Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Schumann Writes a Concerto on the Installment Plan

This weekend's concert with the Harrisburg Symphony and conductor Stuart Malina may be called “A Tale of Two Cities,” focusing on Berlioz' “Roman Carnival Overture” and Ralph Vaughan Williams' “A London Symphony.” But in between there's a stop-over in Germany with Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in A Minor, performed by Daria Rabotkina. The performances take place on Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Come an hour early to hear Truman Bullard's pre-concert talk.

You can read a brief bio of our soloist here which also includes a video of her solo performance with music of Scarlatti, Prokofiev, and Haydn including an excerpt from Schumann's "Symphonic Etudes."

You can read about the Vaughan Williams symphony in an earlier post, here.

This post focuses on the better-known Schumann concerto.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

The story of Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto is a fairly complicated one, and I thought it might be interesting to look at what was going on in his life around the time he started it until the time he finished it.

The story is fairly well known that he wrote the first movement as a single-movement Fantasy for Piano & Orchestra in 1841 and that his wife, Clara, one of the greatest concert pianists of the day, had urged him to write two more movements to make a full concerto out of it, which he finally did four years later.

For the first part of his compositional career, Schumann had been a composer almost entirely of piano music. Having decided the study of law was not for him, he wanted to become a concert pianist, studying with Frederich Wieck, whose daughter Clara Wieck was already an accomplished virtuoso in her early teens, having composed a Piano Concerto in A Minor of her own. It too had begun life as a one-movement work which she later expanded but in this case, it was the finale that was written first, when she was 14 (it was orchestrated by Robert Schumann), and then the following year she added the first two movements, doing her own orchestrations by then. It's interesting to think of their relationship being entwined in two piano concertos like this, both in A Minor, though that's certainly just a coincidence.

It's one of the better known love stories in classical music, this romance between Robert and Clara Schumann, but it was not an easy one.

First, there was the paternal objection since Wieck did not feel Schumann was a suitable husband for his daughter. He had not demonstrated enough talent as a composer (yet) and he had injured his hand from over-zealous practice (misusing a contraption Wieck had invented to strengthen the fourth finger) which made it impossible for him to play the piano. There were also, doubtless, fears Wieck would lose control over the income from Clara's performances and, of course, the fear that married life would distract her from her all-important career. (Keep in mind, even before she'd been born, Wieck was determined his child-to-be would be a great pianist!) There were numerous nasty legal battles but, finally, Frederich Wieck lost.

On September 12th, 1840, Robert Schumann married Clara Wieck. He was 30; she was one day shy of her 21st birthday.

During that year, Schumann wrote 168 songs.

Then, suddenly, in 1841, he began composing a symphony, something Clara had been urging him to do: it was a sign of compositional maturity and “arrival.” Between January 23rd and 26th, he sketched out a four movement symphony in B-flat (which later became known as the “Spring” Symphony) which he orchestrated between January 27th and February 20th. By March 28th, it was ready for rehearsal and Mendelssohn conducted its premiere three days later. Also on that concert, Clara Schumann appeared for the first time in public under her married name. Though his symphony was well received, it must have been obvious to Robert that Clara was the real star of the evening.

On April 12th, Robert began an Overture in E which he completed in score 5 days later. On May 8th, he finished two additional movements, a Scherzo and a Finale to create a “Suite” which he later called a Symphonette. At the premiere in December, it was called “Overture, Scherzo & Finale” though it was basically a symphony without a slow movement.

No sooner had he finished that symphonic work, he began a new Fantasy in A Minor for Piano & Orchestra which he finished scoring on May 20th. Clara was rehearsing it with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on August 13th and gave the premiere a few days later.

On September 1st, she gave birth to their first child, a daughter, Marie.

- - - - - - -

(typical of the casual editing one encounters on YouTube, the last seconds of the second clip are actually the beginning of the slow movement which is then continued in the third clip, posted below...)
- - - - - - -

Ten days after having finished the Fantasy, Schumann began work on another new symphony, this one in D Minor which wasn't completed until Sept 9th. Then, on September 23rd, he “roughed out” the first movement and scherzo of a Symphony in C Major; the next day, the slow mvmt & finale. By the 26th, the sketch of this symphony was basically complete. But then he stopped work on orchestrating it.

He had become distracted by thoughts of an opera. In August, he had already begun work on the libretto for “Paradise & the Peri” which he now worked more seriously but ended up doing nothing with it for another two years (by which time it became an 'oratorio' instead).

In November, there was an important concert tour to Weimar: Clara performed and Robert was present for a performance of his B-flat Symphony.

Then in December, the D Minor Symphony was premiered along with the “Overture, Scherzo & Finale,” but the new symphony was not satisfactory and so he put it aside. It wasn't until ten years later that he completed the revisions he'd had in mind and it was only then it was finally re-premiered and published as his Symphony No. 4. The sketches of the Symphony in C were meanwhile set aside: this is apparently an entirely different symphony from the one that eventually became his Symphony No. 2, also in C Major.

There was another tour in February 1842 which saw another performance of the “Spring” Symphony which Schumann declined to conduct (claiming he was too “short sighted”). In March, he returned to Leipzig to continue work on his music journal (the famous “Neue Zeitschrift für Musik” which he'd started in 1834) while Clara traveled on to Copenhagen where she stayed for a month, playing concerts & recitals.

Schumann spent much of the time she was gone feeling depressed, “drowning in beer & champagne” and unable to compose. He worked on counterpoint exercises and the writing of fugues. There were thoughts of taking Clara to America. Her father, meanwhile, was spreading the rumor that the couple had “separated.” In the midst of all this, Schumann started studying the string quartets of Beethoven & Mozart.

Clara returned from her tour on April 26th. On June 2, Schumann began what he called “quartet essays” (sketches for a possible string quartet) which by June 4th materialized into a String Quartet in A Minor. On June 11th, he began a second quartet even before the first onet was finished. Between July 8th and 22nd, he wrote his third quartet, this one in A Major.

In the midst of this burst of activity, he wrote a libelous article that almost landed him in jail (a sentence of 6 days was commuted to a fine), after which they took a holiday. The quartets were ready for rehearsal on September 8th.

Then, on September 23rd, he began the Piano Quintet, completing the 'fair copy' on Oct 12th. (Incidentally, Stuart Malina will join the Fry Street Quartet for a performance of Schumann's Quintet at the Glen Allen Mill on July 25th, Sunday afternoon at Market Square Concerts' Summer Music 2010.)

Despite dealing with “constant fearful sleepless nights,” he soon began work on a Piano Quartet on October 24th which he finished a month later.

Presumably he took the month of November off because the next item on his calendar doesn't take place until December when he completed a piano trio in A Minor. Then, by the end of January, he completed an Andante & Variations for 2 Pianos, 2 Cellos & Horn, though neither work satisfied him. He would later revised both of them: the trio became the Fantasy Pieces, Op. 88, seven years later; the Andante & Variations were revised for just two pianos in 1843.

With the new year, Schumann became involved in other projects. In February, Hector Berlioz visited Leipzig and, rather awkwardly, Clara and eventually Robert both reconciled with Clara's father. Apparently, Wieck considered Schumann's success with writing symphonies as the mark of a new-found maturity – a bit ironic since most people these days would agree that Schumann's earlier piano pieces are his most original and most successful works.

That same month, Schumann finally began work on a long-planned choral piece, “Paradise & the Peri,” a “secular oratorio,” which he completed June 16th.

In April, Mendelssohn opened the new Leipzig Conservatory and Robert was listed as a “professor of piano-playing, composition & playing from score.” On April 25th, a second child, a daughter Elise, was born.

After completed “Paradise & the Peri” in June, Schumann struggled with various projects the rest of the year, completing nothing, though he made his conducting debut with the premiere of “Paradise & the Peri” in December. Most people found him “an indifferent” conductor as well as teacher.

In January 1844, he took time off from the Conservatory and his journal to travel with Clara for a much anticipated tour of Russia – well, anticipated by Clara and dreaded by Robert. They arrived, finally, in St. Petersburg by March 4th with a series of successful concerts including a private orchestra's performance of Schumann's B-flat Symphony. During this tour, they did not meet any of the major Russian composers of the day (Glinka, the foremost). In April, they went to Moscow where his Piano Quintet was a success. They returned to Leipzig on May 30th.

During this tour, Schumann was often “tortured” by illness and bouts of melancholy, mostly brought on by being “Mr. Clara Schumann.” He was also annoyed he was “wasting time.” He had wanted to work on a new opera based on Faust since November but for the four months of this tour, he was unable to compose. At least while he was laid up sick for a week, he was able to sketch out some scenes from Part II of Goethe's Faust).

Back in Leipzig, he gave up editorship of the 'Neue Zeitschrift' to spend more time composing but Faust was soon supplanted by an opera to be based on Byron's The Corsair which in July was replaced by an idea for a “magic opera” based on a poem by Hans Christian Andersen. Neither of them came to anything and in August, Schumann returned to Faust, completed the first three sections of what he now began thinking of as more as an oratorio but which eventually became only “Eight Scenes from Faust,” lost somewhere between not being an opera and not being an oratorio, either.

But in August 1844, he had a very serious nervous breakdown during which he was unable even to listen to music which, he wrote, “cut into my nerves like knives.”

In October, the Schumanns went to Dresden where Robert continued to be tortured by “fearful imaginings” and sleepless nights, spending each morning “awash in tears.” Dresden was rather dull and conservative by comparison to Leipzig but they moved there officially in December. During this period he began a slow convalescence.

To while away the time, Robert began teaching Clara counterpoint in January 1845, once again spending his time in the academic study of writing fugues.

On March 11th, their third child, a daughter Julie, was born.

In April, Schumann wrote two organ fugues, the first on B-A-C-H. Having obtained a “pedal piano,” he composed a series of fugues for it between April 29 and June 7.

Then, suddenly, he wrote a Rondo in A Major for piano and orchestra, followed by an Andante, also for piano and orchestra which he completed on July 16th and which he appended to the Fantasy in A Minor to create what was now the Piano Concerto in A Minor. Clara premiered the whole concerto in January 1846 in Leipzig.

- - - - - - -

(perhaps it's just my computer, but the audio/video coordination here drives me nuts... good performance, though...)
- - - - - - -

Schumann's health was still not good and he was forced to cancel a trip to Bonn for the unveiling of the Beethoven Monument in August. In October, he revised the finale of the “Overture, Scherzo & Finale,” put off hearing Wagner's new opera Tannhäuser which he hadn't cared for after looking at the score but changed his mind after he went to a performance in November. On December 12th, Schumann began a Symphony in C Major, finishing its first draft by the 28th, though he didn't begin orchestrating it until late February, 1846, not long after Clara gave birth to their fourth child, their first son, named Emil.

And so the lives – both personal and musical – continued for the Schumanns throughout Robert's alternating periods of creativity and illness. Only months after they had met a 20-year-old composer and pianist named Johannes Brahms who had showed up on their doorstep with a bundle of sonatas under his arm, Robert Schumann attempted suicide in February, 1854, by jumping off a bridge in Düsseldorf, neighbors fishing him out of the Rhine and carrying him home. A few days later, at his own request, he was taken away to what was then called an insane asylum. By the time he died there in 1856, Clara never saw him again.

It is one of the sadder stories in classical music as well, though far removed from the sparkling music of the concerto he composed on the installment plan in the first years of their marriage.

Considering he was himself originally a pianist who had written so much wonderful piano music and that he was married to one of the foremost pianists of the day, it's odd that he didn't write more for the instrument – another concerto or two, perhaps. He certainly would have had a built-in performance commitment for anything he would compose.

Ironically, there are two wonderful single movement works for piano and orchestra written later in his career which are usually overlooked today, both in terms of performance as well as recordings. The first is the “Introduction & Allegro appassionato” in G Minor, also known as “Konzertstück” (or Concert Piece) for Piano & Orchestra which he sketched in mid-September, 1849, in three days, the year before he wrote his last symphony (the last one to be composed, that is), the famous “Rhenish” Symphony and the elegiac Cello Concerto in A Minor. In 1853, now settled in Düsseldorf, he wrote the “Introduction & Allegro in D Minor” over the period of a week between August 24th and 30th, followed a few days later by a Fantasy in C Major for Violin & Orchestra. There were a few shorter pieces between that and the Violin Concerto in D Minor he began on September 21st and completed on October 3rd, just a few days after he'd met Johannes Brahms.

This violin concerto has a very strange history of its own, but that needn't concern us, here. But still, one wonders what we might have had if Schumann had decided to add a few more movements to these two short works and turn them, also, into complete piano concertos. Classical music, of course, is full of such “What Ifs.”

- Dick Strawser

No comments:

Post a Comment