Manfred Overture, Op. 115

by Max Derrickson

Robert Schumann
(Born in Zwickau, Germany, June 8, 1810; died in Endenich, Germany, July 29, 1856)

Schumann’s father was a bookseller and publisher who fostered in his son an affinity for the glories of literature.  That love would inform everything Robert Schumann did for the rest of his life.  Music was introduced to him rather informally, and although he learned piano, it would take some years for him to decide upon music as a career.  When he did, however, literature and writing remained equally important to him.

In 1834, Schumann and friends launched a new music journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal of Music) to champion great music and musicians, and, they hoped, to stand as a beacon toward “true art.”  Headed by Schumann for many years, Neue Zeitschrift chronicled the Romantic Era of music during its richest time, as Wagner, Mendelssohn, Chopin and Berlioz flourished.  Perhaps the most famous endorsement Schumann ever made there, however, was of the young Johannes Brahms, and it began their lifelong friendship of encouragement and respect.  In the midst of these literary pursuits, Schumann began to compose, especially works that were inextricably linked to great literature, and above all the work of Lord Byron.

One of the most heralded Romantic writers in Schumann’s day was (Lord) George Gordon Byron (1788 – 1824).  Byron’s writings seemed to epitomize the Romantic spirit, especially in the German literary movement known as “Young Germany.”  These were the German Romantics who, as Schumann’s biographer Martin Geck wrote, “ … [were] convinced that their own fates were exceptional, they sought to lead lives that were a mixture of grandiosity, world weariness, lovesick repining, disgust with life, and an entanglement with black magic.”  No other work captured this pathos as intensely as Byron’s Manfred (1817).  It was a dramatic poem-play (or, a “closet play” that was typically written in dialogue but not meant to be performed on stage) describing the aftermath of self outcast.  Manfred, the hero, retreats from society to the Alps, tormented by a guilt which is never explained in the poem.  Alone, he wanders the mountains and searches his heart and psyche; his conscience tortured, he summons witches to make him forget his transgression, which revolve around his great love, Astarte.  The witches cannot help, and Manfred throws himself to his death. 

Schumann was deeply moved by Manfred and wanted to bring it to the stage.  He wrote an impressive series of incidental music for its performance, including chorus, songs and monastic chanting, and it was premiered with the help of Liszt as “Dramatic Poem in Three Parts with Music” in 1852.  It was frequently performed thereafter, one staging done by Brahms in 1855 in Hamburg.  Schumann said, “I have never abandoned myself to a composition with the love and expenditure of effort that I did in the case of Manfred.”  For Schumann, this enterprise was about the bigger picture of conjoining literature and music, where one could express what the other could not, but together they create a symbiosis of art.

The entire work is rarely performed today, except for its superb Overture, one of Schumann’s finest orchestral works.  It captures, […] talent for sublime melodic invention is maybe best captured in the love theme for Astarte, […] the flute, over light string and horn accompaniment, plays this very chromatic theme – a string of falling and rising notes – now somber, and a testament to […]