Overture to Genoveva, op. 81
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings
Composed 1850. First performance: 25 June 1850, Stadttheater, Leipzig.
Notes by Katherine Baber
By the time Schumann sat down to sketch the overture to Genoveva, he had resolved some of the tension between music as pure expression and music as a medium for storytelling. He had longed to write an opera for decades but could not settle on a subject, considering everything from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to the more German Till Eulenspiegel legend. Eventually, he created a libretto himself based on two versions of the same French tale. Friedrich Hebbel’s Genoveva (1841) and Ludwig Tieck’s Leben und Tod der heiligen Genoveva (The Life and Death of Saint Genoveva, 1799) both told the story of a woman whose constancy triumphs over the adulterous accusations against her. In the German context, this was a Trauerspiel (tragedy) in which the heroine’s faith throughout her suffering leads to her redemption.
The overture distills the opera’s tragic to triumphant arc in a way that recalls Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, moving from the shadows of C minor to a radiant C major finale. The journey begins with an elegiac melody in the violins, full of sighing figures, and the timbre soon darkens with the turn toward the throaty voices of the bassoons, violas, and celli. Throughout the rest of the overture, sudden shifts in character lead from melancholy to turbulence, but a horn call cuts through the tempest to herald the redemption to come. Schumann gave this call an unusual sound, choosing to combine the modern valve horns with the older Waldhörner—horns made for hunting which are simpler in their construction but piercing enough to carry over long distances. This flair for the dramatic can also be found in two of Schumann’s later works: Manfred, based on Lord Byron’s poem; and the grand orchestral-choral work, Scenes from Goethe’s Faust. Like Wagner, Schumann had been inspired by the grand operas of Fromental Halévy and Giacomo Meyerbeer, and he also made use of leitmotiven—recurring musical ideas the expressed the essences of his characters and reinforced the drama on a musical level. Unfortunately, Genoveva was heavily criticized both by Wagner’s critics and his partisans, even though many had not heard the work or even seen a score. As much as it may have distressed Schumann, we can see the troubled reception of Genoveva as evidence of just how deeply feelings ran about the progress toward the unification of music with drama in what Wagner called the “artwork of the future.”