SCHUMANN: Manfred–Overture and Incidental Music-Drama, Op. 115 (in English) – Laidman Browne/Jill Balcon/Raf de la Torre/BBC Chorus/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham

Historic-Recordings HRCD 00041, 69:00 [CD or download at] ****:

Schumann wrote his music for Byron’s “metaphysical” Manfred in 1852, having conceived the three-part drama for either stage or “closet-performance,” given the difficultly of anyone’s producing elaborate Alpine sets. The Byron piece (1817) presents an alienated hero, thoroughly disillusioned with life with the loss of his beloved Astarte, “the voice that was my music.” This hopeless sense of yearning aligns Manfred with Poe, certainly, and with much of Romantic Agony. Manfred suffers some unexplained guilt, but like Faust, he craves not absolution but hegemony in the spirit of defiance. “The face of the earth hath maddened me. . …My joy was in the wilderness.” Manfred calls upon dark and mysterious powers to grant him forgetfulness; he even contemplates a suicide the higher powers deny him. Manfred disowns his past, and he harbors Nietzschean delusions of controlling his destiny. The kinship of Byronic heroes to Milton’s idea of Satan –better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven — has been well established. Much of the diction and imagery derives from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with more than a touch of the morbid sensibilities about to be unleashed (1818) in Mary Shelley.

Except the powerful Overture, few of Schumann’s various excerpts receive attention–the Alpine scene and the ’ballet’ of Alpine spirits excepted–and their inspirational value remains debatable. But Sir Thomas Beecham decided to launch a 1954-1956 inscription for CBS (LP M2L 245) which did resurface as a CD on the short-lived Beecham Edition from England. The Historic-Recordings issue enjoys a direct potent aural presence, and narrator Laidman Browne’s English diction is clarity itself. Beecham’s rendition of the Overture, by the way, possesses a ferocious drive and inflection, and rarely has this performance been granted inclusion on CDs of Beecham favorites. Beecham inserts two orchestrated piano pieces (Interlude from the Album for the Young, Op. 68, No. 30; the Abendlied, Op. 85) into the score at Nos. 13 and 25. Jill Balcon narrates the Spirit of Air, who sends Manfred back “to recreant mortality,” finding him unwilling to obey any higher authority. At the end of Part II, Balcon gives Astarte’s too-brief word of farewell to the hapless Manfred. Schumann’s Hymnus der Geister Ariman’s conveys something of the power he inherited from Beethoven, with clear nods to that composer’s music for The Ruins of Athens.  

Late in Act III, the Abbot of St. Moritz counsels Manfred, one who has had “converse with the things which are forbidden to the search of Man.” The Abbot advises that there is still time for atonement and penitence, but Manfred embraces his deep despair “that has no fear of Hell,” finding his only consolation in the spirit of Night. Manfred and the Abbot witness a robed apparition, an emissary of Hell beckoning, “Thine hour is come.”  

Could it be that Manfred, in his defiance to Death’s summons, by default admits his loyalty to the very life that has saddened him? The final scene – with organ, chorus, and Abbot – surround the dying Manfred who exclaims, “It is not so difficult to die.” The orchestral postlude, filled with sighs, suggests that heaven and earth sympathize with the tragic protagonist.  For British Lit pedant and Beecham collectors, a fascinating musical curio of the Romantic Age.

–Gary Lemco