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Tuesday, December 11 , 2018, 9:23 am | Fair 42º


Gerald Carpenter: Santa Barbara Symphony Program Explores the Romantic Soul

The Santa Barbara Symphony, under guest conductor Steven Sloane, will send us a deluxe Valentine's Day greeting for this month's concerts, at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Granada Theatre.

Lord Byron’s Manfred inspired many artists, including German painter Caspar David Friedrich.

The concerts, called "Valentine’s Love Letters," will also feature the talents of pianist Natasha Kislenko, actor Peter Strauss and director Jonathan Fox (of the Ensemble Theatre Co.).

The concerts are organized around the possibility that there was a "famous love triangle" involving the composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856), his wife, the pianist and composer, Clara Josephine Wieck Schumann (1819-1896), and Schumann's young protégé, the composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Between performances of their works, Peter Strauss will read selections from their letters to each other.

The program consists of the Overture from Robert Schumann's incidental music for Lord Byron's poetic drama, Manfred (1849), Opus 115, Clara Schumann's Piano Concerto in A-Minor, Opus 7 (1835) and Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C-Minor, Opus 68 (1876).

"Bearing Clara Schumann's personality and appearance in mind," writes Karl Geiringer, in his authoritative biography of Brahms, "it seems only too natural that the reverent friendship which Brahms at first felt for her should gradually have changed to ardent love. In her the young man met a woman of classical and animated beauty, herself an eminent artist, intellectual and highly cultured. The fact that she was fourteen years his senior did not diminish his feelings for her; on the contrary, it added to Clara's charm for him that she had far more knowledge of life than he. Johannes, therefore, loved this exquisite woman with all that was best and noblest in his character, and this love was increased by his compassion for her in her great sorrow and his admiration for the way in which she bore it."

So, did the passionate love, which Schumann and Brahms obviously felt for each other, ever achieve physical consummation? Would we rather it did, or didn't? I side with the scholarly consensus on this one: Brahms slept with neither Schumann's wife nor his widow. I believe that that is why their love retained its power for so long and then imperceptibly faded into best friends. It's not the way we would do it now, but it's very 19th century. The most meticulous exploration of this kind of — now virtually obsolete — non-physical love affair can be found in Gustave Flaubert's novel, A Sentimental Education (1869), though Flaubert's lovers are nowhere near as noble and talented as were Brahms and Schumann.

Beethoven and Goethe laid the foundations of Romanticism, but it didn't become a movement until Lord Byron's poems, with their egomaniacal heroes, seized the imagination of all Europe and became the focus of a masscult. Manfred is the quintessential Byronic hero, withdrawn to the solitude of a mountain fastness, brooding on some unspeakable sin in his past (based, no doubt, on Byron's own — definitely consummated — love affair with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh). Though it was cast as a drama, Byron intended it to be read, not staged. Nevertheless, it was brought to the stage on a number of occasions. Schumann wrote it up as a kind of oratorio/singspiel in 1852, and it is the Overture to this work that the Symphony will play to open their concerts. Since I first heard it, fifty years ago, Schumann’s ”Manfred” Overture, along with Weber’s overture to his opera, Der Freischütz (1821), have defined romantic music for me. Schumann was a model husband and father, a great composer, a tireless champion and supporter of contemporary music, and a kind of Romantic saint—pure, in the sense that William Carlos Williams meant when he said: “The pure products of America go crazy.”

Even now, a woman composer, no matter what the merits of her music, is seldom accorded equal authority with her male contemporaries—and, even now, she had better be a notable performer, as well. As a pianist, Clara Schumann had a sixty-one-year career as a virtuoso—her fame rivaled that of Liszt—and she also raised seven children, all by herself from 1854 onward. That she found time to compose anything is remarkable enough; that what she wrote should be as good as her Piano Trio or this Piano Concerto seems nothing short of supernatural. Though the work is in the same key as Robert’s only essay in the form, the concerto itself has more in common with the two by Chopin, or the five by the Irishman, John Field, than with her husband’s lean, gleaming masterpiece.

Brahms was forty-three when he brought out his first symphony — indeed, so cowed was he by the shadow of Beethoven, that it is a wonder he dared to publish it at all. It is a great and powerful work, but it is not Romantic. That was all in the past. (The exquisite melody in the last movement comes from the same Austrian folk song that Mahler used, tweaked almost to unrecognizeability, at the opening of his Third Symphony.) As Geiringer says, “The days of his adolescence ended with his ardent love for Clara. He became more serious, quieter, and more reserved. The delicate tenderness, the romantic exuberance of his first creations gradually vanished from his compositions. In his life and in his work a new period had begun.”

Tickets to this concert are $28 to $133, with special rates for seniors, students and groups. Discounted student tickets are available for $10 with valid student ID. Single tickets can be purchased from the Granada box office at 805.899.2222 or online by clicking here.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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