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Idyllic landscape that inspired Schumann's concerto


Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann

It was just before six o'clock on a summer's evening, the sun still making its presence felt through the foliage as the train snaked its way along the riverbank. Our journey, from Munich to Berlin, was more than half-way through.

We'd left the high speed stretch through the lush green pastures and forests of Bavaria well behind and were now deep inside the old East Germany, in a landscape untouched by the industrialisation that had marched across western Europe.

A landscape, in other words, that would have looked much the same when the music in my ears would have been written. Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto was the perfect match to the idyll unfolding before my eyes - fly fishermen in their waders in this shallow reach of the River Saale, imagining, no doubt, the trout they were about to catch for tea.

The piano piece is idyllic too, the product of the mind of a man who would ultimately succumb to madness, but who was nonetheless capable of producing some of the finest music of the Romantic era.

The concerto could be considered one of its most magnificent love songs, thirty minutes of musical magic, Schumann's own ode to joy. It was certainly the love of a woman that brought it to life.

That woman was Clara Wieck whom Schumann got to know as a child when he went to her father for piano tuition. Schumann was twenty when he moved in as a student, nine years older than Clara, but over time an intense affection grew, much to the displeasure of her dad. He'd other ideas for his daughter, not least a career as a concert pianist, for she was extremely talented herself.

Despite some twists and turns, love eventually conquered all, and Clara and Robert were married on the day before she turned 21.

Back to the concerto. It began as a shorter piece Robert had written. He'd composed quite a lot specifically with Clara in mind when the pair of them were still going out, but never anything like this - a bigger piece, with an orchestra as well.

Not quite a concerto. He wanted something different. He came up with a single movement Concert Fantasy - not so much a concerto, more of a grand sonata.

Clara loved it, but try as they might, they couldn't promote it. The closest it ever got to a public performance was a rehearsal with the famous Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig. The Schumanns' friend Felix Mendelssohn was the conductor at the time.

Encouraged by Clara, Schumann began expanding the Concert Fantasy. It would, by and large, become the opening movement of his one and only Piano Concerto. It had its first outing, with Clara at the keyboard, in 1845 in Dresden - not that far from where I, with their music in my ears, was watching those fishermen in the summer sunlight.

Clara Schumann was the world's first female concert pianist and a composer of note herself. She toured extensively, and performed twice in Dublin in 1856, not long before Robert Schumann's death in a psychiatric hospital in Bonn. Clara Schumann was born on this day in 1819.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10.00 each Saturday morning.

Indo Review