Symposium 111 - A Poet’s Love
Sunday, 12 October 2014 @ 5:00pm
Monday, 13 October 2014 @ 7:00pm
A Poet's Love
Written only one year apart, Robert Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” and Felix Mendelssohn’s first piano trio have remained among each composer’s most beloved works. Schumann’s setting of the great German poet Heinrich Heine’s Lyric Intermezzi stands as a supreme example of the lieder repertoire, while Mendelssohn’s trio weaves Schumann’s pianistic influence into one of the most dramatic works by the creator of the Songs Without Words.
The opening symposium of The Helicon Foundation’s 30th Season is dedicated to the memory of longtime Helicon supporter and Board Member, Joan K. Easton, in recognition of her legacy gift.
Novellette in F-sharp Minor, op. 21, no. 8
Dichterliebe, op. 48
Text by Heinrich Heine 1797-1856
1. Im wunderschönen Monat Mai
2. Aus meinen Tränen sprießen
3. Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne
4. Wenn ich in deine Augen seh
5. Ich will meine Seele tauchen
6. Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome
7. Ich grolle nicht
8. Und wüßten's die Blumen, die kleinen
9. Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen
10. Hör' ich das Liedchen klingen
11. Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen
12. Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen
13. Ich hab' im Traum geweinet
14. Allnächtlich im Traume
15. Aus alten Märchen winkt es
16. Die alten, bösen Lieder
Three Romances, op. 22
Piano Trio no. 1 in D Minor, op. 49
Molto allegro ed agitato
Andante con moto tranquillo
Scherzo: Leggiero e vivace
Finale: Allegro assai appassionato
In memory of Joan K. Easton
A Remembrance of My Friend, Joan K. Easton
By Jim Roe, former Artistic and Executive Director, The Helicon Foundation
I met Joan Easton in 1993 when she first discovered Helicon’s series of intimate chamber music events that took place in Albert Fuller's apartment on West 67th Street. "Everyone knows that block," she would later say, "it's one of the best on the west side." Helicon captured Joan's imagination and, within a year, she was on our board of directors. I had the distinct pleasure of working with her through both challenging and successful years at Helicon. I don’t remember exactly at which point during those 18 years that we became friends, but I know it started with Johannes Brahms.
A few days after a Helicon concert featuring chamber music and songs by Brahms, I received a handwritten note on blue paper in what I would come to know as Joan’s distinctive looping handwriting. She wrote that whereas she had enjoyed the performances, she found the music rather sad and impenetrable. “Did I hear it right or did I miss something?” she asked in the note. I wrote back and explained that she got it right, the music was indeed sad, and that Brahms’ persistent difficulties in love often found direct expression in his chamber music.
I was a youngster fresh out of Juilliard at this point, and was struck that this cultured, knowledgeable woman would consult me about such matters.
Those notes on blue paper came with more frequency, eventually arriving at my home address, rather than the office. And then we arrived in person at each other’s homes, and with more frequency. And always, our time together felt too short. A sentiment, I’m sure we all share today.
Of course, I was much more often her pupil than her teacher, and our conversations naturally gravitated towards visual art. She brought me to galleries and museums, especially her beloved Met. And I can see the spark, the light in her eyes when she saw something she thought I would enjoy. Placing her hand on my forearm, “Jim, I want to show you something.” “Jim, do you know this picture?” and my favorite: “Jim, what do you see?”
Joan’s enthusiasm for human expression whether artistic, musical, literary, or interpersonal, her eagerness for more of life, for more of your life shared with her and hers with you, it drew all us to Joan.
When I think of her in the front row of Helicon concerts, beaming with engagement, I realize that that is how she was with her friends as well. She sat right in the front row of our lives: engaged, attentive, believing that the best version of ourselves was the only version of ourselves that really mattered.
Notes on the Program
Program Notes by Avi Stein
Even by Robert Schumann’s own admission, 1840 was an extraordinary year, for he himself named it his “year of song.” Up until then, Schumann had composed almost exclusively piano pieces. These included many of his extensive collections of miniatures such as Davidsbündlertänze, the Symphonic Etudes, Kreisleriana, Carnaval and the Novellettes. While he had only set a small number of texts to music, Schumann’s strong attraction to literature is certainly evident from many of these early piano works. A recurring figure in these pieces is the writer E.T.A Hoffmann, who was a major influence on 19th century romanticism and who is remembered today chiefly as the inspiration for Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman, and the popular ballets Coppelia andThe Nutcracker.
Kreislerianais based upon Hoffman’s character Johannes Kreisler, a temperamental composer who appears in several of Hoffman’s writings as the author’s alter-ego. Hoffman had also founded a literary circle that he named the “Seraphin Brethren.” This collection of friends, writers and aficionados who for two years met at Hoffman’s home or at cafés became the inspiration for a collection of Hoffman’s writings. A few years later, Hoffman gathered disparate short stories into a single tome and used the context of a conversation among friends wherein these stories are told as the unifying structure. The compilation was named after Hoffmann’s group, and fictional “Brethren” were substituted in the book.
The concept spawned an imaginary music society that appeared in Schumann’s own writings. While Johannes Kreisler was Hofmann’s alternative personality, Schumann brought forth two characters, Florestan and Eusebius to personify opposing aspects of his own constitution. Florestan and Eusebius acted as leading members of this invented musical league, the Davidsbündler. However, the persona who returned most often to Schumann’s composition was Clara, the daughter of his teacher Friedrich Wieck. In a letter, Schumann confessed that "She was practically my sole motivation for writing the Davidsbundlertanze, the Concerto, the Sonata and the Novellettes."
As Clara was considerably younger and in fact still underage, her father’s permission was required for marriage. Not only did Wieck refuse to give permission to the union, but during the lengthy court proceedings that accompanied this struggle he presented many accusations against Schumann, including charges that he is "lazy, unreliable, and conceited" , "cannot speak coherently or write legibly", "incompetent, childish, unmanly, in short totally lost for any social adjustment,” and “a mediocre composer whose music is unclear and almost impossible to perform."
In the end Robert and Clara were granted permission by the courts to marry, which occurred on the day before her twenty-first birthday in 1840. During that year and the early part of the following one, Schumann composed roughly two-thirds of his approximately 250 songs. Robert wrote to Clara that vocal melody seemed to come much more easily and that he found himself walking around “singing like a nightingale.”
Schumann waited a few years to publish the great song-cycles from this “year of song.” These included the Frauenliebe und leben (a woman’s love and life) and the two Liederkreis (song cycle) which set the of poetry of the early 19th century writers Heine and Eichendorff. In publishing Dichterliebe in 1844, Schumann deleted four songs and took out the original dedication of the work away from Mendelssohn, to whom he had meanwhile dedicated three string quartets. The poems which Schumann set to music came out of the Lyric Intermezzo section of Heinrich Heine’s Buch der Lieder (book of songs). These musically inclined titles would prove prophetic, for during the 19th century, its words would be set to melody in over 2000 songs. The first notable ones came almost immediately in Franz Schubert’s posthumous Schwanengesang (swan song) and many more would follow by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, Robert Franz, Karl Loewe, Clara Schumann, Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, among other lesser known names.
Clara, the young daughter of Robert Schumann’s piano teacher Friederich Wieck, was already an accomplished musician in her own right. She had received a rigorous musical education under guidance of her father and after her concert debut at the Leipzig Gewandhaus at the age of 11, had undertaken concert tours throughout Germany and beyond. Her reputation as a formidable pianist would be established throughout her long career and she would prove to be a strong influence on the development of the structure of the modern concert, helping to establish many of today’s recital conventions. She was one of the first pianists to perform from memory and began to introduce works from the great composers of the earlier generations. In an age where recitals were dominated by virtuoso arrangements of popular contemporary themes, Clara Schumann incorporated music by J.S. Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and her husband, Robert. A rather poignant description of Clara Schumann’s musical circumstances can be found in a quote that Robert entered into their joint diary:
"Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she has never attained before. But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out."
Despite tragic personal circumstances, including the mental illness of a husband and son, as well as the premature death of four children, Clara Schumann maintained an impressive career which allowed her not only to support her own family, but also to promote the works of her husband, as well as those of the young Johannes Brahms.
During his lifetime, Felix Mendelssohn was among the most popular musicians of his day, renowned as a composer, pianist and conductor. Not only did he hold significant positions in Germany but like Handel had done a century before, Mendelssohn found an eager audience for his music in England. Mendelssohn used his talents and position to champion the works of Bach, which at this point had been nearly forgotten. His historical music concerts with the Leipzig-Gewandhaus Orchestra, recitals of Bach organ works and the centennial performance of the St. Matthew Passion foreshadowed the early music movement of the late 20th century. However, the success that Mendelssohn enjoyed would lead to a violent swing of the pendulum after his death at the age of 38, as the caliber of his music would become less of an issue than what it was taken to represent.
Unlike Schubert and Mozart, Mendelssohn’s tragically early death did not cause following generations to perpetually wonder about the wealth of unrealized music which might have been. As a symbol of Victorian society, Mendelssohn would be criticized at the end of the 19th century by George Bernard Shaw for his “kid-glove gentility, his conventional sentimentality and his despicable oratorio mongering.” In Germany he became an image of conservative bourgeois mores and thus a target for both political and musical progressives after the 1848 revolutions and the rising racist tendencies, particularly after the publication of Richard Wagner’s diatribes against him.
Felix’s grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn was the foremost Jewish philosopher of the German Enlightenment. Moses Mendelssohn had argued for religious tolerance towards the Jewish population and also for its assimilation into German culture. Several of the Mendelssohn children, including Felix’s father, Abraham converted to Christianity. In an intriguing explanation of this course of action, Abraham remarked to his daughter Fanny that Christianity “contains nothing that can lead you away from what is good, and much that guides you to love, obedience, tolerance, and resignation, even if it offered nothing but the example of its Founder, understood by so few, and followed by still fewer.”
Among the several of Mendelssohn’s works to weather the tides of public reception, the Piano Trio in D Minor has always remained one of his most popular works. It was written almost concurrently with Schumann’s Dichterliebe and both works reflect a new direction that each composer attempted to follow. While Schumann moved away from a decade of successful writing for the piano and turned to the voice for inspiration, a letter from Mendelssohn to his friend the pianist and composer, Ferdinand Hiller in 1838 reveals a different set of motives for his piano trio:
"Piano pieces are not the most enjoyable form of composition to me right now; I cannot even write them with real success . . . Moreover, a very important branch of piano music, and one of which I am particularly fond – trios, quartets and other pieces with accompaniment, genuine chamber music – is quite forgotten now and I feel a great urge to do something new of this kind."
Upon finally hearing an early draft of the work, Hiller remarked upon its great effect but also admitted that he had found the piano writing somewhat old-fashioned, particularly in comparison to the work of the virtuosos Chopin and Liszt, whom he had occasion to observe while living in Paris. The revised version was published in 1840 and enjoyed immediate success.
If Mendelssohn set out to revive what he considered to be a neglected genre, he certainly succeeded. Schumann himself remarked that little needed to be said about the trio since it was instantly well-known. Yet he went on to compare it with the corresponding masterpieces for this combination of instrument by Beethoven and Schubert, declaring it to be “… the trio masterpiece of our time… a thoroughly beautiful composition, which in years to come will bring joy to grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”