Suddenly something had to come of it, quick. In response to a commission from the 1970 Cheltenham Festival these vague gropings focused into seven paraphrases for orchestra upon six well-loved songs (one is used twice) from disparate cycles, eventually entitled Scenes from Schumann and given its premiere in Cheltenham Town Hall on 10 July.
Checking out of the hotel the morning after, I was addressed by a stranger who soon became a friend. Michael Graham-Jones had liked Scenes, and fancied the idea of a follow-up to be based on Frauenliebe und -leben, a particular favourite of his and his wife’s, to celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in 1971. I was doubtful, because Scenes seemed such a one-off; also because Frauenliebe und -leben, though of course like everyone else I adored the work, didn’t seem to have the same openness to extension and play. But I did feel these possibilities with another Schumann cycle, his first, the nine settings of Heine that broke the succession of twenty-three solo piano works and inaugurated his glorious ‘year of song’, 1840 – the Liederkreis, Op 24. Partly because it was (and regrettably remains) relatively unfamiliar; partly because I’d already toyed with one of its songs, but not used it in the end, for Scenes. And mainly because it came as an entity, full of internal relationships, rather than a bouquet of miscellaneous favourites, which suggested a different approach, not merely more-of-the-same. Fortunately my patron accepted the idea; and in the composition I was able to slip in references to Frauenliebe und -leben (also to the tenderest love-song in Dichterliebe) that exactly fitted his commission’s circumstances.
In turning to Schumann’s Op 24 as the basis for the new composition I had one large positive and one large negative. The former was the work on the haunting No 7 when it had been a candidate for Scenes. The latter was the length and complexity of No 9: so complete a statement seemed to preclude further ‘treatment’. Scenes had yielded no method, and I was as bemused afterwards as before what to do next. The only directive was rather modernist – not to do again what had already been done, rather to find a new perspective or technique. Every number in Scenes was a paraphrase that clung closely to the original song-shape however altered its actual constituents. Except for the last (Frühlingsnacht), which took wing, producing from the brief original a rondo-mosaic many times longer and with its own shape. Doing this had also necessitated a higher proportion of newly-invented material. And this proved the fruitful pointer for a second go. I soon noticed that in Schumann’s Op 24 songs Nos 1, 2 and 4 are closely related, which suggested a composite or palimpsest, a superimposition with holes where difffering layers would show through. Similarly the main melody of Schöne Wiege (No 5) rhymes with that of Berg’ und Burgen (No 7), which was destined from the start to be harbour since the closing Mit Myrthen und Rosen just would not fit. So Nos 5 and 7 could be twinned. No 8, the upbeat to the omitted close in its home D major, suggested a solemn prelude to the whole piece beginning with No 1, also in D. And thus the entity began to focus; ideally, as here, the Schumann cycle would be included complete, contained within the instrumental ‘commentary’ it inspired, thus allowing the climactic song, only heard once, to hold the very centre of the design.
The Praeludium consists of question-and-answer intonations between trumpet and horn on the chorale-like voice part of Liederkreis No 8. It ends on the question – ‘wie?’ – as cadencing upbeat to the complete song-cycle at its original pitch, the first and last songs in D major.
As Mit Myrthen und Rosen fades, Half asleep starts. Liederkreis Nos 1, 2 and 4 are layered in different instrumental groups, keys and speeds; then towards the end the continuations of all three songs are intercrossed with their renewed beginnings. The effect is of a brief phantasmagorical collage, as upbeat to the definite outlines of the second movement, an Adagio on Liederkreis No 3. This is a paraphrase; beneath the wealth of florid dissonant ornament the original song-structure remains intact, though scale and pace are gigantified and the piano’s beautiful opening-and-close broken up to provide punctuation and renewed starts throughout. The main key remains B major, and Schumann’s shift to G for the golden word that the girl sang to the birds is retained for the middle section. The horn melody here, however, is new. This middle is followed by an extra section which loosens concentration, a recitativo where the strings hold on to the opening bar, the piano carries the melody, and solo viola and clarinet play quasi-improvisatory snatches which only grow to full melodic status in the next movement. Across all this, two quotations from more famous Schumann cycles flicker subliminally – the first bar of Frauenliebe und -leben and the phrase from Dichterliebe No 4 – that will flower eventually in the Finale. This very secret and hübsche section is followed by its opposite, a grandiose coda that blows the original song’s opening/close up into something grand and heroic.
Its resounding B major is treated as dominant of the E that persists for the entire duration of the third movement, Scherzo ostinato. The obstinate shape is the thirteen-note pattern driving Liederkreis No 6 on its violent course. It is present somewhere in the texture throughout, usually as a very audible ground bass, and always at the same pitch (beginning on E). The surrounding material comes from a Wallace Stevens song with piano written just before, a miniature whirlwind to the words: ‘In Oklahoma / Bonnie and Josie / Dressed in calico / Danced around a stump’. Another Stevens song, ‘Remus, blow your horn! / I’m plowing on Sunday, / Plowing North America, / Blow your horn’, provides sustenance for a rustic tutti.
The trio section is slower. The ostinato is fragmented, diminuted, augmented, inverted, as background to broader melodies taken from the non-Schumann material in the Adagio. The Scherzo returns, in ever-different rhythmic and tonal alignments, till finally the ostinato is heard simultaneously in three speeds, mirror and hocket; only when the resulting racket reaches bursting point is the ostinato E (which could be held like an organ cipher for the entire movement) allowed to escape deadlock and rise up a fourth to the return of the Praeludium in A. This is the hinge of the whole composite work; after the brief triple forte, volume as well as momentum rapidly disappear, and amidst gentle cries of ‘Oh!’ and wide-held chords, horn and trumpet speak softly to each other with motifs from the wedding-song in Frauenliebe und -leben (end of its No 5). The horn’s final note is ‘off colour’. Against it the piano shyly proposes the epilogue/stanza-link from Berg’ und Burgen (Liederkreis No 7) cadencing into A major for Finale: Roses – thorns and flowers. It is built cubistically from some of the original’s most affecting music. Against a continuous background of the accompaniment to Berg’ und Burgen the successive lines of its melody are given different textural and harmonic characters, interlocking and interchanging from stanza to stanza like an intricate verse-form: a phantoum or ghazel. Gradually the ‘rhyme’ with the melody of Schöne Wiege (Liederkreis No 5) is allowed to come to the fore. Ultimately, after a stanza of storm and stress, the two melodies intertwine as asymmetrical mirrors of each other. The closing section in also supercharged with the allusions to other Schumann cycles heard only subliminally in the Adagio: the opening bar of Frauenliebe und -leben underpins the harmony in ever broader durations; the phrase from Dichterliebe floats in and out in polytonal polyrhythms; and in the final pages all the various levels of tension resolve from many directions upon a pure A major from which every extraneous note has been composed out.
from notes by Robin Holloway © 1998