Two Masterpieces, Two Very Different Genres: Sounds Like Romantic Music Is Here to Stay

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Robert Schumann was in love with Clara Wieck. But her Father objected to almost everything about the young suitor and endeavored to break up the romance. Sad and desperately in love, Schumann composed the Dichterliebe, for Voice and Piano, Op. 48. It is surely a love declaration for Clara, although it was not dedicated to her; probably in fear of Father Wieck’s reaction. Actually 1840, the year the Lieder (German for song) Cycle was composed has been called Schumann’s Year of Song. He was, as I mentioned in a previous blog, prone to composing in only one genre at a time. Many psychologists feel this trait is a manifestation of manic depression. Schumann suffered from this condition.

Portrait of composer Robert Schumann

Portrait of composer Robert Schumann

A song cycle is a group of songs composed to be sung as a total package. The lyrics are usually set to poems by one poet. There is most often a story line that is told by the words and the music. In the case of the Dichterliebe the protagonist is a disillusioned and soon to be jilted suitor. The poems are by German Heinrich Heine, a contemporary of Schumann’s. The composer took 16 of the poems from a large collection of Heine’s works and formed an emotional song cycle that exposes the raw emotions of a poet as he remembers his lost love. The cycle runs the gamut of emotions. Tenderness, rapturous love, loss, happy memories, bitter memories, anger and finally at the end of it all, the piano concludes the cycle with a long passage conveying some relief from sadness and anger. Adam Neiman states in his program notes for this work;

“The voice and piano are intrinsically intertwined, perhaps portraying the desired union between Robert and Clara.”

In a brief guide to the group of 16 songs, I wish to concentrate on the musical representation of the emotions as heard in the voice, (usually a Baritone or Soprano) and the piano. The piano very often has the last word. It continues after the short poems and comments on the emotions or subject matter. The very first song is a lovely gentle expression of love felt in springtime. The poet tells that he told his lady of his love in May. Already there is a hint of unhappiness to be heard in the piano score as the brief song ends. Harmonically the tone is melancholic and oriented towards a minor setting. The poet is already begging for love. Listen to the “sighing” notes and the lilt of the nightingale in the 2nd song. A sprightly third song makes huge demands on the performer to deliver the song breathlessly and enunciate the alliterative text precisely. The next songs declare in metaphor and hyperbole the beauty of his love. You will “hear” the bitter weeping. You will hear the lily “whisper a song of his beloved”. In the 6th Lieder the Cathedral in Cologne on the Rhine River is evoked. Schumann’s Symphony, No. 3, in E flat Major, “Rhenish”, his last symphony, tells of the Cathedral and the river. The Fourth Movement is marked “Cathedral”. The poet sees his lady as the Virgin Mary in a portrait hanging in the Cathedral.

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral

Now come songs of anger and frustration. The poet declares he is not complaining. He is! No less than six times he bitterly denounces the young woman. You will easily hear the anger in the almost shouted verses and the repeated compelling chordal material for the piano. Listen to the Baritone pronounce “asunder” in the last line of the 8th song! The tune sounds happy and there is dancing. You will hear the rapid steps of the dance, as the poet sees his love’s wedding in progress. He imagines he hears “angels wailing” while the music plays. He goes on in the next three poems to see the girl jilted. The 10th song is marked ‘’Langsam’, German for fairly slow. It is a tender song with a repeated gentle broken chord piano figure. As I mentioned earlier the piano often plays on after the words end. Particularly in the 12th song, the piano walks slowly as the poet paces in a garden and continues to make remarks to the “sorrowful, pale-faced man” long after the verses have ended. The keyboard comments are echoes of the vocal sentiments using harmonies that reflect the emotions just expressed. The singer continues to emote in the 13th song. In arched phrases, and in low almost murmurs he utters “I wept in my dreams,” … “I dreamed you lay in your grave”… “I dreamed you had left me:”…”I dreamed you were still kind to me:” The two final songs are the longest in the cycle. The 15th is a remembrance of happier times reflected in nature. Flowers bloom, trees sing, misty shapes dance wondrously. He declares in short phrases that the rapture he sees in his dreams is dispelled by the sun in the morning, “like empty bubbles.” The final song is entitled “The old and evil songs”. The poet remembers the bad and ugly dreams he has had. He calls for a huge coffin, bigger “than the tun of Heidelberg.” The term refers to a comically huge wine cask in the cellar of the city’s castle.  A fun side trip to Google will tell you all about this huge cask. It is a fun non-musical exploration. Next the poet wants a funeral bier larger than the bridge in Mainz. Finally in declamatory gruff phrases he asks for 12 Giants, mightier than St. Christopher in the Cologne Cathedral, to carry the coffin to the sea. A huge coffin “demands a huge grave.”

The tun of Heidelberg

The tun of Heidelberg

All this has been delivered in commanding imperious measures. Now he asks, in a different tone, “Do you know why the coffin must be so huge and heavy?” I want to sink my love and my sorrow in it.” This final walk to the sea is a staccato march that I find totally sarcastic. Does the poet free himself of the anger and sorrow by this final act? It is over except for the lengthy passage for the piano that seems to achieve a degree of peace and forgiveness in its final measures. Perhaps the last word from the piano is an Amen. Is this a tale of a dream or a reality? We shall never know. What we do know is that Clara and Robert married a year or so after the Dichterliebe was composed. Theirs was a true love cut off by the early death of Schumann. He had asked to be committed to an asylum after attempting suicide. He died at the age of 46 in 1856. Clara lived until 1896. She always proclaimed Schumann to have been the love of her life.

In the year before his marriage to Clara, did Schumann see himself as the miserable poet of Heine’s poems? Or was the cycle simply inspired by the poetry and story? He composed the whole cycle in a week. A strange fact is that Schumann was in awe of the poet, Heine. While still studying law Schumann sought him out and was welcomed by Heine. Later in life when the composer sent the poet some settings of his poetry, he never heard back from the older man. Schumann was crushed.

The Dichterliebe is among the most loved of all Lieder Cycles. Schubert, Brahms, Wolf; all composed songs of immense beauty. Schumann’s contribution to the art of Lieder is an amazing collection of lyric and declamatory writing for voice and sympathetic descriptive material for the piano. It is important to mention that diverse interpretations of this work abound. Some singers find the protagonist self-indulgent. Some feel his devastating sadness and longing. Others find the cynicism in the poetry central to the theme, others express compassion for the poet. It is always marvelous to hear the particular interpretation evoked by a strong beautiful voice.

Finally, I urge you to get to know this art form! Song is, as Schumann found it, a great comfort and a great joy.

Portrait of Beethoven walking in the country

Portrait of Beethoven walking in the country

Coming off a failed courtship, Ludwig Van Beethoven, left Vienna for the quiet and countryside of Baden. It was there that he composed the Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97, “Archduke” dedicated (surprise, surprise) to the Archduke Rudolph of Austria. The composer dedicated a total of ten works to Rudolph. He was one of three noblemen that gave Beethoven a yearly allowance upon an agreement that Beethoven would never move permanently from Vienna. He had contemplated such a move. Rudolph was Beethoven’s friend and his piano student; an accomplished piano student. Spring and mid-summer usually found the composer in Baden happily walking the countryside paths and town streets. Ready for more connections? (Pretty forced this time!) Do you recall I mentioned that Brahms was an inveterate walker as well? I found a fun article from the Manchester Guardian (that is in England, not Vermont!!!) dated as you read below. Although the Archduke Trio was composed mostly in March of 1811, it seems apropos.

Beethoven's bargain with a Baden landlord
Originally published in the Manchester Guardian on 4 August 1924 Written in BADEN (NEAR VIENNA)

“July was probably just as unbearably hot in Vienna a hundred years ago as it is in our days.

(How about our Manchester here in Vermont this Sunday in July, 2019 as I write this Corner?)

The house Beethoven rented in Baden

The house Beethoven rented in Baden

The second half of the spring regularly found Beethoven in search of rooms amid the wooded hills west and south of the city. Best of all he liked Mödling and Baden. Baden is fifteen miles distant, about a twenty minutes' journey by express train, about two hours by diligence in 1824. The Emperor Francis and his two brothers, the Archdukes Rudolf and Anton, regularly spent the summer holidays in Baden. Archduke Anton and Rudolf were Beethoven's patrons, and probably it was his stay in Baden which induced Beethoven to visit the spa as early as 1807. Two years later the Imperial family was away, but in October Napoleon was there for Beethoven to admire. He loved to walk amid the curious grey rocks and solitary Scotch firs which border the rivulet Schwechat and among the pine forests towards Helenenthal…

Beethoven had a preference for a special type of house – low, one-story buildings, of "Imperial" yellow color, with simple windows, "Imperial" green window ledges and shutters; on the courtyard side a slender balcony running round the first floor, and the windows of his room overlooking chestnut or lime trees.

The apprentice Schindler describes the search for rooms in 1823 as especially tedious. The rooms to be let did not suit, though they visited a great number of them. There remained one, the house in the Rathausgasse where Beethoven had spent the previous summer. But the locksmith who owned the house refused to take him again. "He quarreled always with the servants," argued the smith. Moreover, the great musician by this time was completely deaf, and in the previous year he used to beat the time with his fist on the table when composing, which irritated the plumber who lived in the next room. After long negotiations the locksmith agreed to take the maestro at the same rent as last year, but on one strange condition, which sent Beethoven into Homeric laughter. Beethoven must renew the wooden window shutters. The year before Beethoven used to write his various calculations and, further, his musical ideas upon the rough wood of the shutters. His admirers had since acquired the wood from the locksmith and so the rooms needed new shutters. In this house, 94, Rathausgasse, the first three parts of the Ninth Symphony were completed, a hundred and one years ago, amid failing health.”

Beethoven composing

Beethoven composing

Picture the slightly younger Beethoven at his desk after walking about town, and putting on the ledgers the themes that came to him as he strolled, perhaps saddened by his broken affair, perhaps already on the rebound and content, cheered by the country air. He wrote a Quartet and the “Archduke” that spring in very short order.

The Trio is in one word, huge. In length approximately forty minutes. In form, four expansive movements. In creativity, pure genius. Sometimes, as I have written before, analysis is not only unnecessary, but intrusive. Just listening, not trying to find every theme, every repeat, every intricate development is often the way to go. That said, here are a few guidelines to the work I feel is the most beautiful of all Beethoven’s Chamber works.

The First Movement, marked Allegro Moderato, opens with a noble, lengthy theme that you will hear repeated and expanded in this Sonata form movement. It is a gracious lyrical melody introduced by the piano, considered quite unconventional for the time. It is then taken up by the violin as the piano ends its statement. The mood darkens, for a brief transition, and merriment follows. I simply wish you to relax and be amazed at the intricate turns the music takes. The second theme enters in a faraway key. Beethoven then lets us hear the exposition a second time. The development is a thorough exploration of the materials. Particularly moving for me is the cello pronouncement of the theme cut into by a pizzicato conversation between the instruments. Scale-like passages and solo comments eventually lead back to the first theme, abbreviated and in yet another guise. Beethoven explores every possible combination of the instruments thus giving us many textural variations to appreciate. In some passages he even gives each hand on the piano a separate voice, treating the one instrument as two. In the recap he gives the second theme an extra turn, but always returns to the grace of the opening phrase even though the melody may be truncated. It is such a comforting song. I look at the movement as a story.  This is not an original thought, but one I strongly believe in. The beginning, the complications, and the happy ending are very very obvious to me in the construction of the Sonata.

The second movement is a Scherzo, not the expected slow movement. Beethoven did this in several later works. The first theme is jocular. A bright trip up scales. Does this make a theme? For sure, add the rhythmic pulse and there it is! The contrasting trio is a creepy chromatic theme. The repeat comes as it should, ABA, followed by an expansion of the form with an extra playing of the B theme and the A theme. Do you hear any forecast of Chopin in the movement, a hint at a waltz, and how about a few fugal measures? Do try to identify these passages. A bright brief tail (remember the word “coda”?) concludes the fast paced Scherzo. Do you remember the definition of the term, Scherzo? It is Italian for joke. This movement may be somewhat strange to you. Beethoven was so serious, often consumed with anger or in a stage of depression He embodied the spirit of the coming age of Romanticism. He was an advocate of political freedom. He was most certainly a breaker of rules in society, and in his music. But now we hear Beethoven in a humorous mood. Not the “Titan” or fist shaking, epitome of the “me, me” Romantic composer. Here is a happy, almost funny person who happens to compose amazing music. But wait, if you think he is happy now, wait until the Finale!

And now the sublime Andante, Cantabile ma però con moto (singing, but with motion). If you are not transported by the piano opening the movement with a sublime chorale like melody, surely the entrance of the strings will move you almost to tears. The cello continues on to sing with the violin and the piano. The melody soars above the piano. There is a constant forward moving pace kept by the piano until the materials become jaunty. There is a splendid change of moods. I know you will recognize the movement’s form is a “theme and variations”. The plan takes a hymn-like theme and explores it with “ever quickening rhythmic patterns” (this is a quote from James Keller’s excellent analysis of the work in Chamber Music, A Listener’s Guide). The Coda reiterates the pensive loving measures. What is this? No bridge, no pause, only a single chord that seemingly interrupts the beauty of the melody and now it is all mirth that we hear. Robust and impudent a lively Rondo announces itself as the Fourth Movement. Sometimes it is all joy, sometimes almost a caricature of heroic music. Beethoven truly laughing, almost a guffaw! The Coda is yet another surprise. It is Haydnesque, spirited and fun. The entire movement is replete with Beethoven’s unique instrumental combinations and textures and his early explorations of harmonic intrigue. The rhythms and tempos are truly off the charts. Smile, as the work gallops to a rousing close.

Sketch of Beethoven with his hearing trumpet

Sketch of Beethoven with his hearing trumpet

It has been mentioned over time in notes written about this work, that the first public performance was a disaster because Beethoven played the piano score but could not hear. Louis Spohr, his friend, composer, conductor, and violinist, wrote that

“....There was scarcely (anything) left of the virtuosity of the art which had formerly been so greatly admired. In forté he pounded on the keys until they jangled and in piano he played so softly that whole groups of notes were omitted, so the music was unintelligible.”

It was Beethoven’s last public performance.

A bit about the Piano Trio as an ensemble. It was a most popular form in the early 19th Century. Symphonies were even arranged for this small group. This piece was Beethoven’s last of his seven works for Piano Trio. At 41 years old and after 16 years of composing works for three instruments, Beethoven turned away from the form. This final contribution to the genre is a wonderful mixture of “gemütlichkeit” (the German word meaning cordiality or friendliness), and nobility, of serene moods and boisterous humor. There is nothing epic about the piece, no anger, no rudeness, and no sharp breakups of materials. Rather, this is friendly music. It is genuinely content; genial. Prepare to be enchanted by the prolonged beauty of line and brilliant blending of the three instruments. In my opinion, as the Cole Porter song declares, “It’s the top!” 

Beethoven conducting

Beethoven conducting

You do not need me to relate Beethoven’s biographical material. A trip to any of the excellent websites concerning the composer will give you all the information. It is important to understand that Beethoven was crucial in the transition from the Classical Period in art and music to the Romantic era. He was an enormous presence, his intensity and energies devoted proclaiming the individuality of artist in all disciplines were felt throughout Europe. Picture him striking his dedication to Napoleon from the score of the Eroica Symphony in anger because the French leader declared himself “Emperor of the French”. Do you see him conducting his Magnum Opus, Symphony No. 9 and not hearing the audience cheering behind him at the end of the “Ode to Joy”?  And who was the “Immortal Beloved” to whom he wrote a letter? Do you know the account of his death? It is reported by those at his deathbed that he shook his fist as a thunderstorm rolled over Vienna. Did he then really say, “Friends, applaud. The comedy is over.”?  (Where have you heard those words before in a musical setting? That is your homework for next week, my friends.) Or, as is more likely, did he say to a friend who brought him red wine “Pity, pity, too late.” Maybe these few insights into the man that was Beethoven will spur you on to delve deeper into his world. I hope so.

Please listen to both works before the concert if possible. I think a first hearing will enhance the live performance for you. It will give you a feeling for what the music is, and with these notes, a bit of a guided tour of the piece.

There are two links for the Dichterliebe, Op. 48 that I recommend. Both on YouTube. One is one of the Lieder cycle that scrolls the score. It is listed as “Sheet Music Video” with the Baritone, Fritz Wunderich. The other video recording is that of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and pianist, Vladimir Horowitz. It has the poems in German and in English. It is a historical treasure.

Again on YouTube, one video of the Beethoven Piano Trio, Op. 97, “Archduke” I like is a trio ensemble made in heaven. Menuhin, Rostropovich and Kempff. There is also one of the scrolling score listed by Schwammerl and also a Heifetz on Tour video. All wonderful.

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As I have mentioned before, I would love some feedback. Write to me at fran@mmfvt.org. I would gladly follow up on any questions or thoughts you might have re: the Orchestra concert on August 10th. What is it that might interest you about the Rachmaninoff and the Brahms offerings on the program?

Up next is a long ramble about the amazing transcription of Bach’s Goldberg Variations you will hear on August 8th. Try to listen to the original of this masterpiece written for harpsichord before you hear the work performed as a String Trio. Glenn Gould is the “Lord of the Rings” for the original of the work. By the way, what is a transcription? Until next week!

But first, enjoy the two masterpieces coming up on the 1st of August!  

- Fran, happy in my Corner


Further Listening: