Schumann: Overture to Byron’s Manfred, Opus 115 │ Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Opus 97, Rhenish

Robert Schumann was born in Zwickau, Saxony (Germany), on June 8, 1810, and died in an insane asylum at Endenich, near Bonn, on July 29, 1856. He wrote music for Byron’s Manfredin 1848-49 and conducted the first performance of the overture at a Leipzig Gewandhaus concert on March 14, 1852. The overture was first heard in the United States when Carl Bergmann conducted it at the City Assembly Rooms, New York, on April 27, 1856. The San Francisco Symphony first performed the work under the direction of Alfred Hertz in December 1921. The most recent performances, in February 2006, were conducted by Alan Gilbert. The score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, with four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about twelve minutes.

Schumann composed his Symphony No. 3 between November 2 and December 9, 1850, conducting its premiere himself at Düsseldorf on February 6, 1851. It came to the United States ten years later, when Theodor Eisfeld led it at a New York Philharmonic concert on February 2, 1861. Henry Hadley conducted the first San Francisco Symphony performance in November 1914; the most recent performances were given under Michael Tilson Thomas’s direction in May 2010. Schumann’s score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones (in the fourth and fifth movements only), timpani, and strings. Performance time: about thirty minutes.

Manfred Overture

Of English poets, only Shakespeare ever became more popular abroad than Byron, and Byron’s impact went beyond the literary world. His turbulent life, his death as a fighter in the cause of Greek independence, his singular and complicated sexual radiance, all made him a fascinating figure. That his death inspired one of the most rapturously lyric episodes in the Faust of the octogenarian Goethe tells its own story. “Byronic” became one of the great European adjectives.

Byron began Manfred,a dramatic poem in three acts, in the summer of 1816 (he was then twenty-eight) and completed it in April 1817. In 1811he had met his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, for the first time since boyhood; it is generally believed that he was the father of the daughter she bore in 1814. He had just extricated himself from an exhausting liaison with Lady Caroline Lamb, whose husband would, as Viscount Melbourne, be Queen Victoria’s first prime minister and her coach in queenship. From the frying pan Byron fell into the fire, that is to say into a disastrous, short-lived marriage to Lady Caroline’s cousin by marriage, Annabelle Milbanke, whose innocence turned out to be humorlessness and whose sensitivity was soon unmasked as priggish touchiness. The Byrons had a daughter—Ada Augusta—in December 1815.In January the new mother went to visit her parents; two weeks later her father sent word that she would not be returning. Rumors about Byron’s relations with Augusta Leigh flew everywhere, public adoration turned into public opprobrium. Humiliated, broke, above all enraged, Byron left England on April 25, 1816. He never returned.

He headed up the Rhine into Switzerland, joined the Shelleys at their house near Geneva (the eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley was working on Frankenstein), and immediately found himself in an affair with Mary’s half-sister Claire, who bore him a third daughter, Allegra, in January 1817. A walking tour through the Bernese Alps gave him the physical setting for Manfred,Gothic novels like Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto formed the literary background, and his own life provided the material.

Manfred lives alone in an Alpine castle, tormented by guilt for “some half-maddening sin” that he does not name, but whose nature we can guess, especially when we know something about Byron himself: “—my blood! the pure warm stream / Which ran in the veins of my fathers, and in ours / When we were in our youth, and had one heart / And loved each other as we should not love. . . .” And later: “She was like me in lineaments—her eyes / Her hair, her features, all, to the very tone / Even of her voice, they said were like to mine; . . . / I loved her, and destroy’d her!”

Manfred summons the spirits of the universe, but they cannot give him the oblivion he wants. He attempts suicide, but a hunter saves him. He calls the Witch of the Alps and with her help visits the underworld. There he encounters the shade of his sister, Astarte, who tells him only that “to-morrow ends thy earthly ills.” He refuses to acknowledge the power of the evil spirits through whom Astarte’s ghost was called up, both then and when they come for him on the morrow. He has also rejected the pleas of an abbot to repent. His last words, “Old man! ’tis not so difficult to die,” are spoken to the abbot as he expires.

Schumann was one of the thousands whom Byron fascinated. The composer’s first biographer recalled hearing Schumann read aloud from Manfred:“His voice suddenly failed him, tears started from his eyes, and he was so overcome that he could read no further.” Had Schumann, himself such a museum of sexual neuroses, had any idea of what lay behind Byron’s poem he would have been too scandalized to touch it; as it was, he was ready to respond to its sense of overwhelming sorrow and its highly colored Romantic language. He noted that never before had he devoted himself “with such love and outlay of force to any composition as to that of Manfred.

The incidental music for Manfred—and there is more than an hour’s worth of it—is some of Schumann’s most imaginative and intensely felt work. It is a mindlessly repeated commonplace that Schumann was no good at writing for orchestra, but the Manfred Overture is a marvelously imagined, superlatively accomplished piece of scoring—hear, for example, the economical and stunningly effective use of the trombones—with a characteristic sound all its own. Three agitated chords, rhythmically notated so as to generate maximum tension in performance, compel our attention to a dark and winding introduction. Gradually this becomes an impassioned, broadly laid out quick movement. This in turn falls back to the tempo and mood of the opening, the pacing of this retransition being accomplished with complete mastery. Schumann even asks that the rest following the last chord be extended—so that even the final silence is, so to speak, composed in.

Symphony No. 3, Rhenish

More than a natural phenomenon, the Rhine has been a political object and the cradle of legend and poetry, and, though it rises in Switzerland and drains into the North Sea in the Netherlands, the Germans have always thought of the river as their own.

Schumann and the Rhineland were new to each other in 1850. Except for a period of study at Heidelberg, a winter in Vienna, and occasional travels with his wife, Clara, he had lived in his native Saxony all his life. When his friend Ferdinand Hiller left his conducting post in Düsseldorf, he proposed Schumann as his successor. On March 31, 1850, Schumann formally accepted his appointment as Düsseldorf’s Municipal Music Director. When he arrived that September, he had much to look forward to. The Düsseldorfers did everything they could to make their new music director feel welcome, unleashing an exhausting round of speeches, serenades, celebratory concerts, banquets, and balls. Robert’s creative energies were not to be suppressed, and in just fifteen October days he composed his Cello Concerto. The day he finished it he conducted the first of his ten subscription concerts. But the Düsseldorf venture would quickly turn into disaster. Clearly unequal to the requirements of his position, Schumann was asked to resign in October 1852. The matter was smoothed over for the moment, but a year later he had conducted his last concert. Always subject to depressions and the survivor of more than one suicide attempt, Schumann threw himself into the Rhine on February 27, 1854, being rescued and committed into Dr. Richarz’s hospital at Endenich, where he died two and a half years later. But all that is another story. The Rhenish Symphony, which Schumann composed between November 2 and December 9, 1850, reflects his optimism in the face of new challenges and a fresh start among a people more outgoing than any he had known and whose ebullience de­lighted him.

Schumann begins with one of his most glorious themes, a forward-thrusting idea, part of whose energy is in its artful cross rhythm. The tension generated at the outset pervades the entire movement, and the opening theme itself is never absent for long. The spirit of the movement, characterized by minimal contrast and relaxation, is signature Schumann, as is the highly individual touch of introducing new material at the end.

The Scherzo is an agreeably galumphing country dance, with a secondary idea shared by the main part of the movement and its rather brooding trio. “Morning on the Rhine” was Schumann’s original title for the Scherzo. The pace relaxes still more for the next piece. It is not really a slow movement, but something more by way of a middle-tempo intermezzo, an original genre with Schumann.

Then comes the symphony’s first truly slow music. In September 1850, the Schumanns made the thirty-mile trip to Cologne to witness the installation of Cardinal Archbishop von Geissel in the cathedral. Schumann was stunned by this, the largest Gothic building in northern Europe, and he was excited by the splendor of the ceremony. The fourth movement of the Rhenish Symphony is his musical monument to a building that was almost as much a national totem as the river by which it stands. He reserves the sound of trombones for this tone picture and (with effective restraint) for the finale. This fifth movement begins by being uncomplicatedly cheery; only gradually does it reveal itself as a kind of extension or completion of the cathedral section. As it moves to its brilliant close, it makes allusion as well to the symphony’s opening.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: For the Overture—Rafael Kubelík and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG Double)  |  George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony Classical Masterworks) |  Christian Thielemann and the Philharmonia Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)

For the Symphony—Marek Janowski conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (ASV)  |  Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Bamberg Symphony (Virgin)  |  Rafael Kubelík with the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Wolfgang Sawallisch with the Dresden Staatskapelle (EMI Great Recordings of the Century)

Reading: Robert Schumann: Herald of a “New Poetic Age,” by John Daverio (Oxford)  |  Schumann: The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius, by Peter Ostwald (Northeastern)  |  Robert Schumann,by Ronald Taylor (Granada)  |  Schumann in the Master Musicians series, by Eric Frederick Jensen (Oxford)  |  Get to know Schumann through his own words in Robert Schumann on Music and Musicians, edited by Konrad Wolff and translated by Paul Rosenfeld (Norton).