Schumann: Overture to Manfred, Opus 115


BORN: June 8, 1810. Zwickau, Saxony (Germany)

DIED: July 29, 1856. Asylum at Endenich, near Bonn

COMPOSED: October 26-31, 1848, with sketches dating as early as August 5

WORLD PREMIERE: March 14, 1852. Schumann conducted the Overture in a matinée concert at the Leipzig Gewandhaus

US PREMIERE: April 27, 1856. Carl Bergmann conducted it at the City Assembly Rooms, New York

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—December 1921. Alfred Hertz conducted. MOST RECENT—May 2013. Marek Janowski conducted  

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 12 mins

THE BACKSTORY In 1844, Robert Schumann began working on an opera-like setting of Goethe’s Faust, but by the time he signed off it would be an opera manqué: his Scenes from Goethe’s Faust for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra. He gave at least passing attention to about forty possible operatic subjects (including Hamlet, The Tempest, Till Eulenspiegel, and Tristan and Isolde) before he finally settled on Friedrich Hebbel’s Genoveva. It was the only opera he would complete, and its ideals are so unlike most other works in its genre that the Schumann biographer John Daverio referred to it as a “literary opera,” acknowledging its sometimes exasperating emphasis on the primacy of libretto over music. Genoveva never scored much success, but it did help Schumann clarify his distinctive objectives as an opera composer. Already a week before he finished Genoveva, he was at work on his next dramatic project. He noted in the Household Book (the diary he kept jointly with his wife, Clara), “Busy—Byron’s Manfred,” and the day after signing off on Genoveva he embarked on adapting Byron’s poem into a serviceable libretto. The entire project—reducing Byron’s 1336 lines to 975, plus writing the music—lasted from the beginning of August until the end of November 1848.

Lord Byron’s dramatic poem Manfred, published in 1817, shows the influence of Goethe’s Faust. Both take the form of dramatic works that are crafted more for the reader’s imagination than for the stage.The title character of Manfred is a hero who, in retrospect, we would automatically describe as “Byronic.”Living in his remote castle in the Alps, Manfred is racked with remorse over some undefined sin he has committed. After unsuccessfully trying to give himself over to madness and failing in a suicide attempt, Manfred summons the Witch of the Alps, to whom he finally confesses that he has had an incestuous relationship with his late sister, Astarte. Supernatural spirits produce the soul of the departed sister and demand that Manfred render his own soul to them in retribution for his sin. He refuses. The spirits disappear and ever-defiant Manfred dies.

Schumann’s reduction of the poem eliminates some of Byron’s detours concerning Classical antiquity and softens the business about the incest, the latter emendations rendering Manfred’s guilt all the more unfathomable. There is no question that Schumann related profoundly to this character. “Never before have I devoted myself with such love and outlay of force to any composition as to that of Manfred,” he wrote to Liszt. Knowing the sad conclusion of Schumann’s story—after failing in his own suicide attempt, he spent his final two and a half years in an insane asylum—we can hardly fail to be struck by the irony that, where Manfred had unsuccessfully sought relief in madness, Schumann met his end while trying desperately to cling to evasive sanity.Neither Manfred nor Faust, in their strictly literary forms, was well suited for staged production, and neither could serve as a practical libretto without substantial rewriting—which Schumann was in any case loath to do, being fixated on the integrity of Goethe’s and Byron’s originals. Schumann’s Manfred music accordingly stressed the musical medium most deferential to poetry: the melodrama, in which declaimed text is recited over an accompanying score. Of the fifteen short numbers Schumann produced for Manfred (not counting the Overture), ten are given over, at least in part, to melodramas. The result is an odd musical hybrid. Schumann, writing to Franz Liszt to pitch a production in Weimar (which eventually took place on June 13, 1852, marking the piece’s premiere), advised that his Manfred “should not be advertised to the public as opera, singspiel, or melodrama, but as ‘a dramatic poem with music’”—to which he added, “That would be completely new and unprecedented.” Nonetheless, he did feel that actual staging should be applied to at least parts of the piece; that was quite in defiance of Byron himself, who had described his Manfred as “a kind of Poem in dialogue (or blank verse) or drama” that was “quite impossible for the stage.” Following the premiere, even Clara Schumann had to admit that Manfred “won’t have much effect on the general public; the whole will leave a poetic impression. . . only on more cultured listeners.” Schumann’s complete Manfred is a rarity today, although it has been recorded a number of times in versions of varying comprehensiveness. Of his Manfred music only the Overture, composed midway through the project, has found an enduring place in the repertory. In this somber work we find Schumann at his most demonic, setting the scene for Byron’s tortured, self-possessed hero with music of wide chromatic fluctuation, passionately designed melodies, and rhythms so insistent that at times one is reminded of the relentless opening movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

THE MUSIC The opening measures are characteristic of the restlessness that will reign throughout this Overture. Three chords begin forte and grow louder, not defining any key; they cut off abruptly, and the solo oboe emits a plaintive theme, its pace obscured by syncopation; other winds join it in a chromatic descent complexly harmonized; and finally the music achieves its tonic chord, the bedrock of its stability, in measure eight—but only briefly before wandering off into chromatic ambiguity yet again. The brooding introduction perseveres for some while, eventually breaking into what the composer designates a “passionate tempo.” From that point on, Schumann unspools his material in a sonata form, effectively mirroring what one would expect in the first movement of a symphony. An extended coda brings the matter to a close, with the oboe taking up its mournful tune one last time before the orchestra fades away, foreshadowing the death of Manfred that ends Byron’s poem.

The tonic of this Overture is the obscure key of E-flat minor, although Schumann constantly slips away into harmonies of indistinct direction. This choice of key yields a dark string timbre unrelieved by  brightness. Then, too, the score displays Schumann’s penchant for dense orchestration, very often doubling the string and wind lines to yield a potentially claustrophobic atmosphere. At other points, the winds and strings can strain against each other in a rhythmic tug-of-war, their syncopations conveying formidable strife.

Schumann told Liszt that he considered this Overture to be one of his “most powerful children.” It has not lacked for admirers. Among them was Hugo Wolf, an adept music critic as well as an important song composer, who extolled it in an essay he published on March 30, 1884, in the Wiener Salonblatt. “What Manfred suffered for his sister, Astarte, who shattered his whole being to its very foundations, is hardly to be encompassed in an overture,” wrote Wolf. “And still, Schumann’s overture tells us just as much as Byron’s three-act poem. Yes! And even had the poem been extended to ten or twenty acts, Schumann’s music, in the overture as it is composed, would still have completely exhausted the lyrical substance musically. In the simplest strokes Schumann had expressed plastically the core, the focal point of the drama.” —James M. Keller