Thursday, February 9, 2012

Robert Schumann & the Nest of Hornists

Back in the days when I worked in radio, I introduced the soloist for a Mozart Horn Concerto as a hornist which my co-host for that evening’s fundraising questioned – he’d never heard that word before. All I remember saying was “There are nests of them in every orchestra.”

Solo concertos for the horn are rare enough but I know of no other piece that allows the whole nest of hornists in an orchestra to step out into the solo spotlight.

This weekend – Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum – the Four Hornists of the Harrisburg Symphony, Sara Cyrus, Leise Ballou, Geoffrey Pilkington (the new guy) and William Hughes (I can just hear them all buzzing their mouthpieces as they warm up backstage) get a chance to perform as a “group soloist” in a very unusual work by Robert Schumann.

Since it’s demanding enough to be “like” a concerto but maybe different enough from an actual concerto, despite the collective demands on the performers in the soloist’s spotlight, Schumann called it a Konzertstück or “Concert Piece” instead, an amorphous-sounding title which he’d used before for works that did include a soloist with the orchestra but which weren’t of the scope of an all-out concerto even though it’s in three movements. Some people say it’s because all three movements blend together without the traditional “between-the-movements” break where everybody wonders should they applaud or not. But then, Mendelssohn did that with his Violin Concerto and Schumann later did it with his 4th Symphony, all played without pause, and they’re still considered no less a concerto or a symphony because of it.

There are not many performances of the Schumann Concert Piece for 4 Horns available, but this one is one of the best from a live concert performance. James Judd conducts the Galicia Symphony Orchestra with guest hornist Radovan Vlatkovic joining three members of the orchestra, José Vicente Castelló, Miguel Angel Garza and Manuel Moya. - - - - - - - -
1st Movement - - - - - - - -
2nd Movement - - - - - - - -
3rd Movement - - - - - - - -

And I’m not even sure why Robert Schumann wrote it in the first place: there was no commission or request that initiated it and I don’t think he was close friends with a bunch of horn-players that he wrote it specifically for them. True, his last gig was music director for the city of Düsseldorf but he didn’t apply for that post until eight months after he completed it. At the time he wrote it – sketching it between February 18th-20th, 1849, and completing the orchestration by March 11th – he was living in Dresden where Wagner was the conductor of the Royal Saxon Opera which had a fine orchestra with, no doubt, fine hornists. But it was an unlikely performance outlet for Schumann, politically on the outs not only with Wagner (he had recently finished Lohengrin) but with the whole arts scene in Dresden which had very little sympathy for his music.

Perhaps the answer lies in a trip to Leipzig, four hours away. It wasn’t until July, 1849, four months after he’d finished the Konzertstück, that he started putting feelers out for a job there, thinking the directorship of the Leipzig Gewandhaus would be open (his friend Mendelssohn had died suddenly almost two years earlier) which turned out not to be the case.

In November, then, he applied for the job in Düsseldorf – resident conductor and music director of the town’s orchestra and choral society – a post a friend of his was just leaving. Schumann had little enthusiasm for the town or its cultural life (Mendelssohn had been very disparaging about it after he'd conducted there). Schumann was also perturbed by the fact there was a “lunatic asylum” there, the result of a deep-seated fear of things relating to insanity that afflicted him since his childhood. He put off accepting the offer they made him until April, 1850, mostly on the hopes that the Dresden Opera might take him on as “second conductor,” since Wagner had recently fled the city, labeled a traitor for his albeit minor part in Dresden’s May ’49 insurrection. Schumann hoped a previously postponed premiere of his new opera Genoveva in Leipzig might help clinch the deal.

Unfortunately, Leipzig chose to postpone the opera again – bringing in Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete was deemed better box-office – this time until June. Other concerts he and his wife, Clara, performed at that time met with mixed reviews. Clara gave the premiere of a new concert-piece for piano and orchestra, the Introduction and Allegro appassionato in G Major on Valentine’s Day and it met with little success. However, another concert eleven days later – with the composer conducting the new opera’s overture and the Konzertstück for 4 Horns – met with “general enthusiasm.”

After other concerts around Germany, the Schumanns returned to Dresden disheartened by the lack of job options and on April 1st, he sent the good folks of Düsseldorf a letter accepting their post though he was still hoping he might find a better job closer to Dresden.

This job-move proved to be a turning point in Schumann’s life. Though Dresden had been frustrating (it’s not clear why they even settled there in 1844 in the first place, a stuffy, old-fashioned court city without the vibrant musical life Leipzig offered), it was at least a productive time for Schumann. In a period of five months, he wrote these works:

Advent Song (for chorus & orchestra) – sketched Nov. 25th-30th, 1848; finished score Dec. 19th
Bilder aus Osten (Pictures from the East) based on Rückert poems inspired by Arabic poetry (for two pianos) – Dec. 26th  
Waldscenen Forest Scenes, Op. 82 (piano solo) – Dec. 29th-Jan. 6th, 1849
Touching up final score of the opera, Genoveva – Jan.
Phantasiestücke Fantasy Pieces, Op. 73 (originally for clarinet & piano) – Feb. 11th-12th
Adagio and Allegro for horn & piano, Op. 70 – Feb. 14-17
Konzertstück for Four Horns & Orchestra, Op. 86 – sketched Feb 18th-20th; orchestration completed by Mar. 11th
Several Romances and Ballades for women’s choir (including Op. 67 & 73) – Mar. 6th-16th
Two additional sets of Romances for women’s choir (Op. 69 & 91) – Mar. 17th-22nd
The Spanisches Liederbuch, Spanish Songbook, Op. 74 (solo songs, duets and quartets) – Mar. 8th-24th
Revisions to the Piano Trios in D Minor & F Major in preparation for publication – completed Apr. 9th
Five Pieces in Folk Style for Cello & Piano – Apr. 13th-15th
Began work on the Liederalbum für die Jugend, Song Album for the Young, Op. 79 – Apr. 21st

This was interrupted by the May Uprising, the Dresden Revolution which was part of a series of popular anti-monarchical revolutions that spread across Europe in 1848 and 1849 (think a European version of last year’s “Arab Spring”).

Wagner was a political rabble-rouser, writing numerous pamphlets in support of overthrowing his boss, the Saxon monarch (or naively insisting he should become the “first among Republicans”), and presumably seeing action during the street fighting. Schumann, though like-minded politically, was not a fighter. In fact, when the provisional government of the revolution called on every able-bodied man to fight for the cause, Clara Schumann helped hide her husband when the militia appeared at their door: they escaped through the backdoor into the garden with only one of their children, leaving town by train and then on foot to a friend’s at a safe distance from Dresden. That evening, Schumann composed the Frühlingslied (Spring Song) from the collection of Songs for the Young, Op. 79, No. 18! (Talk about a composer being able to compartmentalize reality from creativity!)

Meanwhile, Clara and two other women left at 3am to return to Dresden and fetch the rest of the children in the middle of an all-night battle. Incidentally, Clara was pregnant at the time, giving birth to a son two months later!!

Three days after the revolution was crushed (and Wagner fled town with a charge of treason on his head), Schumann completed the Songs for the Young, Op. 79.

In addition to this – despite a brief period of depression around his 39th birthday in June – Schumann also composed a number of songs to poems of Goethe (in preparation for the impending centennial celebration) including Kennst du das Land and Mignon’s other songs from Wilhelm Meister as well as the Requiem for Mignon. In July, he began setting several scenes from Faust which he completed the following month.

Even though his wife Clara was a busy concertizing pianist and regarded as one of the greatest pianists of the day, Robert’s writing time ruled the roost: Clara could only practice when Robert was not composing which meant she had no time in the morning or afternoon. His routine included going out at 6pm to for a walk and stopping at the tavern to have a beer with friends before returning home at 8pm for dinner. That’s when Clara could practice.

One of her students would help her then with the children. That year, there were four children (another one had recently died in infancy), another was born two months after that May '49 revolt, with two more born in Düsseldorf (she was pregnant with her eighth child when her husband attempted suicide in 1853). There were two or three servants whom she oversaw so at least she didn’t have to cook the dinner and vacuum the rugs, too…

Obviously, this was a very busy time for Robert, writing fast and furiously as he often did – and not surprisingly there would come a time (as happened in the past with his manic bursts of compositional concentration) when everything would crash. But over the next three years, now unhappily situated in Düsseldorf after all, while the number of works may have decreased in quantity, many view these later works as a “diminution of his creative powers.”

Considering he wrote the Cello Concerto in A Minor, a very dark work but also one of the first cello concertos by a major 19th Century composer to remain in the repertoire, in two weeks and then immediately began the “Rhenish” Symphony which he completed five weeks later, this is hardly a time where everything turned out to be disappointments.

But then these final years of Robert Schumann become a whole different, very new and extremely sad chapter in his life (not just his own attempted suicide and eventual death a few years later in one of those “lunatic asylums” he so feared), compared to the years in Dresden that culminated in this burst of works that included in the flow this delightful but curious work for four horns and orchestra.

One could almost forget, listening back on all this music he composed, what was waiting around the corner…

- Dick Strawser

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The photo is an uncredited photograph, taken on-stage at the Forum following a recent concert, that accompanied a mention of this weekend's concert in the Harrisburg Patriot-News' on-line edition.

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