LOVE AND romance are the ingredients of Music for Galway's 2018 midwinter festival, Beloved - Composers In Love, a beautiful programme of music by famous composers, written during times of intense passion, which takes place at the Town Hall Theatre from January 19 to 21.
The weekend features music by Robert and Clara Schumann, the composer-couple par excellence; Wagner and Richard Strauss, both of whom had emotionally strong wives; as well as Schubert, Beethoven, and Brahms who never found suitable life partners. Music from the 20h century will be represented by a string quartet by Czech composer Leos Janacek, along with songs by Benjamin Britten for his beloved partner, the tenor Peter Pears.
Many delightful works feature in the programme; these include Brahms’ ‘String Sextet in G major’ and Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’. Finghin Collins performs Schubert’s hauntingly beautiful ‘Fantasie in Fm’. It is a piece for two pianists at one piano, and his sister Dearbhla Collins joins him in the performance. Dearbhla also accompanies guest artists, soprano Sarah-Jane Brandon and tenor James Gilchrist, in songs by Mahler, Clara and Robert Schumann, and Strauss.
The ConTempo Quartet perform Janacek’s string quartet ‘Intimate Letters’. Often referred to as Janacek’s ‘manifesto on love’, it was written after Janacek fell madly in love with Kamila Stosslova, a married woman 38 years his junior. It could also be called a 'soundtrack to a midlife crisis'.
One of the most beautiful pieces featured is Wagner’s ‘Siegfried Idyll’. He wrote it as a birthday present for his wife Cosima [pictured above] after the birth of their son Siegfried. It was first performed on Christmas Day in 1870. A group of musicians came to Wagner’s house in Switzerland and performed the piece on the stairs as a surprise for Cosima as she awoke from sleep. Alongside the recitals, musicologist Richard Wigmore will give two talks on the theme of composers in love and their music.
Ahead of the festival, Music for Galway artistic director Finghin Collins spoke with me about the line-up of music and performers. I note that, given the theme of love, there must have been hundreds of works he could have chosen, so what ideas informed his programme choices?
“My guiding principle was to get a balanced programme and not focus too much on one composer,” he replies. “I probably could have programmed the entire weekend around Robert and Clara Schumann [pictured below] because so many of their compositions, Robert’s especially, were inspired by their love for each other. Theirs is the great love story of the 19th century in music. I put it quite centrally in the programme; as well as their music we are also showing a film, Spring Symphony, about Robert and Clara’s courtship, Clara’s father’s attempts to end it, and how they battled through the courts to win the right to marry. They had a very strong bond and a very special relationship and it was a mostly happy marriage until Robert suffered his mental breakdown.”
While the Schumanns’ music was inspired by love fulfilled, many of the pieces over the weekend stemmed from love thwarted. “If you take Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms, none of them found happiness in love," says Collins. "The pieces we hear from them were all written when they were besotted with various people, but for all kinds of reasons it just didn’t work out. Yet their feelings were none the weaker because of that and may even have been stronger because of the frustrations attached to it.
"In Schubert’s case it’s said he wrote the sublime Fantasy in Fm while he was in love with Karoline Esterhazy. In Beethoven’s case we know he was in love with Countess Giulietta Giucciardi, who was his pupil, around the time he wrote the 'Moonlight Sonata'. But she was an aristocrat and thus unsuitable. So there is a lot of frustration going through the stories.
"In Brahms’s case, and we finish the festival with his G Major String Sextet, he was in love with Agathe von Siebold who, after their affair ended, travelled to Ireland to become a governess so that’s an unusual Irish connection. Brahms was so besotted with her that he made a theme around the letters of her name and incorporated it very subtly within the sextet. So there are love messages embedded within the music and that is something Schumann was also very fond of doing. The music really celebrates love in a way even words cannot do.”
I remark on the irony that these composers, so widely revered today, would have been regarded askance by prospective fathers in law during their lifetimes. “Yes indeed,” Finghin admits. “Schumann was viewed as a no-hoper. He damaged his hands trying to be a pianist, and though he was writing music, that was not seen as a viable way to make a living. Certainly Clara was very much discouraged from marrying him. These composers were seen as, perhaps not unhinged, but certainly emotionally unstable. In Schumann’s case that turned out to be true, sadly. Beethoven was also hard to live with; he had an irascible temper, was going deaf, and was just a difficult character. Many of these composers were human beings, warts and all, even if today we put them on pedestals.”
Moving from the composers to performers, are any of them new to Galway audiences? “The two singers will be new,” Finghin [pictured above] reveals. “I was very keen to include quite a bit of vocal music because when it comes to love and romance words are so important through both love letters and love songs, and many of the best lieder are on the theme of love.
"I wanted to have two singers with contrasting voices, so I invited tenor James Gilchrist and soprano Sarah-Jane Brandon, both of whom have big careers. They’re both based in the UK, though Sarah-Jane is originally from South Africa. James is English and was originally a GP but he always had a good voice and decided to explore it further and now has a very successful career as a tenor. I think he will bring a great ardent quality to his performances. I’ve worked with him before and I know that he is a wonderfully engaging performer. One of the pieces we’re doing is Beethoven’s short song cycle ‘To the Distant Beloved’.
"Sarah Jane is also a wonderful soprano who has won many awards and I think she will bring a great sense of warmth to the Strauss and Schumann songs she’ll be singing. Strauss of course wrote many songs because he was married to one of the great singers of the 20th century, Pauline de Ahna; he wrote songs for her right through his life, including his four last songs. I think Sarah Jane will embody those beautifully.”
Gay love is also celebrated in the festival via the songs Benjamin Britten wrote for Peter Pears. “Britten and Pears had an extraordinary relationship,” Collins observes. “I didn’t include his ‘Michelangelo Sonnets’ cycle just because it was homosexual but because it was so strong and Britten wrote so much for Peter’s gorgeous tenor voice, which he adored.
"His ‘Michelangelo Sonnets’ are beautiful and were written specifically for Peter so there is that direct connection between these two very strong characters. It also brings us into the 20th century; a lot of the festival is 19th century music as that was the Romantic period when people were wearing their passions on their sleeves in a way Haydn and Bach might not have, whereas Brahms and Schumann evoked the passions very strongly.”
“We have another lovely event on the Saturday afternoon, which is slightly ligther,” Finghin concludes. “It’s highlights from the opera where James, Sarah-Jane, and Dearbhla on piano, will perform solos, arias and duets, all connected to love, from famous operas by Mozart, Handel, and Lehár. I think that will appeal to a family audience and people who perhaps don’t go so often to classical music concerts. It will be accessible and attractive.”