Das Paradies und die Peri, oratorio for soloists, choir, and orchestra, Op. 50
The early 1840s were one of the happiest periods of Robert Schumann’s life. He was especially satisfied on a personal level—in 1840 he married the love of his life, the piano virtuoso Clara Wieck. Their marriage followed months of conflict with her father Friedrich Wieck, under whom Schumann had been studying piano. He disapproved of their marriage so strongly that the matter finally had to be settled by the lawcourts. In Wieck’s defence, however, it should be mentioned that his daughter was nine years younger than the composer, 17 at the time of her engagement, and her career was off to an exceptionally promising start. Friedrich Wieck also questioned Schumann’s mental health. By the time they had been married for two years, Schumann’s relations with his father-in-law had quieted down, and Wieck soon even resumed actively supporting Schumann’s creative work, resulting in a relatively harmonious period. Even Schumann’s mental illness, diagnosed as “psychotic melancholia” (today, some speculate that he suffered from schizophrenia, while others point to bipolar disorder), was latent during this period. More severe manifestations returned after the couple moved to Dresden in 1844, then his illness struck with full force in the first half of the 1850s in Düsseldorf, where se Schumann attempted suicide by leaping into the Rhine. Thereafter, he was moved to a sanatorium.
For the first four years of their marriage, the Schumanns stayed in Leipzig, Clara’s birthplace, and the period from 1840 to 1844 turned out to be very productive for Robert. Just in 1840 he composed over 150 songs (including the cycle Myrthen, which he dedicated to Clara as a wedding gift), then in 1842 he focused heavily on chamber music. In 1841 he wrote his Symphony No. 1 in B flat major and soon also began work on a Symphony in D minor, which was later numbered as his last symphony after revisions in the 1850s. By the end of his Leipzig period, Schumann had a clearly defined style of his own based on the traditions of German music (Mozart, Beethoven) and sharing the aesthetics of the early Romantics (Schubert, Mendelssohn) whilst applying the unique elements of his personal language, his own poetics, a freer handling of form, and memorable melodies. Schumann exalted the ideals of Romanticism not only in his music, but also in his literary activities. As a skilled musical author and the founder of the journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which still exists, he took a stand against outmoded ideas, making him in practice the spokesman for a newly developing style.
Schumann was especially famous for his piano music, songs, and (although to a lesser degree than Beethoven or Brahms) symphonies. Although he was very active in composing works for voices and orchestra, he produced only a few lengthy works in the genre, including his only opera Genoveva (1850) and a vast work for orchestra, choir, and soloists Das Paradies und die Peri (Paradise and the Peri, 1843), which is usually described as a secular oratorio. According to textbooks on musical forms, the oratorio in its rough outlines is merely a slightly less ambitious opera: it contains arias, choruses, and ensembles. The major difference, however, is that the oratorio is a sacred genre (reflected in the choice of subject matter), and it is performed in the concert hall rather than being staged. In that form, the oratorio attained its greatest popularity in the Baroque period in the works of Handel and Bach. Later on, it came to be defined a bit more loosely; oratorios began to appear with librettos not based on strictly religious subject matter—Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons is one such example. Das Paradies und die Peri is referred to as an oratorio in this sense.
Concerning the work’s typology, Schumann himself called it an almost new musical genre for the concert stage. In the first published edition, the composition was designated a “Dichtung”, i.e. a “poem”. At the same time, in a letter the composer admitted it was the largest-scale work he had so far produced—his First Symphony having been his only experience to date in larger musical forms. Clara Schumann called the oratorio the grandest thing her husband had yet written; later on, Richard Wagner even admitted his envy of Schumann’s work. The oratorio was received enthusiastically and was given many more performances. Over the years it made its way to the far-flung corners of Europe (including Prague) and even across the Atlantic. Despite its undisputed quality and its former enormous popularity, for today’s musical public, Das Paradies und die Peri is just an item that one mentions when listing Schumann’s works rather than a living part of the traditional repertoire. Several factors may have influenced the work’s reception, ranging from declining interest in the genre to the public’s indifference to the subtleties of a text based on Persian mythology, but experts agree that this tremendously important work is one of Schumann’s greatest creations. Sir Simon Rattle, for example, calls it one of the few true masterpieces that most of the public has never heard.
Schumann chose to set a text from the book Lalla Rookh (1817) by the Irish author Thomas Moore. The book took inspiration from the Orient and from Persia in particular. In this respect, Moore and Schumann shared in the then-current widespread fascination with cultures beyond Europe. Lalla Rookh contains four stories, one of which is the tale of a Peri—a figure from Persian mythology who assumes the appearance of a beautiful girl and is the offspring of a fallen angel and a human. Because of her sinful parents, the Peri is banned from entering paradise; the gates will be opened to her only once she brings a sufficiently rare gift back to heaven. Symbolically, the Peri goes in search of a gift three times. The first time she brings back the last drop of blood of an Indian freedom fighter, and the second time she finds herself in Egypt, where she captures the last breath of a girl who dies after refusing to leave her beloved who is infected with the plague. Only her third gift is seen as worthy by the heavens: the Peri gathers a tear from the eye of a an old Syrian sinner who has been moved by the sight of a young boy praying, reminding him of his own youthful innocence.
The three journeys define the composition’s formal framework and, naturally, the character of the music, so each of the three parts is expressively different. While in Part I we find numbers using grand gestures of the orchestra and chorus to suggest the courage of a warrior and the horrors of combat, Part II is the most lyrical and ends pianissimo with tender, moving music. Part III, initially almost pastoral, is filled with hope that the Peri will find what she seeks. The work ends triumphantly with an orchestral tutti, during which the prominent part of the Peri climaxes on a sustained high C. The oratorio is further divided into 27 numbers (arias, choruses, recitatives), but these do not always have clearly perceptible boundaries and are often linked to each other organically. The soloists take on a variety of roles, the only constant protagonists being the Peri and an Angel. Schumann writes very sensitively for the orchestra, often providing the numbers where the solo parts predominate with a less dense, more intimate accompaniment. The orchestra usually appears at full strength only at structurally important points. Despite the work’s monumentality, the composer does not resort to excessive brilliance or opulence, instead directing the listener’s attention to more intimate nuances. Playing an especially important role in the lyrical numbers are the strings and woodwinds, not infrequently doubling the soloists’ lines. Schumann’s harmony is in keeping with early Romanticism, but we hear hints of an older style in certain contrapuntal choral passages. Schumann also strengthens the work’s overall unity by the repeated use of motifs. For example, a wistful descending motif, heard at the very beginning in the first violins, returns several times in the course of the work. The music’s greatest assets are its imaginative melodies and its enormous sensitivity to the text, demonstrating Schumann’s other great talent as a man of letters.