The last concert of the Northern Neck Orchestra’s 2018-2019 season, on May 25, 2019, led by Michael Repper, was a joyful celebration of the Schumann family, known in their time as the “first couple” of music. Listen to Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 7, with soloist Vijay Venkatesh. Read the program notes by Nancy Rowland below.
Program Notes by Nancy Rowland
Welcome to the last concert of the Northern Neck Orchestra’s 2018-2019 season led by Michael Repper, music director and conductor. Maestro Repper has planned a joyful and exuberant celebration of the Schumann family, known in their time as the “first couple” of music. We celebrate their marriage with Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro, and their orchestral works with soloist Vijay Venkatesh performing Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto and the orchestra performing Robert Schumann’s Third Symphony.
Overture to The Marriage of Figaro
The concert opens with the energetic overture to the opera The Marriage of Figaro (1786) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). The opera’s story is a tangled web of comedy, romance, and misadventure, all of which are expressed musically in the overture. None of the opera’s themes appear in the overture but it sets the frenetic pace and provides a musical preview of the comic foibles to come.
Mozart famously composed this enjoyable overture just days, some say hours, before the premier. He kept it short (4 to 5 minutes) because the opera already was quite long. The overture opens with bustling music that sounds like gossip, then explodes with effervescent gaiety, subsides, and explodes again. Mozart uses varying instrumentation and harmonies to express a range of musical ideas, always moving forward joyously, but never formally developing the themes. The music ends in a burst of joy, ready for the opera to begin.
The Schumanns’ Story
Robert Schumann met Clara Wieck in 1830 when he was 20 and she was 11 and both were taking piano lessons from her father. They developed a rivalry over piano performing which deepened over the years into love. He proposed to her when she turned 18. Her demanding father strenuously objected because he wanted Clara to continue her performing career and not marry a poor, neurotic composer. Robert took his case to court and won the right to marry Clara – in fact they married on the day before she turned 21. Robert gave Clara a wedding diary in which they made alternate entries for the first few years of married life, providing an intimate narrative of the lives of these two loving and creative artists.
At the time of their marriage, Clara was clearly the more famous of the pair. She had given her first recital at age 8, toured Europe at 11, and composed her piano concerto by age 16 (Robert helped with the orchestration of the third movement). She had performed the concerto herself with Mendelssohn conducting the Leipzig orchestra, and she had already greatly impressed Liszt and Chopin.
Robert had studied law at his strong-willed mother’s insistence while trying to play piano and compose as often as possible. The strain of this dichotomy led to a neurotic condition that persisted even after he abandoned the law and dedicated himself to music. When he later concentrated on composing, he alternated between periods of overwhelming depression and incredible productivity.
During their happy married life Clara and Robert studied scores together, read similar literature, and shared reactions to musical performances. They would write songs as birthday presents for each other. He encouraged her to compose and she urged him to expand his abilities from piano-writing to symphonies. Together they began to support the career of the young Johannes Brahms: Robert became the mentor of Brahms and Clara became his close friend.
Clara remained one of the foremost pianists of her time. She premiered new works by her husband, Brahms, and Chopin. She premiered Robert’s own Piano Concerto in A minor. Her time available for composing declined, however, because she became pregnant the year after they were married and had eight children over the next 13 years.
The composition in 1850 of Robert’s Third Symphony, his last, was the high point of his life. Afterwards, he had frequent attacks of what was probably depression or even schizophrenia, possibly due in part to the symphony’s “mixed” reviews from music critics. He tried to commit suicide in 1854 by drowning in the Rhine River but was rescued. He recovered and remained institutionalized until he died in 1856. During the years of his illness Clara remained devoted to him, and Brahms supported her the whole time.
After Robert’s death Clara continued to perform to support her large family. She dedicated herself to editing and tirelessly promoting Robert’s works. She did not retire from performing until age 80 after a 61-year career.
Clara and Brahms remained very close and corresponded frequently for the next 40 years. There is much speculation about the nature of their relationship. Some of their early letters sound very romantic but later letters display a deep friendship and mutual professional respect. Clara served as Brahms’ creative muse. He sent all his compositions to her for evaluation and feedback and she did not withhold criticism when she felt he was not producing his best work. They died within a year of each other.
Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto
Closing out the program’s first half is Clara Schumann’s (1819-1896) Piano Concerto in A minor (1835) with soloist Vijay Venkatesh. This piano concerto, composed by a teenager, shows the work of an independent-minded young virtuoso. The work has a sunny vision and simply stated themes yet it requires great virtuosity of the soloist.
The first movement, allegro maestoso (majestically fast), opens richly and dramatically. The music is bold and brimming with musical ideas that bring Chopin to mind. The second movement is a slow Romance to be played andante non troppo con grazia (not too slow, gracefully). This movement has a stunning simplicity and beauty. There is a lyrical, almost operatic, duet between the piano and cello.
The third movement, by far the longest of the three, is the Finale, played allegro non troppo – allegro molto (not too fast, then very fast). This movement begins with a trumpet introduction followed by a dance-like polonaise with spectacular musical effects including a delightful piano-woodwind dialog. The ending is totally joyous and optimistic.
Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3
The second half of the program is devoted to Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major (1850). The symphony has five movements in which Schumann proves his mastery of orchestral writing. The name “Rhenish” was applied to the symphony by the publisher, possibly because Schumann himself told them he thought that “the music mirrors something of Rhenish life.” The musical themes, particularly in the second movement, evoke the “flowing joyous simplicity and fresh naturalness of the folk life” in the Rhine River valley – Schumann’s own words.
The opening of the first movement Lebhaft (lively) is heroic and exuberant. The movement has long and glorious melodies and ebullient horn solos.
The second movement is a scherzo, labeled Sehr Massig (very moderate). Its main theme is played by cellos and bassoons. The tune, derived from an old German song, seems to portray a sunny day along the flowing waters of a river.
The third movement is simply labeled Nicht schnell (not fast). Clarinets and bassoons voice the main theme.
The fourth movement is stately and ecclesial, Feierlich (solemn). It is called the “cathedral” movement because it may recall the solemn elevation of an archbishop to cardinal that Robert and Clara attended. There is a slow and stately unfolding of melody and countermelody throughout the movement. Schumann introduced the use of trombones in this movement; they were not yet normally used in symphonies.
The final movement is again Lebhaft (lively) and echoes the heroic theme of movement 1 and the triumphant cathedral music of movement 3. The music is simultaneously lighthearted and majestic, closing with a celebratory brass fanfare, a fitting close to our orchestral season.