About this Recording
8.571214 - SCHUMANN, R.: Manfred: Overture / Piano Concerto, Op. 54 / Overture, Scherzo and Finale (Davidovich, Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)

Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Manfred Overture • Piano Concerto in A minor • Overture, Scherzo and Finale


Robert Schumann was one of a number of composers—Chopin, Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner are others—who gave musical voice to the Romantic sensibility that blossomed during the second quarter of the 19th century. Born in 1810 at Zwickau, a town in what is now the eastern part of Germany, Schumann came of age with the first cresting of the Romantic tide, and his music is imbued with the passionate spirit of his time. Highly expressive melodies and harmonies, together with unfailing musical momentum, account for much of the Romantic feeling in this composer’s works. But Schumann also had a keen appreciation for classical compositional principles, and his pieces always are thoughtful and skillfully crafted.

Although he made music his profession, Schumann was a very literate person and often drew inspiration from the writers of his day. Among these was the English poet Lord Byron, whose verses epitomize the Romantic spirit. Schumann was drawn especially to Byron’s verse drama Manfred. Byron wrote Manfred in 1816, shortly after reading Goethe’s Faust, which clearly influenced it. In his poem, Byron relates the story of Count Manfred, scion of a Swiss noble family. Like Faust, he has gained esoteric knowledge and power but also, as a result, vast misery. Byron’s poem touches on several favorite themes of 19thcentury Romanticism: the supernatural, the yearning for transcendent knowledge, and the hero condemned to a solitary existence and great suffering.

In 1848–49, Schumann created a music-theater piece using a German translation of Byron’s text. Shortly after finishing it, he told a friend: “I have never devoted myself to a composition with such love and energy as I have to Manfred”. While Schumann’s complete Manfred is rarely performed, its overture has found a life of its own as concert piece. Indeed, it is one the composer’s strongest orchestral works. The music begins with a slow introductory passage which contains the thematic seeds of the entire composition. From the yearnings of this prologue emerges the wind-swept melody that is the overture’s principal theme. This melody propels the agitated main body of the work. But before closing, Schumann returns to the slow tempo and elusive harmonies of the opening, and the piece concludes on a note of tragic resignation.

Schumann’s marriage was the most important such relationship of any major composer. Clara Schumann, née Clara Wieck, was a highly accomplished musician—one of the great pianists of her time and a more than competent composer. As a wife, she provided support and understanding to her husband. As a pianist, she championed his music, performing it widely during his lifetime and afterwards. Schumann wrote a number of compositions with Clara’s superb playing in mind. Of these, none is more closely associated with her than his Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op 54.

This work underwent a long creative process. Schumann evidently began thinking of writing a piano concerto as early as 1833, but years went by without any of it appearing. In 1839, he told Clara, who was now his fiancée, that he would dedicate the concerto to her, yet two more years passed before he managed to complete its first movement. Even with this accomplished, the work remained stalled, and at one point Schumann tried to publish the movement he had written as an independent piece. (That attempt came to naught.) Not until 1845 did he compose the remaining two movements, thereby finishing the concerto. Clara gave the first performance in December 1845, in Dresden, and subsequently played the work in Leipzig (with Mendelssohn conducting), Vienna, Prague and elsewhere. In light of both her keyboard mastery and her devotion to her husband and his music, we can safely say that Schumann was fortunate in having such a fine interpreter of this work.

As he did in each of his four symphonies, Schumann links the concerto’s three movements with subtle thematic echoes. A sharp orchestral stroke and a series of cascading chords from the piano brings us to the principal theme of the first movement, begun by the orchestral winds and completed by the soloist. Several subsidiary ideas follow, taking us to the point in the movement where we should expect a second, contrasting subject. But instead of a new theme, Schumann presents a variation of his first melody, now transposed to a bright major key. With the importance of this idea now firmly established, Schumann goes on to vary and develop it, deriving most of the movement from this single theme. He also composed the solo instrument’s cadenza, which explores further the movement’s thematic materials.

Schumann builds the second movement on the modest theme heard at the outset. Although this is a new idea, its signature motif of four ascending notes stems from the principal melody of the first movement. A more explicit reprise of that melody, and of the falling chords of the concerto’s initial measures, concludes this movement and leads directly into the finale. Here, too, the main subject is related to that of the first movement. This evinces an economical use of musical material. But Schumann does not mean to be parsimonious with his melodic ideas, and we find the initial theme accompanied by a generous series of complementary subjects. The composer now proceeds to use this varied material in fashioning an exceptionally satisfying closing movement.

1841, the year Schumann completed the first movement of his Piano Concerto, saw the composer immersed in orchestral composition. Between late January and the middle of February he wrote a symphony, his first work of this kind, and he composed another between the end of May and mid-September. He also sketched parts of yet another symphony, and though he eventually abandoned this work, some of its ideas made their ways into subsequent compositions. Were all this not enough, he wrote a concert overture in April and quickly followed this with what he described as a “scherzo to the overture”. Not long afterwards, the composer produced another movement, which he called a finale.

These three pieces might have served as the opening movement, scherzo and finale of a symphony, and Schumann had only to add a slow movement to create such a work in the traditional four-movement format. Why he failed to do so is unclear. Initially he spoke of the three pieces as a “suite,” and latter as a “symphonette”. Finally he settled on a composite title that describes them matter-of-factly: Overture, Scherzo and Finale.

Typically of symphonic openings and concert overtures alike, the first movement begins with an introductory section in slow tempo. Here Schumann juxtaposes mournful phrases with others of rough character, the latter sounding in the low strings. Each of these melodic ideas reappears during the fast-paced main body of the movement, where Schumann alters them to sound brighter and considerably more genial than when we first heard them. Indeed, contrary to the tone of the introduction, this portion of the Overture gives us Schumann at his most ebullient.

Rhythmic energy often animates Schumann’s music. The ensuing Scherzo serves as a case in point. A rhythmic motif that is identical to one that Beethoven employed in his Seventh Symphony runs obsessively throughout this piece. Only in the central episode, or “Trio,” does Schumann relent and turn to a more even, flowing pulse. The composer returns briefly to the “Trio” music near the close of the movement, but the Scherzo’s signature rhythm has the last word.

The Finale begins with a theme given out as a series of phrases overlapping in counterpoint. This opening offers the prospect of a highly vigorous movement, and Schumann gives us exactly that. The music progresses through varied developments to an exciting climax that brings forth a ringing anthem.

Paul Schiavo

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