theme erupts, immediately incorporating the oboe duet from the introduction. That little motive will come to dominate a good chunk of the development. The allegro themes also get a heavy workout, and the movement ends with a coda that incorporates all the themes, including a triumphant statement of the opening horn theme – now blasting out on a trumpet.
The following Scherzo continues the battle of the contrasting moods. The scherzo theme is extremely agitated – perhaps reflecting the composer's mania. He then repeats his innovation from his “Spring” Symphony (No.1), in having two contrasting trios: the first lively and staccato, the second legato and dreamy. A reprise of the Scherzo separates the two trios. The runaway coda repeats the horn call from the first movement. Those who doubt a psychological interpretation of the musical material need only venture into Schumann’s writings and his early piano music, especially Carnaval, where Schumann devotes two of the movements to the manic and contemplative aspects of his own personality, actually giving them names, Florestan and Eusebius, respectively
The third movement is one of Schumann’s most moving utterances. Marked Adagio espressivo, it is based on a single passionate melody introduced on the violins and immediately picked up by a solo oboe and combined first with the bassoon, then with the other woodwinds and the strings. But it is the motive created by the opening four notes, with their intense unresolved pathos that the composer dwells on, continually returning to it in the course of the movement, often using different pitches but retaining the same languorous sighing shape. Orchestrating this intense movement sapped Schumann’s emotional energy and he had to put the symphony aside for an extended rest. As he wrote to a friend in a letter accompanying the manuscript, “it will tell you of many joys and sorrows.” Schumann spent much of his convalescent time in 1845 intensively studying the music of Bach, and musical scholars have noted the similarity between Schumann's Adagio theme and the main theme from the first movement of the Trio Sonata from Bach's A Musical Offering. Since Schumann was fond of musical anagrams symbolism and allusions in many of his works – some have even found Bach's name spelled out musical pitches hidden in the second Trio of the Scherzo – the theory is certainly possible.
After the heart-felt Adagio, the Finale bursts forth with a joyous voice, corresponding to Schumann’s statement that he was feeling himself again. It is extremely unusual for its time, not corresponding to any of the classical structures for symphonic movements. In sharp contrast to the monothematic Adagio, the Finale consists of a series of themes, the next one a scurrying episode including the return of an old friend, a cameo reappearance, a transformation of the Adagio melody and another one, this time in inversion (upside down) Later on, a new melody appears, which Schumann spends considerable time developing, topping it off with a reprise of the oboe duet from the first movement and then triumphal rendition of the horn call from the first movement. Through this culminating statement of the two motives, we finally receive the clinching evidence that, indeed, they are really transformations of the same musical idea, connected by their rhythm.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017|