Britten’s admiration for Robert Schumann is not revealed in an explicit way – there are no immediately obvious quotes for instance – but the frequency with which he performed Schumann’s music indicates more than just respectability.
There are parallels with the approaches of the two composers, however, which will undoubtedly become clearer as we travel through Britten’s works. The one that comes to mind the soonest is a ‘bittersweet’ quality common to the music of both, the ability to convey emotional extremes in the course of the same work.
A prime example in the work of Schumann is the song cycle Dichterliebe, a work for which Britten and Peter Pears had very high regard, for they performed it frequently on tour before eventually recording it for Decca in 1963. The cycle, setting poetry by Heinrich Heine, was completed in Schumann’s great year of song, 1840, and is perhaps best described as running from rapture to despair – a pattern that Britten himself used in the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings.
The very last instance of Britten recording with an orchestra occurred in September 1972, and was an unlikely revival of Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, in which the soloists included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Faust, Elizabeth Harwood as Gretchen and John Shirley-Quirk as Mephistopheles, with Pears singing the part of Ariel. Even now this work sits on the fringes of Schumann’s output where public consumption of his music is concerned, but Britten turned it into something altogether far reaching and powerful.
Though it is not perhaps the most distinctive of Schumann’s scores, ‘Faust’ definitely packs a punch in this recording, the orchestra providing intense dramatic props. The weight of the strings’ pizzicato at the start of Ach neige, du Schmerzenreiche in Part One is telling, as is the very powerful soprano solo from Harwood that follows. There is drama, too, in the sudden orchestral intervention with which the final section of Part One begins, and the first entry of the chorus just past 2’40” is striking. Later on, at 4’30” in Ein Sumpf zieht am Gebirge hin, snarling horns can be heard as Faust dies.
Britten accompanied cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in a recording of the Five Pieces in Folk Style, which on the face of it appears to have been a joyous occasion in the studio, if the beautifully warm-hearted legato of the second piece (Langsam) and the high spirits of the fourth (Nicht zu rasch) are anything to go by. High spirits are also a feature of Britten’s performance with horn player Dennis Brain in the Adagio and Allegro, the fast music taken at quite a pace but again representing a joyful outpouring.
The music of Schumann, then, played a big part in Britten’s performing life – but on his composition looks to have been a secondary influence. Emotionally, however, the two composers may turn out to have greater similarities than was previously thought.
The music referred to and listened to here can be found on a Spotify playlist. The following recordings were used as reference:
Schumann: Scenes from Goethe’s Faust – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Elizabeth Harwood (soprano), John Shirley-Quirk (baritone), Peter Pears (tenor), Wandsworth School Choir, Aldeburgh Festival Singers, English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Schumann: 5 Pieces in Folk Style, Op.102 – Mstislav Rostropovich (cello) and Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Schumann: Dichterliebe, Op.48 – Peter Pears (tenor) and Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Schumann: Adagio and Allegro, Op.70 – Dennis Brain (horn) and Benjamin Britten (piano) (BBC Legends)