The other day I decided I would listen to some Mozart overtures. DSO Replay has an “Outstanding Overtures” category, and there a number of overtures from their recent MozartFest.
I looked away for a bit, and suddenly, I realized it wasn’t Mozart I was listening to anymore. The style was different. In fact, it sounded like the soundtrack to an action movie, maybe one with a romantic plot line as well. If you closed your eyes, you could imagine the credits rolling on the screen. What was this?
It turned out it was Schumann’s Overture to Manfred.
Seeing that it’s an overture, you might be thinking, “Schumann wrote opera?” Well, he wrote one, Genoveva, that was poorly received at the time.* Manfred is not an opera, it’s incidental music, that is, music that is intended to set a mood (or accompany a play; and if you look it up, it has now become synonymous with soundtrack). The Overture to Manfred was written about the same time as Genoveva. It is based on the poem Manfred by Lord Byron. It includes an overture, choral and solo performances, and musical interludes.
If this is a soundtrack, here is the plot. The poem Manfred tells the story of a man consumed by guilt for some sin which remains unnamed. He grieves for Astarte (he may have had something to do with her death), and conjures spirits to help him forget. They can’t help him. He attempts suicide and fails. He sees Astarte, who tells him he will die the next day, and he does. You can read and download the poem in a modern PDF file here. You can read and download it as a scan of the 1817 publication here.
Byron was living with the family of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at the time, and they entertained each other with gothic tales of ghosts and horror. Mary Shelley was in the midst of writing Frankenstein.
When Schumann read Manfred, he was greatly affected by it, and immediately started writing music for it. The poem is also the inspiration for Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony.
I hope you will enjoy the overture. If you would like to see the entire work, it can be seen here. The score may be found here.
*One opera house turned it down. When it was finally performed, there were only three performances. There are occasional revivals.3 In 2008 Nikolaus Harnoncourt recorded Genoveva as a staged performance (it is available on DVD).4
- Manfred, Byron’s poem https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manfred and Manfred, Schumann’s composition https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manfred_(Schumann)
Image attribution: Photograph of Robert Schumann by Johann Anton Völlner, Hamburg [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Schumann-photo1850.jpg