Schools of the Romantic Heart
Robin Ticciati conducts the OAE in a programme that balances music by Weber, Berlioz and Wagner with Brahms’ 1st Symphony, a work that Ticciati has made his own.
Weber’s Der Freischütz (1821) was the turning point in German opera, a work whose influence on both Berlioz and Wagner was profound. The drama of magic bullets and haunted forests, scheming villains and virtuous heroines delighted audiences, but what captured the imagination of composers was a score that steered away from Italian opera and pioneered a truly German form of musical Romanticism. We hear the stirrings of it in the atmospheric Overture – not just a collage of big tunes (though it has those too) but also a dramatic prelude to the supernatural and emotional forces to come.
In 1827 the 24-year-old Berlioz attended a performance of Roméo and Juliet in Paris. He spoke no English, but was swept up in the drama. ‘The play of expression and voice and gesture, told me more and gave me a far richer awareness of the ideas and passions of the original than the words of my pale and garbled translation could do.’ Twelve years later, Wagner sat in the audience as Berlioz premiered his own Roméo et Juliette – the ambitious symphonie dramatique for choir and orchestra that attempted to capture in music all the composer had felt that night in the theatre. Later in his Memoirs, Berlioz would pick out the love-scene as his own favourite among his works.
While voices are central to the work, the ‘sublimity of this love’ could only be expressed wordlessly through the orchestra. And so, in this rapturous scene, voices die away and the lovers’ breathless passion, awkwardness, fears and desire are all woven through night- time music that veils and conceals as much as it reveals to our prying ears.
All that is widescreen, epic, public in Tristan und Isolde is echoed in intimate miniature in Wagner’s rapturous Wesendonck Lieder. Forced to flee Germany after his role in the Dresden Uprising of 1849, Wagner found safe haven in Switzerland where wealthy silk merchant Otto Wesendock and his wife Mathilde offered him both an income and a home on their estate. But proximity to Mathilde and creative intoxication with the legend of Tristan and Isolde together fuelled a passionate mutual affection.
Mathilde wrote a set of five poems that Wagner immediately set to music – an act of ‘supreme transfiguration and consecration’. Wagner described two of them – ‘Im Treibhaus’ and ‘Träume’ – as ‘studies for Tristan und Isolde’.
The opening song, ‘Der Engel’, is based on music from Das Rheingold, and its rooted harmonies offer a point of departure for the chromaticism to come. There’s a musical nostalgia to this quasi-liturgical setting that contemplates both heaven and earth. ‘Stehe still’ pleads urgently with the ‘rushing wheel of time’ time to stop, while ‘Im Treibhaus’, whose music anticipates the Prelude to Act III of Tristan, contemplates the nullity of existence and isolation.
The symbolism of light and darkness explored so minutely in Tristan finds expression in ‘Schmerzen’ with its music intermingling joy and sorrow, day and night. The cycle ends with ‘Träume’ – a song Wagner himself thought ‘finer than all I have made’. This ecstatic anticipation of the Act II love-duet is heavy with yearning – a desire that can only truly be fulfilled in oblivion.
‘I wish I could always write to you from my heart, to tell how deeply I love you, and can only beg of you to believe it without further proof…’ So Brahms declared to Clara Schumann – wife of his friend and mentor Robert Schumann, an unattainable romantic dream. But where Brahms could not speak his love, he could express it in music, and there’s as much of Clara in his hard-won First Symphony as there is of the composer himself.
From the glorious horn melody that leads into the hymn-like finale of the symphony (sent in a letter to Clara with the words ‘High on the mountain, deep in the valley – I greet you a thousand times’) to the first movement, sent to Clara before anyone else had heard it, the composer’s passion – for Clara, for nature and life itself – is embedded right through the work.
The shadow of Beethoven and his symphonic legacy weighed heavy on Brahms, and this first foray into the genre was over 20 years in the making. But the result shows little of this struggle. A solemn introduction, underpinned by resonant timpani- strokes, sets us up for the scope of the work to come. Violence and ominous threat surge through this first movement, but a radiant chorale offers hope, looking ahead to the final movement. Brahms shows a softer face in the bittersweet lyricism of the Andante, its melting oboe theme eventually transformed into the closing violin solo. The Allegretto that follows provides a moment of pause, a bucolic intermezzo in which the clarinet leads the orchestra into a dance, before the music surges into a finale that returns to the world of the opening. After a muted introduction, darkness and anguish gather and swirl. But just as it seems as though despair will overcome, Clara’s horn theme summons hope in the form of a radiant chorale. A theme nodding clearly to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony heralds a triumphant conclusion, blazing with light.
Written by Alexandra Coghlan, Glyndebourne’s opera content specialist
Image credits: OAE, photos by Zen Grisdale | OAE concert rehearsal with Robin Ticciati, photos by Richard Hubert Smith