Robert Schumann’s “Genoveva” Overture
Notes by TŌN clarinetist Colby Bond
As he was coming to the end of a period of darkness and depression in his life, Robert Schumann decided to compose his first and only opera, Genoveva, which premiered in Leipzig in the summer of 1850. This dramatic and tragic work is based on the German medieval legend of Genevieve of Brabant, in which the title character has to fight off the romantic advances of her husband’s servant while her husband is at war. Her husband hears of the alleged infidelity and orders her to be killed in an act of revenge, until it is revealed that it is his servant who has truly been unfaithful and she is saved at the last moment.
Unfortunately, Schumann’s opera was not well-received and the first production was only performed three times. Disparaging remarks from Richard Wagner inevitably discouraged Schumann from writing another opera in the last few years of his life. Though this opera is not often performed, the Genoveva Overture remains a regular member of the symphonic repertoire as a concert-opener. Opening in a deeply yearning C minor key, the overture progresses through sweeping melodies amongst the strings and winds to foreshadow the drama that is yet to come in the opera. As this drama continues to evolve alongside accompaniment of captivating solo lines in the woodwinds, the horns come in on a resoundingly regal interjection that brings the listener to the grandeur of C major within the orchestra. This transition from the darkness of minor to the satisfactory elation of major gives the overall essence of how the plot line ahead is going to progress, and also mirrors the roadmap of Ludwig van Beethoven’s iconic Fifth Symphony.
An Emotional Journey
The beauty and intensity of this Romantic-era work allows the musicians to take you on a dramatic journey in just a few minutes through the vast emotions soon to be encapsulated within the opera. It is no surprise that the music comes across so tragically from the beginning of this overture, and perhaps foreshadows not only the opera but the deep pain and mental illness that Schumann was experiencing in his own life. The several-year period following the composition of this work led to a continued debilitation of Schumann’s own mental health and the eventual end of his life in 1856. I find the emotion of this overture to be remarkably palpable and on clear display when paired with the understanding of tragedy occurring in the opera alongside the composer’s end of his life.