Das Paradies und die Peri, Op. 50 (1843)

By Christopher H. Gibbs, Bard College

Written for the concert Paradise, performed on Jan 29, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Although posterity tends not to associate Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms—the self-styled conservative Romantics—with dramatic music, all three sought to enter this realm that Wagner came to dominate so powerfully. Schumann was the most engaged, hoping that, “In time, my endeavors in this, the dramatic field, will be accorded a just assessment,” a prediction, unfortunately, that has yet to be realized. Over the course of much of his career, and particularly during intensely concentrated periods, Schumann threw himself wholeheartedly into dramatic enterprises in which he combined his passionate love of literature with his musical gifts. In addition to dozens of unrealized projects, Schumann produced a series of works with elevated literary origins that often explore the solitary world of outcast anti-heroes, most remarkably Manfred and Faust, but also a Peri, a fallen angel who seeks entrance to paradise. (Another misfit is the character of Golo in Schumann’s lone opera Genoveva (1847-48), which Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra will present at the Bard SummerScape Festival this summer.)

Schumann, in his first sustained engagement with dramatic music, attempted to create something new. As he informed a friend in May 1843, while in the midst of writing Das Paradies und die Peri, “At the moment I am involved in a major project, the largest I have ever undertaken—it is not an opera—I nearly think of it as a new genre for the concert hall. I plan to put all my energy into it and hope to have it finished within the year.” Opera for the concert hall is pretty much the definition of oratorio, a genre that came to its most famous flowering with Handel in eighteenth-century England and that enjoyed a strong revival in the mid-nineteenth century. In some cities, such as Rome and Venice, oratorios substituted for opera during Lent, when it was prohibited to perform opera. Although Handel and most pre-Romantics set religious topics, Schumann aimed at something different and remarked that Peri was written “not for the chapel, but rather for cheerful folk.”

Schumann fashioned an unusual mixture of genres and styles in the work, which negotiates between the sacred and secular, instrumental and vocal, opera and oratorio. Biographer John Daverio went so far as to suggest that the semi-divine figure of the Peri is “arguably an emblem for Schumann’s outlook on the oratorio as a genre.” For his part, Schumann on the title page of the score called it a “Dichtung” (poem) for soloists, chorus, and orchestra. The work is made up of twenty-six pieces. Schumann took considerable satisfaction in the way sections flow in and out of one another, virtually abandoning traditional recitative passages in favor of an arioso style of presentation, although the critic Ludwig Rellstab complained of just this feature. Schumann wrote to Rellstab that exactly this seamlessness was one of the work’s “formal innovations.” The distinctive tone of Das Paradies und die Peri derives in part from Schumann’s ability to merge the qualities of a supreme writer of song and an imaginative orchestator (despite common views to the contrary) with the sound world of Romantic opera, such as those by Weber, Marschner, and Berlioz.

As the son of a book publisher and dealer, Schumann was raised within an environment that fostered his early and lasting love of literature. In 1822 the firm of Gebrüder Schumann released a German translation of Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance (1817), by the Irish poet Thomas Moore (1779-1852). Perhaps Schumann read it as a child. Years later, a longtime friend, Emil Flechsig, gave him his own translation of the poem, which relates exotic tales somewhat in the manner of the Arabian Nights. Such Orientalist fare held great appeal at the time. Wagner wrote to Schumann telling him that he knew and admired the poem, and had even considered setting it himself, but could not come up with the right form for such an undertaking.

The story tells of a Peri, a spirit in Persian mythology born of the union between a fallen angel and a mortal, who offers a series of three gifts, the first two unsuccessful, before ultimately entering Paradise. Schumann’s score is divided into three sections reflecting the penitential offerings she presents for admittance. An angel announces (in Moore’s words): “‘Tis written in the Book of Fate/The Peri yet may be forgiven/Who brings to the eterman gate/The gift that is most dear to Heaven!/Go, seek it, and redeem thy sin/’Tis sweet to let the pardon’d in!” The first gift is the blood of a young fallen soldier slain in India by the tyrant Gazna (“the last glorious drop his heart has shed”). After this offering is rejected, the Peri, now in plague-stricken Egypt, presents as her second gift the last sigh of a maiden who chooses to infect herself, dying in the arms of her sick lover (“One kiss the maiden gives, one last/Long kiss, which she expires in giving!”). Moving on to Syria, the Peri finds the gift that unlocks the gates to Paradise: tears of a despicable man who has wrought untold evil but who is overcome when he sees an innocent youth saying his prayers (“Blest tears of soul-felt penitence!”).

After working sporadically on the text for some time, Schumann composed Das Paradies und die Peri over the course of four months from late February to mid June 1843. When it was partly finished, his wife Clara remarked in her marriage diary (a volume she shared with Robert) that she thought it “the most splendid thing he has done so far, but he is working with his whole body and soul, and with such intensity that I sometimes worry he might become ill.” Schumann made his conducting debut leading the premiere in December at the Leipzig Gewandhaus to considerable acclaim. The oratorio was soon performed all across Europe and Schumann was pleased to learn that a New York performance was planned for 1848. There is some irony in the fact that it was a dramatic work that first brought Schumann wider attention in Germany as a composer rather than a critic and, moreover, that this composition became his international calling card.