Overture to Genoveva, Op. 81
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
After an extended period of severe depression in the early 1840s, Schumann yearned to compose an opera, the one art form that would combine both sides of his genius, the literary and the musical. He aimed at devising a truly German approach, stripped of the frivolity and virtuoso display that he disliked in typical Italian and French examples of the genre.
After considering traditional German legends such as the Nibelungen, Lohengrin, and Till Eulenspiegel, he settled on the medieval tale about Genevieve of Brabant. Siegfried, Genevieve’s husband, departs on a crusade and leaves her under the care of his trusted knight/servant Golo. While Siegfried is away, Genevieve must defend herself from Golo’s obsessive advances.
Resolutely and repeatedly rebuffed, Golo plots murderous revenge. When Siegfried hears of her supposed infidelity, he orders Genevieve’s execution, but, at the last minute, Golo’s treachery is exposed, and the couple happily reunites.
In setting this (mostly) dark drama, Schumann adapted some of Wagner’s techniques, including the absence of the recitative-aria convention – allowing the music to flow continuously – and the lack of purely virtuosic vocal display – which added to its seriousness of tone.
Unlike most composers of the time, Schumann wrote his overture first – even before completing his scenario. In fact, by the time the opera premiered, the overture had already enjoyed several concert performances, prefiguring our time, when the overture is played more often than the opera is staged. Even though there is little reference to it in the rest of the work, the overture sets the mood and foreshadows the story’s path from the brooding intensity of C minor to the ecstatic joy of C major, duplicating his hero Beethoven’s progression in the famed Fifth Symphony.
Despite the time and devotion Schumann lavished on Genoveva, his sole opera was not a success, getting only a handful of performances in its original 1850 production in Leipzig. Contemporaneous critic Eduard Hanslick did opine that the overture was the best part of the entire work. — Paul Gibson