Robert Schumann was born in Zwickau, Saxony (Germany), on June 8, 1810, and died in an insane asylum at Endenich, near Bonn, Germany, on July 29, 1856. He composed his opera Genoveva in 1847-48, with the Overture falling at the beginning of the span; it was sketched in April 1847 and orchestrated at the end of the year, from December 17-26. The opera was premiered on June 25, 1850, in Leipzig, Saxony, with Schumann conducting; but by that time the Overture had already received concert performances in Leipzig and Hamburg, with Schumann leading the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in the world premiere on February 25, 1850. Alfred Hertz led the first San Francisco Symphony performances in November 1919; the most recent SFS performances, conducted by Neeme Järvi, were in November 1982. The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about nine minutes.
Schumann composed his Piano Concerto from late May through July 31, 1845, drawing partly on material composed in 1841. The first movement was originally conceived as a stand-alone Concert Phantasie, which was first played in a private run-through by Clara Schumann and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, with Felix Mendelssohn conducting, on August 13, 1841. The complete three-movement work was premiered on December 4, 1845, in Dresden, with Clara Schumann as soloist and with Ferdinand Hiller (the work’s dedicatee) conducting. The US premiere was given on March 26, 1859, at Niblo’s Gardens in New York City by Sebastian Bach Mills, with the New York Philharmonic under Carl Bergmann. Harold Bauer was the soloist in the first San Francisco Symphony performances of the concerto in December 1917, with Alfred Hertz conducting. In the most recent performances, in January 2011, Hélène Grimaud was soloist and Kirill Karabits conducted. The score calls for an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about thirty minutes.
Like Beethoven before him, Robert Schumann was often stimulated by intentions to write an opera but only once managed to fulfill that goal. In his case the opera was Genoveva, which met with very moderate success in its time and has never threatened to elbow its way into the mainstream repertory, notwithstanding the excitement generated by its occasional revivals.
It is no surprise that Schumann felt inspired to try his hand at opera, the domain in which literary and musical pursuits coalesce on the largest scale. He was born into a thoroughly literary world, his father being a bookseller and lexicographer who founded a publishing house, penned novels about chivalric romance, and produced commercially successful translations of Scott, Byron, and Shakespeare. It seemed as if Robert would also follow a literary path when, already as a teenager, he turned out a profusion of poetry, German literary translations (mostly from Latin and Greek verse), essays, biographical sketches, and dramatic scenes. Even after he committed himself to a musical career he continued to find outlets for literary pursuits, most notably by producing a distinguished body of music criticism and by co-founding (in 1834) and for nearly a decade editing the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, an essential forum for esthetic news and criticism.
Already at the age of twenty Schumann was fired up by the idea of composing an operatic version of Hamlet. This never came to fruition, and neither did dozens of other subjects that waft through his diaries and correspondence as possibilities during ensuing years. A common thread that winds through this list of fifty-odd non-starters is that nearly all of them involve texts of acknowledged literary status, including the Nibelungenlied, the tales of Till Eulenspiegel, the love stories of Tristan and Isolde and of Abélard and Héloïse, the legends of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet, Schiller’s Mary Stuart, Byron’s The Corsair, and Goethe’s Faust (which eventually did take form as the dramatic oratorio Szenen aus Goethes Faust).
Near the end of March 1847, the Schumanns—Robert; his wife, Clara, the eminent pianist; and their two oldest children—returned to their home in Dresden from a concert tour that had taken them to Berlin, Brno, Prague, and Berlin. During their travels they had found time to catch quite a few operatic and theatrical performances, and in his on-the-road diary entry for March 15 Robert expressed his “desire to write operas—plans.” He wasted no time acting on this impulse, and within a week of arriving home in Dresden he settled on Friedrich Hebbel’s play Genoveva as the subject for his opera. The drama centered on a medieval tale. Siegfried, the Count Palatine, departs on a crusade, leaving his new wife, Genevieve of Brabant (Genoveva), under the care of his knight Golo. Golo tries to seduce Genevieve, who resists, and he then spreads word that it was she who tried to seduce him. Siegfried, learning of Genevieve’s presumed infidelity, sentences her to death. Complications ensue, abetted by sorcery, a ghost, and a magic mirror. A mute child providentially saves Genevieve from execution just in time for Siegfried to return and reunite with his wife, their happiness extolled by all the citizenry.
Schumann began at the beginning, by sketching the Overture in the course of just three days in early April, and he then proceeded to draw up the opera’s scenario. When that was finished, he enlisted his friend Robert Reinick, a local poet and painter, to write a libretto. They had been through this process before, as a year earlier Reinick had participated on a couple of stillborn collaborations with Schumann. Reinick forged ahead, drawing not only on Hebbel’s play but also on a dramatic setting by Ludwig Tieck. Schumann was not satisfied with Reinick’s work, and in mid-May he wrote to Hebbel directly. As it happens, Hebbel was planning a trip to nearby Leipzig in July, and he suggested that he and Schumann meet in person to address the matter. The meeting took place but was not fruitful. Schumann was going through one of his uncommunicative phases, and an exasperated Hebbel did not manage to break through.
In the event, Schumann finished the libretto himself by August 1848, effecting so many changes that Reinick asked that his name be removed entirely since basically none of his work remained. Along the way Schumann asked for input from various colleagues, not all of which turned out to be positive. He should have known better than to solicit “constructive criticism” from Richard Wagner, who reported: “My example had affected him only superficially, and really amounted only to an endorsement of the idea of my practice of writing my own libretti. . . . He would permit me to be carried away by him; but he would resist any interference with his work and his inspiration in a most stubborn and prickly fashion. So we left it at that.” He may have felt that Schumann was making an incursion into territory that was rightfully Wagnerian. In fact, Wagner was working just then on his Lohengrin, in which the heroine, Elsa, was also of the House of Brabant (it would be premiered just two months after Genoveva); and that name Siegfried was spoken for, as Wagner had already begun plotting what would grow into his Ring des Nibelungen, with a central character named Siegfried; and Schumann was also straying close to the Wagnerian flame by having his medieval crowds sing in chorale-like outbursts that resembled what Wagner’s medieval crowds did in Tannhäuser.
Schumann was striving for some original musical-theatrical solution that might be an alternative to the over-familiar models of the Italian bel canto composers and Meyerbeer’s French Grand Opera circle in Paris. What he came up with in Genoveva did parallel Wagner in certain aspects, particularly by employing a through-composed style in arioso spirit unified by leitmotifs (rather tentatively, in Schumann’s case); but ultimately Schumann, for all his appreciation of literature and theatre, proved less natively comfortable in musical theatre than Wagner was. Genoveva is filled with marvelous music, but it assumes a somewhat removed dramatic posture. It may strike the listener as the work of a symphonist—that the drama lies more in Schumann’s strictly musical, symphonic conception rather than in the words or the dramatic action. In a negative review of Genoveva, the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick described his impression of “the singer disappear[ing] from sight within the fold of the inflated orchestra.” Still, the piece did have its share of partisans, too, and after its first run of a mere three performances in Leipzig in 1850, it received a handful of revivals, including one overseen by Franz Liszt in Weimar in 1855. Liszt admired it, though not unreservedly. “Of the operas that have been produced over the last fifty years,” he wrote to his friend Anton Rubinstein, “it is certainly the one I prefer (Wagner excepted—that is understood), in spite of its lack of dramatic vitality.”
Only one section of Genoveva would be embraced in posterity. Wrote Hanslick, “The best part of the opera is that which has nothing to do with the stage at all, namely the Overture.” In a sense he was right that it was largely unconnected to the opera. Whereas opera composers at the time would be more likely to write their overtures last, perhaps incorporating material from the ensuing action, Schumann wrote his before any other music had taken shape. A few of its phrases are revisited later in the opera, but on the whole it seems more occupied with foreshadowing the ensuing mood rather than any specific episodes.
If it were somewhat elongated, the Overture could happily stand as the first movement of a Schumann symphony, and it resembles the composer’s characteristic symphonic sound in the denseness of its orchestration, which includes a good deal of doubling of woodwind lines. The opening measure yields a harmonic shocker: a dominant seventh chord surmounted by a minor ninth (a dominant minor ninth chord, we might say), which, though marked pianissimo,emphasizes the minor ninth through a sforzando in the violins. The resolution that sonority demands arrives in the fourth measure, which places us firmly in C minor. On the largest scale, the concern of the Overture is to move from the troubled darkness of C minor to the triumphant brilliance of C major—a trajectory that encapsulated a certain musical holiness to Schumann’s contemporaries as it echoes what Beethoven had done in his inescapable Fifth Symphony.
The brooding opening is marked Langsam (Slow), and after about two-and-a-half minutes the tempo ramps up considerably, accompanied by a change of “mood marking” to Leidenschaftlich bewegt (Moving passionately). A potentially remarkable aspect of this transition is that Schumann writes the adjacent measures in a way that allows the slower and faster sections to dovetail seamlessly, with the fast section picking up steam gradually over a few measures before galloping off with full force. From that point on the piece unrolls as a sonata-form movement, with the second theme being a hearty ultra-Romantic call from the horn section, marked Sehr frisch (Very fresh). A surprise comes when Schumann recalls material from the introduction, which listeners will have assumed they had heard the last of once the fast section got underway. By the time it ends, the Overture has worked itself into a frenzy, and the minor ninths have become major ninths, suggesting an ecstatic outpouring in the place of the menacing gloom that had reigned over the opening.
Piano Concerto in A minor
Apart from the many other roles she filled in Robert Schumann’s life, his wife Clara became his chief intermediary vis-à-vis the piano. In 1829 Schumann had begun experimenting with a chiroplast, a mechanism pianists sometimes used then to equalize the strength of their fingers, and by the beginning of 1830 the middle finger of his right hand was reacting with numbness. Later that year he began piano lessons with Friedrich Wieck (Clara’s father). Schumann reported practicing as many as seven hours per day. This double dose of physical stress—reckless application of a mechanical device and simple overplaying—led to no good. By the autumn of 1831 Schumann was trying to restore his finger control through “animal baths” (a polite way of saying he inserted his hands into animal carcasses), electric shocks, and dietary experiments. Nothing helped, and by the end of 1832 he gave up hope, declaring his finger incurably lame.
He was no longer able to champion his own works at the keyboard. That role would soon go to Clara, a spectacular virtuoso who played his music more persuasively than he ever could have himself. Schumann viewed the genre of concerto as something of a crossroads; in 1839, he had written to Clara: “Concerning concertos, I’ve already said to you that I can’t write a concerto for virtuosi and have to think of something else.” At that time, piano concertos were nearly always what we would consider lightweight vehicles for showmanship. In 1839 Schumann published an essay on the subject of piano concertos, in which he expounded on the challenge confronting the genre just then: “[The] separation of the piano from the orchestra is something we have seen coming for some time. . . . [W]e must await the genius who will show us in a newer and more brilliant way how orchestra and piano may be combined, how the soloist, dominant at the keyboard, may unfold the wealth of his instrument and his art, while the orchestra, no longer a mere spectator, may interweave its manifold facets into the scene.”
That much-awaited genius would be Schumann himself, but the breakthrough did not come easily to him. Between 1827 and 1839 he made four stabs at piano concertos, but he left all of them in fragmentary form. His quest to find how his musical ideals might work in a piano concerto began in earnest in May 1841, when he composed a one-movement Concert Phantasie for Piano and Orchestra. It received two private run-throughs that August, with Clara as soloist. She reported in her diary: “Carefully studied, it must give the greatest pleasure to those who hear it. The piano is most skillfully interwoven with the orchestra; it is impossible to think of one without the other.” That, however, was the last the Phantasie was heard, and Schumann’s attempts to publish it came to naught.
But the Phantasie was too good to let go of, and in the summer of 1845 Schumann set about revising it into the first movement of a full-scale concerto. What he produced was not, in fact, a highly virtuosic piece—which is to say that, although great interpreters find much to explore in it, its demands are not overwhelmingly situated in the fingers themselves. Early listeners were struck, as Clara had been, by the extent to which the piano and the orchestra interacted, as opposed to the more standard turn-taking of the forces in standard virtuoso concertos of the day. This is a supremely “symphonic” concerto in the democratic way in which the soloist and the orchestra pursue their unified intent. Despite its lack of superficial razzle-dazzle, Schumann’s only full-fledged piano concerto quickly became one of his most popular pieces.
The first volley is a dramatic descending flourish on the heels of the orchestra’s opening unison note. We might expect that the flourish is nothing more than a call-to-attention prelude, but it will return often in the course of the movement and will be alluded to even beyond. The principal theme is far more sedate and mysterious, articulated in tandem by oboe and bassoon immediately following the piano’s flourish. The piano repeats the melody, and then moves on to a deep-voiced secondary theme with first violins doubling the tune. Composers past and future haunt the music to this point: Schumann adored Beethoven, who had made much of telescoping soloist and orchestra at the beginnings of his Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos; Grieg, whose own Piano Concerto (1868) begins as practically a parody of Schumann’s opening; Tchaikovsky in the hand-doubled textures of the piano’s preludial barrage; even Rachmaninoff, still farther in the future but (to us) inescapably present in the menacing depths and thrusting syncopation of the secondary theme.
Often concertos are plotted first with an orchestral exposition and then with a second exposition in which the soloist plays the leading role. Here Schumann dispenses with the orchestral exposition, a move consistent with his goal of underscoring the connectedness of the piano and the orchestra and characteristic of the tight structure of everything in this piece. A particularly magical moment arrives with the beginning of the development section. The exposition has ended with the full orchestra’s blustery fanfares. These die away, at which point surprising harmonic and rhythmic modulations make the principal theme even more dreamy, with solo clarinet responding over a background of hushed strings. The reverie is interrupted rudely with the piano’s flourish. The recapitulation is worked out in generally traditional terms as it leads to the magnificent cadenza. This two-minute expanse, entirely written out by Schumann, is not approached as a bravura passage to show off the soloist’s virtuoso qualities but rather provides the composer an opportunity to explore his material with the unaccompanied piano. At the cadenza’s conclusion the principal theme (in oboes, clarinets, and bassoons) appears yet again, restyled into quick, hopping form in an accelerated tempo.
When Schumann returned to his Phantasie after nearly four years, he may have planned initially to expand it by only one further movement. On June 27, 1845 Clara wrote in her diary: “Robert has added a beautiful last movement to his Phantasie in A minor so that it has become a concerto . . . .” The movement to which she referred was surely what we know as the concerto’s finale. The Intermezzo is in no way a “bravura piece,” and it seems to have come to Schumann as an afterthought, after Clara had already reported that the last movement was complete. There is a self-effacing simplicity to this Intermezzo, which opens and closes with a Mendelssohnian “song without words,” full of memorable contour but ultimately slight. The central section of the movement is given over to a more passionate span in which the cellos sing a rapturous melody, the piano decorating it from above. Imagine it as a balletic pas de deux, but with piano and cellos instead of dancers.
After a return of the Intermezzo’s main section Schumann does a bit more telescoping in which a descending fanfare figure derived from the principal theme of the first movement alternates with a falling figure in the piano that vaguely recalls the soloist’s opening volley. This ushers us into the exhilarating finale. We are treated to an irresistible interplay of melodies, and to a reluctance on the part of the piano to let the composition end.
—James M. Keller
More About the Music
Recordings: For the Overture—Rafael Kubelík conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon) | Christian Thielemann conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)
For the Concerto—Hélène Grimaud with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle (Deutsche Grammophon) | Martha Argerich with Alexandre Rabinovitch conducting the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana (EMI) | Murray Perahia with Colin Davis and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Sony Classical)
Reading: Robert Schumann: The Life and Work of a Romantic Composer, by Martin Geck (University of Chicago Press) | Robert Schumann: Life and Death of a Musician,by John Worthen (Yale University Press) | Robert Schumann: Herald of a “New Poetic Age,” by John Daverio (Oxford) | Schumann: The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius, by Peter Ostwald (Northeastern University Press) | Robert Schumann: The Man and his Music, edited by Alan Walker (Barrie & Jenkins) | The Cambridge Companion to Schumann, edited by Beate Perrey (Cambridge University Press)