Schumann's Paradise

Program Notes

FRI DEC 6, 8 pm | SAT DEC 7, 8 pm

PAOLO BORTOLAMEOLLI conductor | SALLY MATTHEWS soprano | SARAH SHAFER soprano | EMILY D’ANGELO mezzo-soprano | JOSHUA STEWART tenor | JONATHAN JOHNSON tenor | DAVÓNE TINES bass-baritone | MAY FESTIVAL CHORUS Robert Porco, director

SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Das Paradies und die Peri (“Paradise and the Peri”), Op. 50

Part I

INTERMISSION

Part II

Part III

This weekend we bring together the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the May Festival Chorus, and six soloists to breathe life into Schumann’s Paradise and the Peri, which has not been heard in Music Hall since…1898! After 121 years we are thrilled to share this masterwork again and to welcome the phenomenal young conductor Paolo Bortolameolli for his Cincinnati debut. He will guide us through the heroic story of a rejected Peri that seeks reentry into Paradise. We are also delighted to welcome a cast of six soloists, all of whom are making their CSO debut. Paradise and the Peri was extremely popular during Schumann’s lifetime. Schumann himself said that this is his “greatest work”; his wife Clara stated, “it seems to me the most magnificent [work] he has written yet”; and modern musicologists believe this work to be Schumann’s greatest achievement. Don’t wait another 121 years before having the chance to hear Schumann’s hidden gem, Paradise and the Peri live at Music Hall!

—LOUIS LANGRÉE

Robert Schumann

Born: June 8, 1810, Zwickau, Germany
Died: July 29, 1856, Endenich, near Bonn

Known for:

  • Carnival (1834) 
  • Fantasie in C (1836)
  • Kinderszenen (1838) 

Das Paradies und die Peri (“Paradise and the Peri”), Op. 50

  • Work composed: 1843
  • Premiere: December 4, 1843 in Leipzig, Robert Schumann conducting
  • Instrumentation: SATB chorus and 6 soloists, 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, harp, strings
  • CSO notable performances: These performances are the work’s CSO subscription premiere. Das Paradies und die Peri was, however, performed during the 1898 May Festival, Theodore Thomas conducting the Theodore Thomas Orchestra, May Festival Chorus, and soloists Corinne Moore Lawson, Helen Wright, La Nora Caldwell, Gertrude May Stein, Josephine S. Jacoby, Ben Davies, George Hamlin, David Bispham and Joseph Baernstein.
  • Duration: approx. 100 minutes

In a letter to a friend, Schumann claimed to have invented “a new genre for the concert hall” with Das Paradies und die Peri. An oratorio-like work that emphatically doesn’t follow the Handel–Haydn (Messiah–Creation) tradition, it retells a legend that, although written by an Irish poet, was inspired by tales from the Middle East. The work contains some of Schumann’s most beautiful vocal writing and his most innovative orchestration. When the formerly expelled angel re-enters Paradise at the end of the work, one has the feeling that the universe has been made whole again. It is one of the most positive, life-affirming endings in music after Beethoven’s Ninth.

A Spiritual Quest for the “Gift that is Most Dear to Heaven”

There are many stories about Peris—a term that can stand for a variety of spiritual creatures—in Persian and Islamic mythology. The Peri dreamed up by Irish Romantic poet Thomas Moore (1779–1852), best known perhaps for songs like “The Last Rose of Summer,” is a female spirit who, formerly a denizen of Paradise, was banished for an unspecified transgression. She is, however, allowed re-admission on condition that she find and bring back “the gift that is most dear to heaven.” The story is part of Moore’s epic poem Lalla Rookh (1817), a work that was wildly popular in its own time and was translated into all major European languages. One of the German translators, Emil Flechsig (1808–78), was a friend and former schoolmate of Schumann’s, and the two worked together on the libretto for the musical adaptation of the Peri legend. The finished work (Schumann called it simply Dichtung, “poem”) became one of the greatest successes of the composer’s life, even though it was neglected through most of the 20th century and has only recently started to enjoy a comeback.

The Peri travels all over the world to find the best gift for Heaven; her first two gifts are rejected and she gains re-admittance only on her third attempt. Her journeys and the situations she encounters in the world gave Schumann an opportunity to create many colorful dramatic characters. First, we witness a war against a tyrant in India, where the gift is a drop of blood from the defeated freedom-fighter. The second scene takes us to an Egypt ravaged by the plague, where a young maiden joins her beloved in death; the gift the Peri brings back to the gate of Heaven this time is the maiden’s last sigh. Finally, the Peri travels to Syria where she sees an inveterate sinner repent and mend his ways when he sees the heartfelt prayer of a child. The Peri collects a drop of the reformed sinner’s tears, and this gift will finally open the gates of Heaven for her.

It is a story that held great appeal for the sensibilities of the 19th century but did not sit well with some critics in the 20th. Yet the message is rather clear. Beyond the obviously Christian idea of the forgiveness of sins superimposed on a legend based on Islamic lore, there is a further reason why the last gift was acceptable while the first two were not. In the first two cases, the freedom-fighter and the young plague victims are all dead; their stories are over and they can no longer be helped. The repentant sinner, on the other hand, is still alive and may go on to make a better life for himself—which is surely the reason why his tear was the gift “most dear to heaven” that bestowed forgiveness on the Peri as well.

What to Listen For

Das Paradies und die Peri consists of 26 musical numbers divided into three major parts. The alto solo sets the stage in Part I, presenting the grieving Peri who then sings of her pain at being expelled from Paradise. The alto, representing the Angel, sets out the conditions of her re-admittance. It is striking that, although the conditions are severe, the voice of the Angel is always gentle and compassionate. The Peri’s reaction, in her next aria, is a mixture of determination to do whatever it takes to find the gift and doubts about her ability to do so.

The tenor soloist and a vocal quartet, acting as narrators, accompany the Peri as she flies to India, where we are suddenly plunged into a violent war scene: an agitated choral movement depicts the bloody battles and the approaching tyrant Gazna. Then the chorus splits into two parts, one glorifying the tyrant and the other calling for his death. The focus shifts to an individual hero defying the evil Gazna, who is willing to spare his enemy’s life, provided he surrenders to him. The young man refuses, however, and shoots his last arrow at the tyrant as the war music briefly returns; yet he tragically misses the mark, whereupon he is summarily killed. As the Peri takes the slain man’s last drop of blood, her melody is joined by a solo harp, suggesting the ascent to Heaven’s gate. A magnificent chorus, complete with an excited fugato (a passage where the choral voices, entering one after another, imitate each other’s melody), expresses the hope that Heaven will look with favor upon the dead man’s sacred blood. Part I closes, accordingly, in a euphoric mood and with high expectations.

The Peri’s hopes are dashed in the slow opening movement of Part II, where a sad and sympathetic Angel regretfully turns down the gift. The Peri immediately starts on a new journey, accompanied this time by a chorus of genies or jinns. To create an “airy” sound in this movement, Schumann omitted the bass voices from the chorus. In a total contrast to the uplifting character of this chorus, the Peri is greeted by a landscape devastated by the plague, represented by a series of eerie chords in the orchestra and a mournful melody in the solo horn. In a beautiful aria, the Peri sheds bitter tears at the sight of human misery, joined by a compassionate chorus.

Just like in the previous war episode, the choral portrayal of the scene by the chorus is followed by the individual characters coming alive. Here we see a young man dying of the disease, singing a single melodic line full of pain, amidst the heartfelt comments of two sympathetic narrators. The young man’s beloved soon appears, and when he warns her that she will also die if she stays with him, she declares, in a passionate aria, that she has no desire to live alone. The ensuing final moment of the two lovers is one of the most gripping depictions of death in the entire musical literature. The Peri and the chorus sing a moving lullaby to the young people who will sleep in each other’s arms forever.

Part III opens with a lively chorus for women’s voices accompanying the Peri’s hopeful second return to the gates of Heaven. A fast upward scale played by a solo violin marks the spirit’s arrival, and the ensuing slower movement marks the rejection of the second gift by the Angel. This time, the Peri is truly despondent, though only for a brief moment: the slow opening of her aria segues into an Allegro [fast movement], filled with renewed resolve.

One of the entire work’s high points now follows: the lyrical aria of the baritone soloist who, until now, only had the tyrant’s few lines and the lowest part of the solo quartet to sing. But this lyrical aria makes up for all the prior neglect; it depicts, in glowing musical colors, the beautiful landscapes the Peri now visits in Syria. The lively chorus of her sister spirits is half mocking and half envious, only making the Peri’s pain more acute. But she is determined not to give up, and just in that moment, she sees a holy sign that leads her to the scene of her salvation. She finds an innocent child in a flowery meadow, confronted by a hardened criminal. At the sight of the praying child, the man experiences a sudden illumination: the music slows down and the bass intones a chorale-like melody accompanied by wind instruments—and the criminal sheds the tear that will be the most beautiful gift of all. The solo quartet and the full chorus take over the chorale melody and develop it in an elaborate song of praise as the Peri, slowly and solemnly, brings the precious teardrop to the Angel. An ecstatic choral movement, complete with the jubilant solo of the Peri, celebrates the victory; the spirit returns to her heavenly home, enriched by a full range of experience in the material world. She had to become acquainted with human suffering in order to become a better Peri.

—Peter Laki