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Overture to Die Braut von Messina, Op. 100

About the Work

Robert Schumann
Quick Look Composer: Robert Schumann
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Jennifer Koh, violin, plays Augusta Read Thomas Jun. 9 - 11, 2011
© Thomas May

SCHUMANN Overture to Die Braut von Messina

Robert Schumann (1810-1856), the son of a bookseller, ranks among the most literature sensitive of composers during the heyday of early Romanticism—an era of intense cross-pollination between literary and musical inspirations. He harbored an alter ego as a poet and even produced verse of his own throughout his life. And Schumann’s literary acumen extended to his probing and prophetic activity as a music critic as well. As a teenager discovering his calling, Schumann looked to Schubert and the German Romantic novelist Jean Paul Richter as equally important models for his future creative work. In his superb biography, John Daverio observes that “the notion that music should be imbued with the same intellectual substance as literature” serves as a guiding principle across the disparate phases of Schumann’s career.

Already by the age of 15 Schumann had formed a close-knit literary society with like-minded friends. Together they eagerly studied the dramas of Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), including Die Braut von Messina (“The Bride of Messina”), a verse tragedy that premiered in 1803 (a year before Schiller’s better-known William Tell). The present overture, however, dates from the final phase of Schumann’s career, after he had moved from Dresden to Düsseldorf, where his recent appointment as the city’s music director turned his focus toward orchestral composition. At the end of December 1850, a few weeks after completing the Third Symphony (the “Rhenish”), Schumann started on the Overture to Die Braut von Messina, which he composed and orchestrated within a mere two weeks.  

The work is an independent concert overture rather than a prelude to a suite of incidental music or an opera, though Schumann had recently looked over a libretto treatment before dismissing that option. He wasn’t the first to write music inspired by this particular Schiller tragedy—Ferdinand Ries’s overture to the same had even been premiered in Düsseldorf to some acclaim two decades earlier—and several composers later took it up, including Zdenek Fibich, whose operatic version was first staged in Prague in 1884. Schumann had enjoyed a tremendous public triumph when he introduced the “Rhenish” Symphony in February 1851, but the overture, which he premiered the month following, got a lukewarm reception. According to Daverio, the composer’s “idiosyncratic conducting,” singled out by a reviewer, signaled “the first hint of an intensifying problem” that eventually resulted in his humiliating dismissal from the orchestra.

Schiller’s drama, set in ancient Sicily, attempted to revive the spirit of classical Greek tragedy within the context of the new “Weimar classicism” that he and Goethe had spearheaded. The plot, though, seems closer to overwrought melodrama. An inescapable fate dooms the protagonists, two feuding brothers, through a sequence of heavy-handed coincidences. The brothers have grown up unaware of the existence of a sister, Beatrice (the bride of the title), for long ago she had been cloistered away. Her disappearance was intended to preempt a prophecy that Beatrice would cause the family’s destruction. But after the rivals are persuaded to make peace, it is revealed that they love the same woman—none other than their sister, previously kidnapped from her convent by one of the brothers. An Oedipal denouement of murder and suicide ensues.

However absurd the plot, Schumann captures the tone of inexorable tragedy in a tautly constructed overture, distilling the essence of Schiller’s play into a sonata form that contains some of his bleakest and most tempestuous music. A frenetic arpeggio figure in the strings seems to plunge us in medias res, though the piece in fact commences with a slow introduction of foreboding suspense. That opening figure, insinuated throughout the score, prefaces a violent sequence of chords suggesting fate’s power. Delivered full force, they launch the surging main theme of the Allegro. Despite Schumann’s use of an orchestra expanded to include trombones and piccolo, the music retains an ominous coloring, whether in its depiction of the brothers at war or in the delicate sinuousness and softened rhythms of the contrasting theme—an obvious emblem for Beatrice that is beautifully scored for clarinet and bassoon. Set in C minor—like that most famous musical image of fate, Beethoven’s Fifth—Schumann’s overture makes the allusion most explicit in a tensely wrought coda of mercilessly hammering chords.