The Schumann Legacy
2 p.m. Dec. 4, 2022 * Musical Instrument Museum
Warren Cohen, conductor
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Introduction and Allegro Appassionato, op.92 (Konzertstück)
Warren Cohen, piano
Violin Concerto in D minor, WoO 23
Christiano Rodrigues, violin
- Im kräftigem, nicht zu schnellem
- Lebhaft, doch nicht schnell
Jessica Carter (b. 1992), MusicaNova Composition Fellow
Ashes to Poinsettias (world premiere)
Overture, Scherzo and Finale, op. 52
This concert is supported in part by grants from Hannah Selznick, the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture and the Arizona Commission on the Arts.
By Warren Cohen
Perhaps no composer has been more misunderstood because of the conflation of his personal life and his music than Robert Schumann.
One could argue that Schumann himself created this problem by the deeply personal but very public meaning he attached to many of his works, especially early in his career. And many aspects of his personal life created a fascination with him as a character: He was an important music critic; he married one of the most important and influential pianists of the 19th century, and their life was a public one; he suffered from episodes of severe mental illness that have been the subject of rampant (and largely unfounded) speculation.
The conflation of person and music has also led to the idea that the music he wrote in the last years of his short life were the product of a deranged mind, a drop in quality from his earlier work. In this regard, his wife and some of his friends were partly culpable.
Clara tried to suppress some of the later work, in one case destroying the music. We can understand that her judgment was clouded by her association of these pieces with the terrifying manic episodes during which they were written. People close to her who had also been close to Robert – most significantly Johannes Brahms and the violinist, conductor and composer Joseph Joachim — either shared her concerns or were deferential to them.
But the problems we have understanding and coming to grips with Schumann’s music, especially his later music, is also related to other factors. For example, a common criticism is that Schumann’s orchestration is poor, and it is not unusual for conductors to change his scoring to “clear things up.”
These problems, however, disappear once you use an orchestra of the size that Schumann wrote for. When he was conducting in Dresden, he had at most 8 first and second violins, and frequently as few as five. The massive string sections used in most professional performances of his music are completely wrong headed. The clarity, vitality and originality of his scoring, which is absolutely brilliant, are immediately apparent once you use the right size orchestra.
His tempo markings are often mysterious, and in many cases he left metronome marks that are baffling — usually too fast, but not consistently so. Accounts during his lifetime make clear that neither he nor Clara followed these tempos in performance, and the fascinating recordings and reminiscences of Clara’s students suggest these tempos were never observed.
It is hard to know what to make of them: Was his metronome off? Did his internal ear betray him? We don’t know. In her editions of his music, Clara reproduced the tempo markings without comment, but unlike some composers (such as Beethoven), where observing the written metronome speeds give us new insights, Schumann’s do not. Observing them would lead to incoherence, and very few people have tried.
There is also his piano writing, which can be extremely awkward, with massive stretches and uncomfortable finger patterns, and a tendency to score densely in the middle register. There are several factors here.
Beginning about 1837, all his piano music was written for Clara, and she had immense hands. One of her students described how she warmed up by playing tenths in both hands, which “she played as easily as the rest of us play octaves.” She was extremely strong and flexible as well, and the awkwardness that would be noticeable to others would be lost on her.
As for the dense middle register writing, we have to consider that the pianos of Schumann’s time were “straight strung.” The modern pattern, where the bass strings of the piano cross over the strings of the middle and upper register, was not used on any piano that the Schumanns used. Any performance on a modern piano needs to keep this in mind, requiring the pianist to lighten up the texture a great deal. This is not the fault of the composer, but simply the result of changes in the instrument itself.
Performance practice in string playing also has changed a great deal. We are fortunate to have recordings by Joachim, which tell us a lot about what Schumann thought a violin should sound like: a much lighter (and highly varied) vibrato, and an extensive repertoire of expressive slides and a reliance on a very connected, on the string, sound.
All of this has created a situation where it is well worth the time to rethink and re-evaluate the music of Schumann in a way that reflects the sound world in which he lived and worked.
As for the works on this program, they have all been somewhat neglected, although they are all musically fascinating and original.
The Konzertstück is one of many works by 19th century composers that are not quite concertos: They are shorter, perhaps lighter in texture and mood, and not as grand. This presents a problem for the modern concert program, which usually relies on the formula of overture-concerto-symphony. The Konzerstück doesn’t quite fit the concerto bill, but it requires a soloist. The music itself is fascinatingly innovative. Schumann has envisioned the work as an extended collaboration between the solo piano and the various sections of the orchestra. The effect is almost a kind of concerto grosso, with many solo instruments guided by the piano in the middle of the texture. These solos are set off by brief moments of orchestral tutti writing in which the piano does not participate.
The Overture, Scherzo and Finale is another strikingly innovative conception, in that it most definitely is not a symphony and yet almost feels like one. The weight of the symphonic argument is almost entirely in the last movement, and the work lacks any slow movement. You might be led to think that a “symphony” is coming from the enigmatic feeling of the slow introduction, but the quick music that follows, with its dance character, has no hint of symphonic development. The scherzo that follows could fit into a symphony, but in this context works as a kind of transition to the much more symphonic finale, which uses material drawn from ideas in the first two movements, developing it into a more traditionally symphonic movement. There is really no other work quite like it in the repertoire, and like the Konzertstück, has been neglected because it falls between the cracks of the usual programming of modern symphonies.
The neglect of the Violin Concerto is another matter entirely, one that reflects on the various confusions and difficulties with Schumann that I mentioned earlier. Requested by Joachim, it was written in a manic fever during two weeks of 1853, during a time when Schumann believed he was channeling the spirits of Schubert and Mendelssohn. The theme of the second movement was used again a few months later as the basis of a set of piano variations — the last music Schumann composed before being committed to an asylum, and he did not seem aware that he had composed this “glorious angelic music” for another piece only a few months earlier.
Given this history, it is not surprising that Joachim and Clara were wary of it. Joachim never performed the work, although he kept the manuscript and donated it to the Prussian (later Berlin) State Library with the provision that it not be performed until 1956 — one hundred years after the death of the composer.
The work was basically hidden away until 1933, when Joachim’s niece, Jelly D’Arnayi, said the spirit of Schumann had contacted her at a séance and asked her to perform the concerto. In a second séance, Joachim directed her to the Berlin State Library to get the score.
Of course this is nonsense. She was almost certainly aware that her uncle had willed the score to the Berlin State Library, and she was simply looking for an excuse to play it. But it did have the effect of getting other people, including the publisher Schott, interested in the work. Schott sent a copy of the score to Yehudi Menuhin, who decided that he wanted to play it.
But ultimately, as the copyright was in Germany, none of this mattered, and officials of the German government would decide who was going to give the premiere. By now it was 1937, and there was no way they were going to let Jews like Menuhin or d’Arnayi get first shot at it. They gave it to Georg Kulenkampff, who did the premiere and first recording in collaboration with Georg Schuenemann, the Nazi director of the music division of the Berlin State Library. Menuhin and d’Arnayi played it soon after, and Menuhin recorded it as well.
Response to the work was interesting. Many critics felt it was inferior to his other concertos, but enough people were attracted to it to keep it at the fringes of the repertoire. The work’s cause was not helped by the two early recordings.
The Kulenkampff was rescored, and Kulenkampff changed the solo part, especially its articulations, to make it flashier. The result is an incoherent mess. Menuhin’s recording is truer to the score, but the performance, like Kulenkampff’s, seems determined to make the work a virtuoso showpiece. Fortunately, Menuhin’s technique had not yet gone to seed, so he was able to pull it off, but unfortunately it does not serve the score well, and the accompaniment by John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic is heavy handed and dull.
A number of recordings followed, many of a rather duty-bound quality and sound that give the impression that because this is the work of a famous composer we should do it. The performances are usually perfunctory.
Recently, however, there have been several attempts at playing the work with an ear to historical performance practice: using smaller string sections, varying and suppressing the use of vibrato, and having the solo part much more integrated into the orchestra. The results have shown the work to be startling, original, and deeply personal.
Again, we have to consider that Schumann was writing for a soloist (Joachim) and an orchestra (likely Dresden) that he knew, and the music reflected their aesthetic. The recordings of Joachim with their use of a very light and tight vibrato, carefully measured expressive slides, and a consistent sound that is pulled deeply into the string, are a clue to the effective performance of this music.
It is unfortunate that circumstances and personal feelings never allowed Joachim to perform the work, but at least he preserved it so we can appreciate this remarkable score today, and perhaps we are even more fortunate that we live in an age where the music world has caught up to the extraordinary imagination of Schumann’s late works.
Notes from Composition Fellow Jessica T. Carter:
Every year for Christmas, my grandmother brings home a fresh bouquet of poinsettias to display around the house. The poinsettia flower has always been a symbol of the Christmas season in my household. Native to Mexico, the plant is called Flor de la Noche Buena (Flower of the Holy Night) due to its resemblance to the star of Bethlehem. Thus, it represented a symbol of hope.
However, in 2014, the poinsettia would come to represent destruction as the nickname for the second most destructive wildfire in San Diego, Calif., starting at Poinsettia Lane and burning over 400 acres of land over the course of three days. A year later, an article describing the scene held the inscription that served as the catalyst for this piece: “Sound rises from the ashes of the Poinsettia fire.“
Ashes to Poinsettias tells a narrative to evoke the idea of a single poinsettia flower outlasting the destruction of the Poinsettia fire. It musically juxtaposes this narrative by using grandiose moments intermixed within thematic development that encompasses the idea of hope amid destruction.
Our Guest Artists
Jessica T. Carter is a composer, violinist, mezzo-soprano, voice coach, and educator from Indiana. Specializing in concert music, film scoring, and musical theatre, Jessica’s aim and goal as a composer is to exude the message of hope and freedom to all but specifically to marginalized children.
Ms. Carter has twice received the Craig and Carol Kapson Bicentennial Scholarship in Music through Indiana University South Bend. In 2020, she was the winner of the Indiana University South Bend Symphonic Composition Competition with the work, “Rancor and Triumph,” a concerto for cello and orchestra. In the same year, Jessica published her ground-breaking research, “Concert Music of the Civil Rights Movement: Uncovering the Erasure of Black American Composers in the United States.”
Additionally, she has completed three full-length musicals and one chamber opera. She has been commissioned by several organizations including Crossing Borders Music, Castle of Our Skins, and the South Bend Symphony Orchestra.
As a violinist, she has performed with the Notre Dame Symphony Orchestra, the South Bend Symphony Orchestra and the Elkhart Symphony. As a dramatic mezzo soprano, she has appeared with the South Bend Lyric Opera in the choruses for Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Cavalleria Rusticana, in which she also covered the role of Lucia.
Christiano Rodrigues, who served as MusicaNova’s concertmaster from 2016 to 2019, is assistant professor of violin and viola at Washington State University.
A firm advocate of diversity, equity, equality, and inclusion within the arts, he devotes a significant amount of time to support music education of children and developing young artists from underserved communities. He continues to be a partner of the Harmony Project in Phoenix and has given masterclasses to social projects in Brazil and Puerto Rico.
He received his bachelor’s degree in music at Nicholls State University, his master’s degree from Rice University, and his doctorate from Arizona State University. He received chamber music training from the Cavani String Quartet at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and has since received further training from members of the Tokyo, Cleveland, Ying, and St. Lawrence String Quartets.
Since 2016, he has been on the artist faculty of the Round Top Festival Institute, where he has helped inspire dozens of young artists, many of which now enjoy thriving musical careers in the United States and abroad. Additionally, he has served as concertmaster of the Round Top Festival Orchestra and collaborated in numerous chamber music performances. He has been a guest artist with the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra in Croatia, the Mercury Chamber Orchestra in Houston, and the International Chamber Orchestra of Puerto Rico.
Currently he serves as guest concertmaster with the Walla Walla Symphony. He has performed as soloist with several orchestras in the United States and South America, including world premieres of concerti by Rodney Rogers with the MusicaNova Chamber Players and James Nyoraku Schlefer with the Round Top Festival Orchestra.
He performs extensively with pianist Karen Nguyen as a member of the Rodrigues-Nguyen Duo. The duo has premiered and recorded music by Rodney Rogers, and maintains a concert series in Arizona called “The Duo Project.” Through this series, the duo has curated imaginative programs in collaboration with world-class artists, bringing the collective power of the arts to hundreds of new audience members in Arizona and abroad.
A native of Brazil, he first learned the violin from his aunt Ana Elizabeth. In Brazil, he enjoyed his solo debut performing the Vieuxtemps Concerto No. 5 with the Orquestra Sinfônica da Bahia. He also served as the principal second violinist of the Orquestra de Câmera da Cidade de João Pessoa, and enjoyed played alongside his mother, violist Maria Celina, at the Orquestra Sinfônica da Paraiba.
Julian Nguyen, concertmaster
John & Elizabeth McKinnon chair
Eva Dove, principal
Robert Dixon chair
Stephen H. Tillery
Dana Zhou, principal
Dominique van de Stadt & Octavio Pajaro chair
Maria Simiz, principal
David Connell chair
*Alberto Allende, principal
*Jeanie Pierce, principal
Hoon Chang, principal
Nina Gurin memorial chair
Denise and Rob Wilson chair
Kristin Fray, principal
Gina Stevens, principal
Martha Edwards, principal
Chris Albrecht, principal
*Sonja Branch, principal
Leger Strategies chair
*Liz McKinnon, personnel manager
Spencer Ekenes, librarian
*Orchestra members since the first season