Schumann, heroism and the fate of refugees

Syria. The aftermath.

A refugee trek advances through the countryside. Hermann, a young wealthy man, falls in love with Dorothea, a woman among the refugees who pass his home town. An impossible love? Having vetted the girl with the help of the town’s priest and pharmacist, Hermann’s family agrees to a marriage. The young man himself however is afraid of being rejected by Dorothea. He employs her as a maid until, finally, the mutual love is being revealed and all ends well.

“I gave the Germans what they requested in terms of plot, and now they are extremely happy”, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe noted in a letter to Friedrich Schiller in 1798, one year after he had completed the epic poem “Hermann und Dorothea”. Half a century later, in 1851, it inspired Robert Schumann to write an overture on the same subject. Schumann venerated Goethe, and an overture was easier to perform than large pieces like a symphony. In 1850 he had moved to Düsseldorf, and his employer had commissioned pieces for the local choirs and orchestras. I heard the overture yesterday evening at the Philharmonie de Luxembourg, performed by the Kammerorchester Basel as a prelude to Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor with Sol Gabetta as the soloist.

The opening bars echo the French hymn “La Marseillaise”. The theme becomes a recurrent element, balanced by a streak of melancholy. Does it allude to the rescuing act? Hermann doesn’t strike me as a hero. He doesn’t take the initiative to counter his parents’ prejudices, and his fear of rejection devaluates the noble intention. Does the music reflect Schumann’s difficulties while he courted Clara Wieck, his later wife? Clara’s father was opposed to the match initially, they got secretly engaged. No heroism here. Schumann composed this work at a time when is mental state was on the decline and his music is ambiguous. A reflection of his condition? Or a deliberate principle of the work?

I am aware of the scholars’ official interpretation of the overture, linked to the background of Goethe’s poem: the postrevolutionary wars and Napoleon occupying Western Germany. But I felt none of that yesterday. Heroism, prejudice, melancholy, love, pity – those ideas kept circling in my head. Schumann’s message is confusing. As confusing as the refugee crisis.

When I drove home from the concert hall, I was wondering. The heroic man saves a woman fleeing misery. What a cliché! Most events triggering refugee treks are caused by men. Men with weapons, men seeking power, men trying to preserve power. Few heroes showed up to save the refugees from Syria when they came ashore in Europe. The only hero really welcoming them was the German chancellor. A woman. “Wir schaffen das”, she said. We can handle this. Can we? Did we?

The overture “Hermann und Dorothea” (Op. 136) has been recorded by the WDR Symphonieorchester.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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