• Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 25: Robert SchuMANN

Since we covered the American composer William SchuMAN last week—and I made such a fuss about the pronunciation of his name versus the German composer Robert SchuMANN—I thought we might cover one of the latter’s greatest non-symphonic works: the Manfred Overture.

Like many Romantic Era composers, Schumann’s music was often inspired by the non-musical artistic endeavors of others, particularly visual art, literature, and poetry. In the case of the Manfred Overture, it was the dramatic poem of the same name by Lord Byron. Now, I certainly won’t pretend to be a Byron expert…but if you don’t know the poem, here is the short plot summary, courtesy of Wikipedia…

"Manfred is a Faustian noble living in the Bernese Alps. Internally tortured by some mysterious guilt, which has to do with the death of his most beloved, Astarte, he uses his mastery of language and spell-casting to summon seven spirits, from whom he seeks forgetfulness. The spirits, who rule the various components of the corporeal world, are unable to control past events and thus cannot grant Manfred's plea. For some time, fate prevents him from escaping his guilt through suicide.

At the end, Manfred dies, defying religious temptations of redemption from sin. Throughout the poem he succeeds in challenging all of the authoritative powers he faces, and chooses death over submitting to the powerful spirits. Manfred directs his final words to the Abbot, remarking, “Old man! 'tis not so difficult to die.” The unconquerable individual to the end, Manfred gives his soul to neither heaven nor hell, only to death."

Schumann’s Overture is actually the first part of a larger set of “incidental music,” which is essentially background music for the theatre…kind of a precursor to the film scores we all know and love today. My favorite performance of the Manfred Overture is easily this 1959 studio recording by the Cleveland Orchestra led by George Szell—it’s a real scorcher. Enjoy!

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