Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra

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Program Notes Featuring Composers: Schumann and Mendelssohn

Concert Date: Tuesday, February 14, 2017; 7:30 pm

Romance at the Museum

Program notes by Linda Shaver-Gleason (www.shavergleason.com) 

Chamber music is perhaps the most intimate form of classical music, intended for a small audience and necessitating constant communication between the players. We begin our celebration of Valentine’s Day with a chamber music arrangement of Robert Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe, Op. 48 (“A Poet’s Love”), in which a viola takes the role of the voice. Schumann composed this cycle during his “Year of Song,” so named because he wrote 138 songs in 1840. Not coincidentally, this was the same year in which he married Clara Wieck after a prolonged courtship in which they bore the constant disapproval of her father (his former piano teacher). Schumann selected the texts of Dichterliebe from Heinrich Heine’s 1823 poetry collection Lyrisches Intermezzo. It covers the life cycle of a passionate relationship from one lover’s perspective, from the initial hope through the bitter aftermath.

            As the source poetry is necessary to fully appreciate Schumann’s musical realization, we have provided English translations of Heine’s text. The title of each song is the first line of the poem, presented in bold below. The brief musical descriptions in italics are intended to help orient the listener throughout this evening’s wordless performance.

(Text translations from Wikibooks, descriptions by Linda Shaver-Gleason)

1. In the wonderful month of May, when all the buds were bursting open, my love burst forth from my heart.
In the wonderful month of May, when all the birds were singing, I confessed to her my yearning and my longing.

The rising melody mirrors the narrator’s anticipation, but the piano’s lack of harmonic resolution leaves the outcome uncertain.

2. From my tears burst many full-blown flowers, and my sighs become a nightingale chorus
And if you love me, dear child, I will send you all flowers; and before your window should sound the song of the nightingale.

The viola and piano present the simple, earnest melody together in chorale style. The piano ends each phrase with a few notes that hint at birdsong.

3. The rose, the lily, the dove, the sun, I once loved them all with ecstatic love.
I love them no more, I love only the little one, the dainty one, the pure one, the One.
She alone, the well-spring of all love, is rose and lily and dove and sun.

The brisk tempo reflects the narrator’s excitement as he rattles off these lists.

4. If I look into your eyes all my sorrow and pain disappear; but If I kiss your mouth, then I become wholly well.
If I lie upon your breast a heavenly happiness comes over me; but If you say: I love you! then I must weep bitterly.

The mood is reverent as the viola and piano echo each other, finally coming together at the kiss and declaration of love.

5. I will dip my soul in the chalice of the lily; the lily shall breathe a song about my beloved.
The song shall quiver and palpitate like the kiss of her mouth that once she gave me in a wonderfully sweet moment!

The piano’s rippling arpeggios reflect this quivering; it continues the melody after the viola finishes, suggesting a private memory.

6. The Rhine, the holy river, reflects in its waves, with its great cathedral, the great holy city of Cologne.
In the cathedral there hangs a painting painted on gilded leather; in the confusion of my life it has shone kindly down upon me.
Flowers and cherubs float about Our dear Lady. Her eyes, her lips, her cheeks are exactly like those of my love.

As the text explores an ancient cathedral, the music evokes a Baroque style with plodding bass and angular figuration. The melody sighs as the narrator describes the shared features of the Virgin Mary and his beloved.

7. I bear no grudge, although my heart is breaking, love lost to me forever, I bear no grudge.
You are radiant with diamonds in your splendor, there falls no light in the darkness of your heart.
I knew this long ago. I saw you, yes, in a dream, and saw the night that's come within your heart's chamber,
And saw the serpent that is gnawing at your heart, I saw, my love, how wretched you are.

The piano’s insistent chords convey barely-restrained fury, with the heroic, leaping melody indicating the narrator’s conviction that he is in the right.

8. And if they knew it, the blooms, the little ones, how deeply wounded my heart is, they would weep with me to heal my pain.
And if they knew it, the nightingales, how I am so sad and sick, they would loose the merry sound of refreshing song.
And if they knew my pain, the golden little stars, they would descend from their heights and would comfort me.
All of them cannot know it, only one knows my pain, she herself has indeed torn, torn up my heart.

The drooping melody repeats for the first three verses, but on the last verse it changes to reflect the narrator’s bitterness, followed by an outburst from the piano.

9. There is a blaring of flutes and violins and trumpets, for they are dancing the wedding-dance of my best-beloved.
There is a thunder and booming of kettle-drums and shawms. In between, you can hear the good cupids sobbing and moaning.

The piano and viola strike up an ironic dance.

10. When I hear that song which my love once sang, my breast bursts with wild affliction.
Dark longing drives me to the forest hills, where my too-great woe pours out in tears.

This song plods along as the narrator seeks solitude. The piano continues to wander after the melody has concluded, revealing pain too great to express in words.

11. A youth loved a maiden who chose another: the other loved another girl, and married her.
The maiden married, from spite, the first and best man that she met with: the youth was sickened at it.
It's the old story, and it's always new: and the one whom she turns aside, she breaks his heart in two.

As the story starts off cheerfully, Schumann’s setting is deceptively light. Though the song remains in major, heavy accents create the effect of sarcasm.

12. On a sunny summer morning I went out into the garden: the flowers were talking and whispering, but I was silent.
They looked at me with pity, and said, 'Don't be cruel to our sister, you sad, death-pale man.'

As the narrator roams the garden, the song encounters unexpected harmonies that pull the melody in new directions.

13. I wept in my dream, for I dreamt you were in your grave: I woke, and tears ran down my cheeks.
I wept in my dreams, thinking you had abandoned me: I woke, and cried long and bitterly.
I wept in my dream, dreaming you were still good to me: I woke, and even then my floods of tears poured forth.

This song borrows the style of a recitative, with the viola presenting a speech-like line and the piano providing punctuation.

14. I see you every night in dreams, and see you greet me friendly, and crying out loudly I throw myself at your sweet feet.
You look at me sorrowfully and shake your fair head: from your eyes trickle the pearly tear-drops.
You say a gentle word to me and give me a sprig of cypress: I awake, and there is no sprig, and I have forgotten what the word was.

The “aria” following the “recitative,” the melody is lyrical and flowing but ends abruptly as the narrator awakens.

15. From old fairy tales, it beckons, luring with a white hand; it does sing and it does wail just like a magic land:
Where the great flowers shrivel in evening sun so gold, and thinking back while civil with bridal guise foretold;
Where every sapling knows speech and sings just like a choir, and powerful sources breach like dance music on fire;
And love songs chime through the land, like you’ve ne’er heard before, until the yearning is grand will it make you implore!
Ah, could I really go there, and show my heart its glee, and take away so much tear, and be blissful and free!
Ach! Every land of pleasure, I see often in dreams; but come the morning’s treasure, all dissipates like cream.

Schumann uses several “fairy tale” tropes: a prancing meter, fanciful leaps, simple harmonies. When the narrator expresses a desire to visit this other realm, the tempo slows to reveal that it is all mere fantasy.

16. The old, hateful songs, the hateful, brutal dreams, let's now have them buried­; fetch up a great coffin.
I've a lot to put in it—just what, I won't say yet; the coffin must be even bigger than the Great Cask of Heidelberg.
And fetch a bier, and boards that are strong and thick; they too must be longer than the river bridge at Mainz.
And fetch me, too, twelve giants who must be stronger than St. Christopher, the great statue at the Cathedral of Cologne on the Rhine.
It's they who must haul the coffin and sink it in the sea; for a great coffin like that deserves a great grave.
Do you know why the coffin really has to be so huge and heavy? Because I sank all my love in it, and all of my great grief.

The song begins with a dramatic series of chords from the piano, and the melody follows suit as the narrator issues his hyperbolic orders. The music turns tender when speaking of love, and a long piano coda implies that the narrator has moved on.

            Chamber music was particularly important in the career of Schumann’s friend and colleague, Felix Mendelssohn. Long before these composers met, Mendelssohn was a child prodigy. He composed string symphonies and music for family plays as early as age twelve. But the first three works he chose to publish were all chamber works for a combination of piano, violin, viola, and cello. Mendelssohn composed his Piano Quartet No. 2 in F minor, Op. 2 in 1823, at the age of 14, dedicating it to his composition teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter. Zelter steeped his pupil in the classical techniques of Haydn and Mozart and cultivated in him an appreciation of the then-obscure works of Johann Sebastian Bach, an education that laid the groundwork for Mendelssohn’s personal style.

The influence of Haydn manifests in Mendelssohn’s exploration of monothematicism, one of Haydn’s favorite techniques. As is expected, the opening Allegro molto movement is in sonata form. Typically with this form, two or more different melodies are used to produce a contrast that must be “worked out” through the process of the movement. Haydn, however, devised ways in which a single melody could be used as its own contrast. In Mendelssohn’s quartet, the violin presents this melody, with distinctive leaps upward followed by drooping lines. After the strings introduce the theme in a mournful context, the piano engages in a brief exchange with the strings, then wanders off on its own to make the transition to a contrasting version of the melody, this time major and hopeful. As the strings join in, the piano part grows more virtuosic and triumphant, until the viola restores the bleak mood of the opening. The development section breaks the melody into fragments that surface in the strings as the piano cycles through a series of arpeggios. The movement ends frantically, charging toward a decisive final cadence.

The Adagio movement also focuses on a single melody, here treated to a series of variations. The piano begins the movement alone, introducing the contemplative theme, which is then echoed by the strings in an earnest chorale setting. For the first variation, the strings present the melody with gently intertwining lines as the piano provides a rhythmic accompaniment to nudge them forward. Next, the piano begins a series of upward sweeping arpeggios underneath the creeping strings, slowly meandering into unexplored harmonies. Eventually the piano reclaims the melody as the strings settle into patterns of repeated pitches, ending the movement sweetly. For the third movement, Mendelssohn forgoes the usual Minuet or Scherzo (both of which require a contrasting middle section) and instead writes a brief Intermezzo that features a single, tragic theme. Finally, the Allegro molto vivace presents another monothematic sonata form. The violin presents the chattering melody with a steady oom-pah accompaniment. But as the theme transfers to major, it becomes nimble and carefree. The overall effect is lighthearted, particularly when the piano stumbles on “wrong” notes in the development section before launching into a faux-cadenza. The troubled mood of the opening returns in the recapitulation and once again evaporates, but the melody veers back into minor for the stern conclusion.