Manfred, Op. 115 (1849)

By Christopher Gibbs, Bard College

Written for the concert The Romantic Soul: Lord Byron in Music, performed on Feb 9, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“In time, my endeavors in this, the dramatic field, will be accorded a just assessment.” Schumann’s prediction, unfortunately, has yet to be realized. Unlike his successor Brahms, who exalted Schumann’s Manfred (and alluded to it in his First Symphony) but who wrote no theatrical music himself, Schumann threw himself wholeheartedly into dramatic enterprises in which he could combine his musical gifts with his love of literature. In addition to many unrealized projects over the course of his career, Schumann focused late in life on a series of works that share elevated literary origins and that explore the solitary world of outcast anti-heroes, most remarkably Manfred and Faust.

Within a day of completing his opera Genoveva in 1848 (a work that features another notable misanthrope in the character of Golo), Schumann began to tackle Byron’s Manfred (1817). The composer’s interest in the poem goes back at least as far as March 1829, when its power overwhelmed him (“Agitated state of mind—read Byron’s Manfred in bed—terrible night”). In the early 1840s he made some drafts for a setting of Byron’s Corsair, but eventually abandoned the project. Manfred, by contrast, came quickly, with most of the work—a powerful overture and fifteen subsequent numbers—written in November 1848. “Never have I devoted myself to a composition with such love and energy as to Manfred,” Schumann confessed to a friend.

Byron’s semi-autobiographical poem tells of Manfred’s remorse over past acts that resulted in the death of his beloved Astarte; he therefore seeks death as release from his torments. Manfred dominates the 1,336-line poem, although he encounters other characters, spirits, and, briefly, the shade of Astarte. Stubbornly unrepentant to the end, he dies rejecting salvation from any religious authority.

Schumann’s title Manfred: Dramatic Poem in Three Parts by Lord Byron with music by Robert Schumann distinguishes the work from the more conventional opera Genoveva. Schumann informed Liszt, who presented the premiere of Manfred in Weimar in June 1852, that it “should not be advertised as an opera, Singspiel, or melodrama, but as a ‘dramatic poem with music.’ That would be completely new and unprecedented.” Byron himself had viewed his text as “a kind of Poem in dialogue (in blank verse) or drama,” which was “quite impossible for the stage.” Schumann faithfully used Karl Adolf Suckow’s German translation, although he cut some 350 lines.

Following the overture, considered by some commentators the composer’s finest orchestral work and the only part that remains a familiar repertory piece, comes a variety of numbers, many of them melodramas in which the characters speak over a musical accompaniment. (Beethoven’s Fidelio and Weber’s Der Freischütz are celebrated models.) As musicologist John Daverio notes, “Schumann generally allows only the inhabitants of the spirit world to sing, while the human figures, Manfred, the Chamois Hunter, and the Abbot, are accorded melodramatic treatment.” Schumann, who does not hint at the incestuous love between Manfred and Astarte, modifies Byron’s ending in which Manfred refuses the Abbot’s blessings, and concludes with a choral invocation of the Requiem Mass, which hopefully turns from the prevailing minor mode to a calm close in E-flat major.