Central to our continuing recording cycle of the Brahms and Schumann symphonies is the extraordinary figure who exerted such influence on (and held such fascination for) both of those men: Clara Schumann. Renowned across Europe for her skill as a piano soloist and improvisor, as a passionate champion of new music, and as a composer of note, her music will glue together our recording cycle, featuring today’s concerto as a crown jewel. I can think of no more perfect a pianist for this project than Gabriela Montero – a unique artist with an equally breathtaking array of gifts, talents and passions. And tonight’s performance shines a light not just on Clara Schumann, but also on her prodigiously talented contemporary Emilie Mayer. A feast of 19th-century Romantics. Enjoy!
I’m delighted to finally have Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in my repertoire. It is thanks to this project with Alexander Shelley and the NAC Orchestra that I’ve come to play and love this piece. As a woman, I can sense the urge of the young and precocious Clara to want to express her intimate inner thoughts and feelings in a work that is deeply romantic and sensitive – sometimes unabashedly so, but never falling prey to banality or cliché.
As a composer myself, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that both Clara Schumann and I premiered our first concerto at the Leipzig Gewandhaus! I only wish Clara had lived at a time when she could have fully developed her gifts and not been constrained by the times she lived in. She certainly deserves to be rightfully acknowledged as one of musical history’s great talents.
This is the first time the NAC Orchestra has performed Emilie Mayer’s Faust-Overture.
This is the first time the NAC Orchestra has performed Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor in full.
In 1975, Mario Bernardi was on the podium for the NAC Orchestra’s first interpretation of Robert Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony. The Orchestra’s most recent performance of this work took place in 2016, with Alexander Shelley conducting.
Born in Friedland, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, May 14, 1812
Died in Berlin, April 10, 1883
Many concertgoers can cite Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann as representative women composers of the nineteenth century. Another name to add to this list is that of Emilie Mayer, whose life spanned almost exactly that of Wagner. Mayer was born in a small town in the extreme northeast of Germany, went to neighbouring Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland) to study with Carl Loewe, and in 1847 moved to Berlin to study with Adolf Bernhard Marx and Wilhelm Wieprecht.
Her music was played and published throughout her lifetime, though often at her own expense. What sets Mayer apart from most other women composers of the time is the sheer size and breadth of her catalogue: eight symphonies, 15 concert overtures, 12 cello sonatas, nine violin sonatas, seven piano trios, an opera, songs, piano music, and more. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians calls her “the most prolific German woman composer of the Romantic period.” Following her death, Mayer’s music fell into obscurity; only in recent years has some of it resurfaced and been recorded.
Mayer’s Faust-Overture was published in Stettin in 1880. In mood and style it much resembles Schumann’s Manfred Overture, whose subject is a restless, troubled soul. The slow introduction (Adagio) probably is meant to depict Faust alone in his study. The score’s sole programmatic indication comes near the end, where the words “Sie ist gerettet” (She [Margaret] is saved) appear at the point where the music moves from B minor to B major. Formally the main Allegro section of the 12-minute Overture is laid out in modified sonata form, with a first subject in the minor mode and a secondary one in the major. There is no development section to speak of. The coda returns to the minor mode up to the point where Margaret is “saved,” where B major once again prevails to the triumphant end.
– Program note by Robert Markow
Born in Leipzig, September 13, 1819
Died in Frankfurt, May 20, 1896
By any standard, Clara Schumann must be ranked as one of the most remarkable women in the history of music. In an age and land (mid-19th-century Germany) so inhospitable to the creative ambitions of women, she mustered the courage and determination to be both a composer and a traveling virtuoso. In the latter capacity she was the woman pianist of the century.
Taught by her father, she joined Mozart, Mendelssohn and a handful of others in the ranks of child prodigies, giving her first public performance at the age of nine in Leipzig’s Gewandhaus, and two years later her first complete recital in the same hall (complete recitals by a single artist were still rare events). Already as a teenager she had begun her lifetime career of touring the length and breadth of Europe. Her admirers included Goethe, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Paganini and Berlioz.
Clara Schumann’s technical abilities were matched by depth of interpretive insight, poetic feeling and respect for the composer's performance directions. She was also a champion of new music, and gave the first performances in Germany of many works by Chopin, Brahms and especially her husband Robert, whom she married in 1840.
But her career as a pianist was only one aspect of Clara Schumann’s life. She also achieved renown as a composer, with her first works appearing at the age of 11. As testimony to her precocity, the concerto we hear tonight was written while she was between 13 and 15 years old. Her catalogue includes 23 opus numbers plus another 30 or so unnumbered works. Like Chopin, everything she wrote was either for or with piano. Clara Wieck gave the first complete performance of her Piano Concerto in A minor on November 9, 1835 in the Leipzig Gewandhaus with Mendelssohn conducting.
The Piano Concerto Op. 7 was a strikingly bold statement from the young pianist-composer. Its third movement (Allegro non troppo) was composed first and was initially conceived as a standalone work, a Conzertsatz allowing the 14-year-old Clara Wieck to display both her virtuosity and her mastery of large-scale form. She enlisted Robert Schumann – her father’s former piano student, an emerging composer, and as yet only a good family friend – to orchestrate the Conzertsatz, though she later orchestrated herself the other two movements. The Allegro non troppo features energetic themes relieved by lyrical cascading gestures in the piano solo, and includes the many virtuosic episodes that an audience hungry for pianistic pyrotechnics demanded from Europe’s favourite Wunderkind.
When she decided to use the Concertsatz as the last movement of a fully-fledged concerto, Clara Wieck tackled the challenge of integrating a self-contained work into a coherent large-scale design. She did so not only through subtle thematic connections – the first movement sounds indeed as though it had been the original source for melodic ideas across the work – but also through a unique overarching design. Perhaps inspired by Mendelssohn’s G-minor Concerto, there are no breaks between movements; unlike Mendelssohn, however, the opening Allegro Maestoso is an abbreviated sonata form that dispenses with a recapitulation and defers any sense of closure to the end of the Finale.
The evocative, lyrical middle movement is scored for piano and solo cello, an intimate duet between the heftier outer movements. Its title, Romanze, was closely linked to a vocal genre, perhaps a nod to one of her father’s favourite pedagogical principles, namely that the art of singing was a necessary foundation for piano-playing—and indeed the Romanze foregrounds tone and touch rather than fiery virtuosity.
Unbeknownst to her, with this concerto, Clara Wieck was at the forefront of many innovative techniques which later Romantic composers continued to develop. She attempted only one other piano concerto in 1847, which remained unfinished.
– Program note by Robert Markow and Julie Pedneault-Deslauriers
Born in Zwickau, June 8, 1810
Died in Endenich, July 29, 1856
On March 31, 1850, Schumann accepted the position of Municipal Music Director of Düsseldorf, opening a brilliant and exuberant, though short-lived, new chapter in his life. Upon his arrival in the city, he was welcomed in grand style with a full spread of speeches, banquets and concerts. Having for the first time in his career a regular, salaried musical post and a prominent orchestra at his disposal, Schumann plunged into a renewed interest in symphonic writing, and in a feverish burst of creativity, wrote the Cello Concerto in just 15 days in October, followed immediately by his Rhenish Symphony in November and December.
This symphony reflects all the optimism, joy of life and chance for a fresh start he harboured in those autumn months of 1850. Schumann immediately fell under the spell of the Rhine River (which runs through the city), the surrounding countryside, the friendly, outgoing people, and the picturesque, nearby towns. When he submitted his new symphony to the publisher Simrock, he did not affix its current subtitle Rhenish, but he did say that it “perhaps mirrors here and there something of Rhenish life.” Schumann himself conducted the first performance in Düsseldorf on February 6, 1851.
The Rhenish is Schumann’s only symphony to begin without a slow introduction. It is launched with precipitous energy and ebullience by a glorious theme that seems to shout for joy and exult in the thrill of new adventures. Giving additional momentum to this expansive, continuously unfolding theme is the trick Schumann plays with the listener’s sense of rhythm – a tug of war between a feeling of broad quadruple (the opening bars) and a quick triple (shortly thereafter) pulse. A more relaxed, lyrical, even wistful theme in G minor is later announced by the woodwinds. Being rhythmically regular, it acts as a foil to the rhythmic instability of the first theme, which soon returns and pervades most of the movement.
The gentle flow (or powerful surge, depending on the conductor) of the Scherzo suggests the movement of the great river at Schumann’s doorstep. The principal theme is supposedly based on a slow Ländler, a country dance with a sturdily lilting triple metre (in effect negating the heading Scherzo).
The simple naïveté of German folksong, a subject close to Schumann’s heart, is further developed in the third movement, a graceful, intermezzo-like interlude. The instrumentation is reduced (no trumpets or timpani, just two horns) and the dynamic level is subdued throughout. Three themes, each clothed in different orchestral colours, are heard: the opening motif for woodwinds, led by the clarinets; a capricious little idea initially for strings, later joined by woodwinds; and a songful, warmly flowing line for violas and bassoons.
The fourth movement has called forth more commentary than any other in this symphony. This is the “extra” movement beyond the customary four, and it is manifestly programmatic, an anomaly among Schumann’s symphonic movements. Emanuel Winternitz calls it “a translation into musical terms of the mystical atmosphere of the Gothic interior of the Cologne Cathedral.” And indeed it is. Shortly before writing this symphony, Schumann had made the 50-kilometre trip on the newly-opened rail line to Cologne to observe the elevation of Archbishop von Geissel to Cardinal in Cologne’s great cathedral. The splendorous ceremony deeply impressed him, as did the overwhelming majesty of the edifice itself, one of the tallest in all Europe. To underline the ecclesiastical solemnity of the event, Schumann employs, for the first time in the Rhenish symphony, the trombones, instruments that in Schumann’s day were still not used regularly in symphonies.
The sudden contrast between the gloom of the fourth movement’s final bars in E-flat minor and the bright, vigorous finale in E-flat major has been likened to stepping from the sombre atmosphere of a Gothic cathedral into the sunshine and bustle of life outdoors. We are back among the world of merry country folk, but the relationship of this movement to the one we just left is made obvious near the end of the symphony, where the noble cathedral music returns in great, glorious outbursts from the full orchestra. Along the way to its super-charged conclusion, this movement incorporates references to the first movement as well, thus bringing the composer’s thoughts about the Rhineland full circle, as if to signify unity in diversity.
– Program note by Robert Markow