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Schumann's Cello Concerto

Manfred Overture (1848/49)
Robert Schumann (Zwickau, Saxony, 1810 – Endenich, near Bonn, 1856)

Manfred is a quintessentially Romantic hero dreamed up by that most Romantic of all poets, George Gordon Lord Byron, who was born in 1788 and died while fighting for the independence of Greece.
    Byron's short dramatic poem Manfred from 1816-17 conceals almost as much about its elusive hero as it reveals.  Manfred's solitary journeys, which take him to the snow-capped peaks of the Swiss Alps and to the underworld, are more symbolic than real.  The major tragedy of his life, his love affair with his sister Astarte, who dies under mysterious circumstances, is only hinted at and never recounted in full.  (Byron biographers regularly point to a parallel between Manfred's love for Astarte and Byron's own love affair with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh.)
    What is certain is that Manfred's quest for truth in the supernatural realm—his desire to forget and to die—were traits dear to the Romantic soul.  Manfred also ahs a great deal in common with two other Romantic heroes, Faust and Don Juan.  His opening monologue about the futility of knowledge, in particular is very close to Faust's opening lines in Goethe's dramatic poem.  But the influence went both ways, because Part II of Faust, written eight years after Byron's death, contained a scene directly inspired by the English poet's tragic demise.  As for Don Juan, about whom Byron wrote a celebrated epic poem, it is easy to recognize the parallel when Manfred's life is claimed by a spirit from the other world at the end of the drama.
    Few European intellectuals in the 19th century could fail to be fascinated by Byron's flamboyant personality, manifest both in his adventurous life and in his poetry.  Schumann had been attracted to Byron since his early youth; he set several of the Englishman's poems to music, and later confessed that “I have never before devoted myself to a composition with such love and such exertion of my powers as to Manfred.”
    Schumann's Manfred Overture does not fall short of the passion inherent in its literary model.  It is written in the unusual key of E-flat minor, whose six flats suggest darkness and tragic emotions.  After three dramatic introductory chords, there is a harmonically daring slow introduction whose tempo gradually increases and becomes more and more impassioned.  The first theme seems to represent Manfred himself, the second his sister-lover Astarte.  The tension never abates, and the listener is kept on edge to the end, when the second theme disintegrates and the slow tempo of the introduction returns.  The last section is marked mit Ausdruck (“with expression”), and the music fades out with two pianissimo chords.

Sinfonia concertante in B-flat major (1792)
Joseph Haydn (Rohrau, Lower Austria, 1732 – Vienna, 1809)

Sinfonia concertante—symphony or concerto?  Not that we want to be pedantic about definitions, but the brief period during which this particular type of composition flourished (about 1770 to 1830) was precisely the time when the classical symphony and the concerto crystallized as two very different genres, each with its own style and conventions.  The sinfonia concertante, it seems, represents a conscious attempt to go against the grain and mix two types that were coming to be thought of as quite separate.  In fact, we might actually want to use the French spelling: symphonie concertante, because this was a predominantly Parisian genre.  About half of the surviving 570 works were written by French composers or foreigners residing in France.
    One composer belonging to the latter category was Ignaz Pleyel, born in Ruppersthal, Austria, in 1757.  As a boy of fifteen, Pleyel went to Eisenstadt to study with Joseph Haydn, and stayed with him for several years.  He eventually settled in France, where he became equally successful as a composer and, later, as a piano manufacturer.  (His firm exists to this day, and one of the most prestigious concert halls in Paris, the Salle Pleyel, is named after him.)  When musical life came to a grinding halt in France in the wake of the 1789 revolution, Pleyel was happy to accept an invitation from Wilhelm Cramer, director of the Professional Concerts in London, to come to England for a series of concerts early in 1792.  And who did Pleyel run into in the English capital but his old teacher Haydn, who himself had been brought over from Austria by Johann Peter Salomon, Cramer’s competitor as a concert presenter.
    The London newspapers were full of stories discussing the relative merits of master and pupil.  Haydn himself felt challenged by his younger colleague, but we know from a letter he wrote to his Viennese friend Marianne von Genzinger that the competition was an amicable one:

Pleyel behaved so modestly towards me upon his arrival that he won my affection again.  We are very often together, and this does him credit, for he knows how to appreciate his father.  We shall share our laurels equally and each go home satisfied.

    One area where Haydn could learn something from his former student was the symphonie concertante, which Pleyel had mastered in France and which now won him accolades in London.  A concertante by Pleyel was performed at Cramer’s concerts on February 27, 1792, and the London Oracle wrote the next day:  ‟The subject extremely easy, airy and well calculated for the obligati [solo instruments]...which succeed each other -- all varied with profound skill, and producing the most delightful effects.”
    Less than two weeks later, Haydn’s Sinfonia concertante -- the first and only one he ever wrote -- was premiered in Salomon’s concert series and, to quote the same newspaper, ‟Haydn directed for the first time the Performance of a New Concertante...The prevailing manner of this Master pervaded every movement -- it had all his usual grandeur, contrasted by the levity of airy transition, and the sudden surprises of abrupt rests.”  (‟Airy” was apparently one of this anonymous reviewer’s favorite adjectives.)
    Throughout his long career, Haydn showed only sporadic interest in concertos.  He had written quite a few in his youth, but his mature works include only three concertos:  one each for keyboard, cello, and trumpet.  Not being a virtuoso performer himself undoubtedly had something to do with the relative scarcity of his contributions to the concerto literature.
    One can see from the Sinfonia concertante in B-flat major that Haydn approached the genre more from the symphonic perspective, rather than as a concerto.  Mozart’s famous Concertante for violin and viola (1779) was, for all intents and purposes, a double concerto, with the two solo instruments always neatly separated from the orchestra.  Haydn, on the other hand, must have counted on the two woodwind soloists to play along in all the tutti sections for the score contains only one orchestral oboe part and no orchestral bassoon at all.  By extension, it is likely that the solo violin and solo cello were part of the orchestra as well.
    In the first movement, the solos begin during what is formally still the tutti exposition -- a surprising and quite audible departure from the norm.  Each of the four solo instruments is treated virtuosically, yet the violin is definitely more prominent than the others.  It frequently leads the group of soloists and is given short mini-cadenzas (unaccompanied virtuoso passages) at important formal junctures.  At the premiere, the violin part was played by Johann Peter Salomon, the director of the concert series, who commissioned this work as well as the twelve ‟London” symphonies.  The main cadenza at the end of the movement, utilizing all four soloists, was of course fully written out by Haydn, since it was considered impossible for four musicians to improvise simultaneously (jazz had not yet been invented!).
    The second-movement Andante is close to chamber music as the role of the orchestra is reduced to accompanying the intertwined voices of the four solo instruments.
    The third movement, marked ‟Allegro con spirito,” is a typical Haydnian contradance finale -- with one difference, for no sooner does the happy main theme of the movement get underway than it is suddenly interrupted by a curious instrumental recitative for violin.  This gesture, seemingly a parody of Italian opera, is found in several of Haydn’s works (beginning with the early Symphony No. 7), but it was never used to such startling effect, for the cheerful tone of the rest of the movement is in sharp contrast to these repeated incursions of mock tragedy.  (Haydn’s use of instrumental recitative found continuation in the works of Beethoven, most notably in the last movement of the Ninth Symphony.)  Despite these interruptions and a few other passing clouds, the Concertante retains its happy, bright, and ‟airy” mood to the very end.

Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129 (1850)
Robert Schumann (Zwickau, Saxony, 1810 – Endenich, nr. Bonn, 1856)

Robert Schumann’s appointment as music director in Düsseldorf in 1850 promised the beginning of a new career for the 40-year-old composer, who had gone through a series of severe emotional and artistic crises in the previous years.  In 1844, following a serious nervous breakdown, he had sold the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (‟New Music Journal”) of which he had been the proprietor, editor and chief music critic, and moved from Leipzig to Dresden with his wife, the great pianist Clara Wieck, and their two children.  (Four more children were born to the Schumanns in Dresden, and another two in Düsseldorf.)
    The Dresden years did not fulfill Schumann’s expectations.  The concert life in the Saxon capital was less active than in Leipzig, a great cultural and commercial center.  The main musical institution in Dresden was the court opera, where Schumann had to face a formidable rival by the name of Richard Wagner, who was the conductor there.  Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Lohengrin were written while the two men lived in the same city (though Lohengrin’s first performance fell through due the 1848 revolution and Wagner’s subsequent flight from Germany).  Schumann’s own opera Genoveva, completed in 1848, was not accepted for performance in Dresden, and was finally produced in Leipzig, Schumann’s old home, in 1850.
    By that time, however, the call from Düsseldorf had come.  A friend of Schumann’s, the noted composer and conductor Ferdinand Hiller, was relinquishing his post as music director and recommended Schumann as his successor.  It was difficult for Schumann to leave his native Saxony for the Rhineland, about 400 miles to the west.  Although he had occasionally conducted orchestras before, this was his first full-time appointment as a conductor.  He felt, however, that he could not turn down his extraordinary offer, and in September 1850 he and his family took up residence in Düsseldorf.  The success of the new symphony completed soon after his arrival (and appropriately nicknamed the ‟Rhenish”) promised a new beginning for Schumann, who seemed finally on his way to recover from years of poor physical and mental health.  Alas, this promise was not to be fulfilled:  after only two seasons, his relations with the orchestra became troubled.  He attempted suicide early in 1854 and spent the rest of his life in an asylum.
    But back in 1850, Schumann was full of energy, thrilled by the prospect of new artistic activities.  In three months, he completed two major orchestral works, the ‟Rhenish” Symphony and the Cello Concerto.  However, while Schumann soon conducted highly acclaimed performances of the symphony in Düsseldorf and elsewhere, the concerto remained unperformed in the composer’s lifetime.
    The choice of a concerto for cello and orchestra is in itself a surprising one.  No major composer since Haydn had written such a work, although two lighter pieces for cello and orchestra exist by Carl Maria von Weber, and many composers, most of them cellists, had written concertos, variations, and other concert pieces.
    Schumann, while not a cellist himself, had in fact played the cello for a while.  Having been forced to give up the piano due to an injury to his right hand, he took up the cello as an instrument he hoped he could still master.  We don’t know exactly how far he got in his studies, but he definitely had a strong affinity for the instrument.  The year before the concerto, in 1849, he wrote five short pieces for cello and piano (Op. 102).
    Schumann’s cello concerto is in three movements, to be played without interruption.  The linkage of the movements is further emphasized by transitions and bridge passages unifying the whole composition through a network of motivic similarities.  Thus, the three chords that open the work also constitute—in modified form—the transition to the slow movement, and finally prepare the last movement’s main melody.  The introduction to the finale, moreover, contains reminiscences of themes from the first and second movements.
    The first movement is dominated by the beautiful solo cello melody with which it opens.  The second consists of a single cantabile for the solo instrument, accompanied, interestingly enough, by a second solo cello from the orchestra.  The finale, likewise, is based on a single idea, but it also give rise to a contrasting second theme, with an enchanting dialog between solo cello and woodwind.  The only cadenza in the concerto comes at the end of the third movement; it has the peculiarity of being accompanied by the orchestra.

Dances of Galánta (1933)
Zoltán Kodály (Kecskemét, Hungary, 1882 – Budapest, 1967)

Zoltán Kodály made it his life’s work to study the folk music of his native Hungary and to write original compositions inspired by the folk tradition.  Yet the Dances of Galánta are more than arrangements of folk dances heard during a field trip.  They held deep personal meaning for the composer, for the town of Galánta (in Northern Hungary, now Slovakia) was the place where he had grown up, having moved there as a toddler with his family.
    In the preface to the printed score, Kodály wrote:

The author spent the most beautiful seven years of his childhood in Galánta.  The town band, led by the fiddler Mihók, was famous.  But it must have been even more famous a hundred years earlier.  Several volumes of Hungarian dances were published in Vienna around the year 1800.  One of them lists its source this way: “from several Gypsies in Galánta.”… May this modest composition serve to continue the old tradition.

During his research, Kodály found extensive evidence to show that the fame of those Gypsy musicians had indeed spread far beyond the boundaries of their hometown.
    As a child in Galánta, Kodály not only had ample occasion to hear Mihók’s band; he also learned many folksongs, sung to him by servants and schoolmates.  (On another occasion in the 1930s, he would recall the voices of his “bare-footed companions from the Galánta public school.”)  At the same time, Kodály was introduced to Western classical music while in Galánta.  He took up the cello and, as his parents loved chamber music, he was soon able to participate in the musical evenings at home.
    Forty-odd years after the initial encounter with the Galánta dances, Kodály returned to them as a mature composer and a leading scholar of Hungarian musical traditions.  He took the melodies from the early 19th-century Viennese editions mentioned in the preface; these editions had just been rediscovered by a musicologist named Ervin Major.  Yet Kodály didn’t have to rely solely on the printed notes; he certainly had the sound of the old town band still in his ears when he scored the music.
    The style of these dances is known as verbunkos, from the German Werbung (recruitment).  The Austrian army recruiters used to travel around the countryside with dancers and musicians in tow, whose performances were meant to entice young men to sign up.  The verbunkos became the dominant Hungarian instrumental tradition of the 19th century.
    Kodály gave the various verbunkos melodies some exquisite musical coloring and arranged them in a masterful sequence with alternating moods and tempos.  The pensive introduction anticipates the stately principal melody, played by the solo clarinet.  Later on, this melody will return several times as a rondo theme.  Two intervening episodes (one played by the flute, the other by the oboe) are faster in tempo and lighter in character.  In the second half of the composition, the rondo form is cast aside and we hear a string of dance tunes that (with the exception of one slower theme) gradually get faster and faster.  The climactic ending is delayed for a moment by the return of part of the opening melody, with a short clarinet cadenza added.  The entire second half of the piece is dominated by a characteristic syncopated figure (short-long-short) which provides an ending which is as striking as it is simple.

Peter Laki



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