Das Paradies und die Peri, Op. 50 (Part Three)
Orchestration: 3 flutes (1 & 2 = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, triangle), harp, strings, mixed chorus, and vocal soloists
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
These concerts, the conclusion of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Schumann Focus, celebrate a number of firsts. Of course, these will be the first performances of what promises to be another provocative staging by director Peter Sellars, this time in collaboration with media artist Refik Anadol. Notably, too, these will be the Philharmonic’s first-ever performances of Robert Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri. And, most importantly, for almost everyone in the audience, this will be the first time they have ever experienced this masterpiece in person. Make no mistake, it is a masterpiece, and if you are one of the fortunate few who have attended a performance of Das Paradies und die Peri, take a moment to assure your nearby seatmates that they are in for a rare treat.
Consider this statistic: during Schumann’s lifetime, Das Paradies was second only to his “Spring” Symphony as the composer’s most frequently performed large- scale work. In fact, his mature reputation throughout the musical world was largely built on the acclaim and popularity that Das Paradies accrued. It was greeted so enthusiastically upon its premiere in Leipzig in December of 1843 that an encore performance was held the following week. And within just a few years it would be heard well beyond the borders of Germany; from Amsterdam to Prague, from Zürich to Riga, Das Paradies was a hit. By 1847, it was scheduled to be performed under the aus- pices of the American Musical Institute in New York, but subscriber jitters over such a modern and unknown work delayed the transatlantic premiere until the following spring, by which time the promoters were grandly claiming that more than a thousand dollars and a year of rehearsal had been expended on the presentation.
Naturally, not all assessments were positive. The first fraught London performance was undertaken in 1856, the year of Schumann’s death. One journal seemed inclined to endorse the piece: “From the impression on ourselves, as well as the
evident effect on a highly critical audience, we believe Paradise and the Peri to be a work of great genius and power, of which the beauties will develop themselves more and more as it is oftener heard and better understood.”
But a competing paper suggested that the overcrowded audience was there more to be in the presence of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert than for the music of “Dr.
Schumann.” Given that the Queen chose to remain for the entire performance, the lofty members of high society were unable to rise in her presence and make an early exit. Still, this did not deter Das Paradies from becoming a favorite of amateur choral societies across England, and subsequent professional productions were welcomed.
Given this early and widespread recognition, how is it possible that Das Paradies und die Peri has fallen into such profound obscurity? We know that Schumann was concerned with the status of the oratorio form before he began composing Das Paradies. Characterized by a contingent of orchestra, chorus, and an array of vocal so- loists, and based primarily on biblical subjects, the genre had reached a seemingly insurmountable pinnacle with the works of Bach and Handel.
Schumann sought to rejuvenate the oratorio, using a text based on more secular or mythological themes, deployed in a more agile and dramatic structure. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: “At the moment I’m involved in a large project, the largest I’ve yet undertaken – it’s not an opera – I believe it’s well-nigh a new genre for the concert hall.”
A hesitance to call Das Paradies an oratorio extended even to the first edition of the published score, where the word Dichtung (poem) is found on the first page, but it is as a secular oratorio that we know it now. Still, the great Passions of Bach, Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s Creation, even Mendelssohn’s Elijah – these oratorios have survived and thrived in the repertory while Das Paradies has vanished.
Could it be that the nature of Schumann’s chosen text has fallen out of favor, leading to the audience’s loss of interest? Lalla Rookh, the romance by Irish poet and musician Thomas Moore, and the source of Schumann’s inspiration, was a gigantic bestseller upon its publication in 1817. Riding the wave of a European fascina- tion with all things “Oriental,” that is fanciful tales concocted around Middle Eastern and Far Eastern themes, Lalla Rookh con- sists of four poems surrounded by a fram- ing tale in prose. The eponymous princess (Lalla Rookh is Persian for “tulip cheeked”) is on a journey to meet the young king to whom she is betrothed. Along the way she falls in love with a poet in her entourage who sings four songs/poems to her, the second one being “Paradise and the Peri.”
Unsurprisingly, Lalla Rookh arrives at her destination only to discover that the poet is actually the young king in disguise.
Schumann’s setting hews closely to the simple tale of redemption told in this second song. The “once upon a time” mood is established in chamber-music intimacy before the voice of a narrator sets the scene of the first of three sections. The Peri, in Persian mythology the offspring of a fallen angel and a mortal, is barred from Eden because of the sin of her parentage. She longs to enter that realm and an Angel overhearing her sadness shares that, “The Peri yet may be forgiven / Who brings to the eternal gate / The gift that is most dear to Heaven. Go seek it and redeem thy sin / ’Tis sweet to let the Pardon’d in.”
In this first section, her quest leads her to India and a field of battle, vividly described by the chorus and Schumann’s crashing orchestrations. A young warrior defies the invading tyrant Gazna, but is struck down. The Peri captures the hero’s last drop of blood, and as the section concludes, the chorus and soloists unite in the hopes that this boon will grant her entry to the Pearly Gates.
The second section opens at the gates of Heaven where the Angel tells the Peri that an even holier boon is required. Forlorn, she journeys next to Egypt, evocatively conjured by the chorus, where she finds a tragedy unfolding. A young man, dying of plague, has fled his home so that he might die alone and his love escape his deadly fate. But she comes to him nevertheless, and inseparable, they die together. The Peri, seeing this ultimate act of self sacrifice for the sake of love, captures the maiden’s final sigh, and Schumann’s music is at its most emotionally devastating as the Peri and chorus sing quietly “Sleep on, in pleasing dreams now rest.”
In the final section, the Peri, turned away again, travels to Syria where she comes upon a young boy at prayer. Nearby, an old man, weary from a lifetime of sins and blasphemies, has stopped to rest. Seeing the boy, the old man is overcome with under- standing and repentance. In an awestruck hymn the chorus sings, “Blest tears of soul-felt penitence / In whose benign, redeeming flow / is felt the first, the only sense / Of guiltless joy that guilt can know.” The old man’s tear of repentance is the great boon that the Peri has sought and, redeemed at last, she passes through to heaven where she is welcomed by a triumphant chorus of blessed spirits.
Surely, as this music rings in our ears, we haven’t, in our time, grown so cynical or jaded that we can’t embrace its emotional celebration. And is it too much to ask that with these performances, Das Paradies und die Peri begin its own journey toward musical redemption in the first quarter of the 21st century?
Grant Hiroshima is the former Director of Technologies for the LA Phil and has been a program annotator for the Salzburg Festival and Hyperion Records, as well as the LA Phil.