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Schumann: Manfred Overture, Op.

115
here is the overture from schumann's incidental music to manfred, written in 1849, today one of schumann's most performed works. byron wrote his poem/drama manfred in 1816-1817, and it subsequently received tons of translations and ended up rather popular in germany (and elsewhere). it's the story of a guy named manfred who is guilty for an undisclosed reason regarding the death of his wife astarte. he summons spirits to try to forget, but they can't help him, so he goes on his merry way flaunting a lot of religious authority, ultimately killing himself and in so doing refusing to submit to the higher powers. schumann began writing a libretto for an incidental music suite in july 1848, began writing actual music in october, and had finished the overture by the end of the month. the overture was premiered before the rest of the music and generally got better response (then as now). juuuust to give you an idea of what both the poem and the music were generally like, goethe defended his distaste of the writing by saying that the "gloomy intensity of a boundless, profound despair" was tiresome. the mildly hypochondriac mood of the whole piece was considered overwrought and outdated.

three strong recordings. this piece has had a lot of musicological analyses done on it which try to tie it to robert schumann's mental/creative decline. for example: the tempo is marked "rasch" (rushed), and this can be seen programmatically - the insistent and pervasive syncopation from the very beginning (you might not know it from listening, but the three initial chords are syncopated) destabilize it. this of course can be related to the plot of the piece - those opening chords are representative of manfred's crime, his spiritual struggle, or his guilt but historians have pointed to the prevalence of aggressive syncopation, triplets, and three against two as indicators of schumann's tumultuous mental state. at any rate, this isn't a concert overture like the hebrides, but more of a character piece for what's to come, so i think it's alright to take a more programmatic view. the overture begins with a slow introduction, then speeds up to a sonata-form allegro. in nature it's been compared with some wagner, berlioz, and liszt (and i happen to think the motif at 4:00 sounds really wagnerian), but thematically it has been called the older relative of lots of brahms (check out the syncopation around 3:20). three wind/brass chords propel the piece into a development at 4:26. there is a recap that is more or less normal, but then the ending is subdued, and doesn't provide a conclusion but leads elsewhere. if you take it as a part of the whole, then maybe it leads to manfred sitting in his study, the opening of the play. but if you take it as a sort of microcosm of the entire work/story, it's a darker-toned implication about the ending of the actual story (the actual incidental music ends in e major requiem, implying a redeemed manfred this overture, if you read it this way, doesn't whitewash his death). there's a little cell of material which comes around every once in a while, starting with D-C#-G# (falling, quarter notes) around 2:39. clara schumann called this "astarte's theme," noting how it resurfaces every once in a while as a sort of second theme, then is quickly lost, dissipating almost immediately. you might see this as part of the story itself, and manfred's quest after her, in his guilt. ok, dark work today. stay tuned for something happier tomorrow!