Program Notes - October 18, 1997 Concert
("Over the River and Through the Woods")
Symphony No.3 in E-flat, Op. 97 ("Rhenish")
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Lebhaft - Scherzo - Nicht schnell - Feierlich - Lebhaft
Some weeks ago during a late evening drive home, I turned on the radio. The moon was just rising up over the gentle and humid landscape creating a misty hush. From the radio during this evocative evening, came a slow movement from a symphony ... moody, romantic, introspective, imaginative, darkly colored, ... intimate. It was the music of Robert Schumann.
Much of Schumann's music is sheer intimacy, best heard in his large catalog of piano and art songs (lieder). Orchestrally, Schumann's output was comparatively slight, though no less potent, and portrayed a feeling of great energy and freshness.
Robert Alexander Schumann was born in 1810 to a bookseller and publisher who fostered in him an affinity for the glories of literature. The culmination of this was introduced in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in 1834. This publication, edited and contributed to for many years by Schumann and colleagues, chronicled the Romantic era of Music in Europe during its richest time - a time of Wagner, Chopin, and Berlioz. Schumann's own commentaries remain well respected as perhaps the keenest views from that age. His "other career," music, which came about rather informally, was hailed as being "imaginative" and "refreshingly original". His plans to be a virtuoso pianist were quelled by the partial paralysis of two fingers in his left hand caused by unreliable mercury treatments for syphilis. He was haunted by fears of insanity as early as 1833, leading him to attempt suicide in 1854 by jumping into the Rhine. The last two years of his life were spent in a private asylum in Endenich, his physical and mental state decaying until his death in 1856. His funeral was attended by thousands, and his memory cherished the world over.
No discussion of Schumann is complete without mention of his beloved wife Clara Wieck Schumann, by all accounts a remarkable woman. She was one of Germany's best loved prodigies, a product of the teaching of her father Frederich Wieck (Schumann's former teacher). Their marriage in 1840 came at the end of a protracted court battle with her father who angrily objected to the union. The scope of their love and life together places their romance - full of ardent passion and intelligence - among the greatest in history. Her mastery as a pianist graced her entire life, and frequent tours were scheduled amongst raising eight children. Her diary accounts of Schumann's last days are immensely poignant memorials to their relationship.
The "Rhenish" symphony is agreed by many to be Schumann's finest. It is actually Schumann's fourth symphony by chronology, as the second was put aside and reworked extensively into its present form as number four. Regardless, all four of Schumann's symphonies have posed a problem to scholars and over-stuffed critics who for a century claimed that Schumann's orchestration, thematic development, and style never measured up to his predecessors - Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. But Schumann also had his champions, such as Mendelssohn and Brahms, both his friends and colleagues.
The Rhenish symphony owes its inspiration to the Rhineland and its famous river. The first movement opens with one of Schumann's grandest symphonic themes, powerfully sweeping and majestic. It is followed by a much calmer melody in g-minor, and then by a creative treatment of these two themes in a rough sonata form. Near its end, a typical Schumann device is employed - a brand new theme worked into the movement. The whole is bounding with a lively grandeur and beauty reflecting Schumann's love for the Rhine river on which he lived for many years.
Next is a comfortable and rustic laendler (rustic dance), not at all a fiery "scherzo" as marked. The theme is treated more or less as a set of variations, and again, a brand new melody is brought cleverly into play later in the movement, appearing magically, then drifting and disappearing down river.
The third movement shows the essence of Schumann's intimate nature. Described as an "arioso without development," it employs two themes, both expressly tender. I have often mused that it may be a love duet between Robert and Clara. It meanders sweetly between these two tunes through gracious nuances, extolling a delicate mood.
Enter the medieval Cologne Cathedral upon the Rhine, and the delicacy evaporates. This extraordinary fourth movement was subscripted by Schumann thusly: "In the style of an accompaniment to a solemn ceremony." The penetrating and emotionally intense theme becomes the fabric of expansive polyphonic treatment.
A short breath, and then what resembles a quick recessional from the cathedral out into the glorious sunshine over the flowing Rhine - the fifth movement finale. The inspiration here comes from Rhineland festivities. It proceeds through a reverie of spontaneity and syncopation. The finale recalls some of the grandeur of the first movement, the coda borrows the cathedral theme briefly, and then onwards to the comfortably brisk and cheerful passions of the beautiful Rhine.
Piano Concerto in A-minor, Op.16
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Allegro molto moderato - Adagio - Allegro moderato molto e marcato
Edvard Hagerup Grieg was no stranger to the life and works of Robert Schumann. Having studied at the Leipzig Conservatory, the school founded by Schumann's friend Felix Mendelssohn, Grieg became a great touring pianist as well as champion of Schumann's piano music. It is no coincidence that the two composers wrote their masterful piano concertos in the same key of a-minor, as Grieg modeled his after Schumann's.
Grieg was born in June of 1843 and died in September of 1903 in Bergen, Norway. He spent almost his entire life in residence there. He is called the greatest Romantic Nationalist composer of Norway, and most agree that his music is some of the most beautiful ever composed.
If one has ever been to Norway, or seen photographs, they must be impressed with the wild beauty and dramatic landscape of a world half-dipped in the Arctic circle. Its rugged fjords and peaks were a passionate inspiration to Grieg. And in the remarkable "Dragon" style architecture of Norway's homes, one will see a ruggedness graced with delicate simplicity. Its ancient history steeped in the lore, the folk tunes and the traditions of Norway is unendingly rich. Grieg, the Nationalist, reflected his homeland persuasively in his music.
Grieg's piano concerto was composed in 1868 when Grieg was twenty-five, and won praise from the beginning. His first great success as a composer was his incidental music to Henry Ibsen's play Peer Gynt. Excerpts from this masterpiece such as "In the Hall of the Mountain King," "Morning," and "Solveig's Lullaby," are well known.
The first movement opens forcefully with a crescendo timpani roll leading to the piano's famous first theme. This descending principle theme was a favorite melodic motive for Grieg and is a motive found in many Norwegian folk tunes. The movement introduces seven themes which in large part are based on a variant of the opening motive. A wonderfully extended cadenza leads to a coda, and the movement ends as dramatically as it began.
The French composer Claude Debussy said that Grieg's music has "... the bizarre and charming taste of pink stuffed with snow." Debussy, the leading composer of the Impressionist era, was very familiar with Grieg's compositions, and scholars cite Grieg's later works as introducing Impressionist elements which inspired Debussy. The beautiful and tender second movement shows elements of a later musical style with prolonged (pedal) notes in the harmony. Mostly, it exhibits Grieg's rare and inexhaustible gift for lyrical writing. The dreamy and sentimental opening to the movement presents the world with one of the most magical moments in the repertoire. Once again, he uses the descending melodic motive that opened the first movement.
The last movement opens with jaunty and dance-like themes mixed with traces of glowing bravura, which is followed by a sensuous cantabile section. Here, the effect of the embellished piano melody over the drone-like cello is quintessential Grieg. The movement returns to the theme groups in which it opened and dances to its stirringly broad and triumphant end.