Transcending Incidental Music: Musical Theatricality in Schumann’s Manfred Overture

Alexandra Huang | May 12, 2018

‘But we, who name ourselves its sovereigns, we,
Half dust, half deity, alike unfit
To sink or soar, with our mix’d essence make
A conflict of its elements, and breathe
The breath of degradation and of pride,
Contending with low wants and lofty will,
Till our mortality predominates,
And men are—what they name not to themselves,
And trust not to each other.’ (Byron Manfred 1.2.40-48)

Article Image Leonard Bernstein-1

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) was a music composer of high Romanticism. His symphonic rearrangement of the dramatic poem Manfred by Lord Baron Byron (1788-1824) remains to this day as much in the limelight as Byron’s original text. The Manfred Overture is the opening introduction set at the beginning of Schumann’s Symphony Op.115, Manfred: Dramatic Poem with Music in Three Parts along with the Overture (1848). In terms of genre, the piece is the apotheosis of incidental music(music composed for atmospheric accompaniment for dramatic actions in a play). Originally from ancient Greece, incidental music is a musical practice that looms large in the nineteenth century (Oxford Companion to Music). Interestingly, Shumann’s Manfred Overture is also a critique of the genre, showing that the place of music is as important as the dramatic scenarios.

Within thirteen minutes, the dramatic orchestration of Manfred Overture had given me a much better understanding of Byron’s convoluted poem of the same name. The forte three-note motif in crescendo rendered me speechless when I first listened to Leonard Bernstein’s rendition. The reinforced, terse beats usher in a riveting B-flat Major chord, leaving the musical phrase unsolved. A suspending caesura prolongs and supersedes the unsynthesis, while a tenuous pianissimo draws out the suspense of a protracted legato phrase. I was left wondering what sort of “mix’d essence” is incorporated into Schumann’s transcription to showcase the “conflict of its elements […]” in Byron’s dramatic poem (1.2.40-43).

In my research, I have found out how the aesthetics of literature and music mix in Schumann’s Overture to accentuate both the musical and dramatic effects, despite music being the only present medium. Although Manfred Symphony is designated as “incidental music” in the Oxford Companion to Music, the place of music, especially in the Overture, is not secondary to dramatic speech and action. The expressivity of incidental music, as in the case of Manfred Overture, enhances internal and external, realistic and fantastic connectedness, or, as Laura Tunbridge puts it, provides a “negotiating force” between “actual and mental theater” (154). Sheer registering of orchestral music from Overture, without recourse to the monologue as in the three main acts of the Symphony, shows how music communicates efficiently to the audience.

Manfred Overture shares in the rich traditions of the musical form “overture.” Some sources of the conventions emphasize the independence of the overture from the rest of the piece. Compared to preludes set at the beginning of each act of symphonic or operatic works, the overture is a signpost at the beginning of the whole piece. Its framework is summative, and it is capable of foreshadowing the predominant themes. As delineated in the Oxford Companion, overtures are categorized into different usages, either for dramatic or concert use. The Romantic period accommodates a more liberal structure that nullifies this division, elevating the role of music to the extent that it no longer merely serves drama. Since the mid 18th century, the connection between an overture and the rest of the piece has weakened. This explains why Manfred Overture could be performed independently of the framework of Symphony Op.115.

Critics recognize the Romantic idea that music could operate as a re-interpretative, expository vehicle for demonstrating literature. As early as 1813, E. T. A. Hoffmann considers music “the most Romantic of all arts” and hence commensurable with all other art genres (94). Ewald Zimmermann, the editor of Chopin’s Balladen published by G. Henle Verlag in 1976, states in the Preface that:

‘The way in which musical creative power tends to encroach upon poetic and literary fields is one of the essential features distinguishing the Romantic Period. Program music, the advanced stage of efflorescence encountered in the art song and the practice prevalent in Schumann’s music […], all clearly point to the path of development pursued during this era.’

According to Zimmermann, Schumann’s music adapted from literary works is exemplary of the Romantic interdisciplinary cult. Daniel Herwitz highlights the cross-genre capacity to conflate artistic genres seamlessly by freely translating “painting into myth and poetry, poetry into music, music into painting” (78). Herwitz also quotes from John Dewy to restate “all aesthetic experience is action” and further contends that “all art aspires to the condition of music” (99). Herwitz’s modernist view of art is a reiteration of the Romantic trans-medial trend embodied in Schumann’s music.

At the Romantic apogee when music begins to encroach upon literature, Schumann attests to how musicians make a foray into literary aesthetics by carrying out the musicality of Byron’s mental theatre. The common aesthetics between literature and music serve as the contact point for the reappraisal of Byron’s poem in light of Schumann’s symphony. Interpreting Schumann’s Overture as a recapitulation of the dramatic nuances Byron devised, we can see how Schumann reifies Byron’s inner mentalities, as well as how he makes Byron’s original metaphysical design an actable play.


About Alexandra

Alexandra is a current student studying MSc Literature and Modernity. Her main research interest is the musicality of modernist literature, as well as the literariness of Classical music. She is now writing on how music offers alternative subjectivity to the female artists in Virginia Woolf’s fictions. Besides being a literature student, she is an amateur pianist.

Works Cited

Byron, George Gordon. Manfred: A Dramatic Poem. Julia Reidhead, and Carly Fraser Doria, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 2. New York: WW. Norton & Company, 2012.

Daniel Herwitz. Aesthetics: Key Concepts in Philosophy. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008.

Hoffmann, Ernst Theodor. E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Musical Writings: Kreisleriana; The Poet and the Composer; Music Criticism, ed. by David Charlton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Latham, Alison. The Oxford Companion to Music. Online-only ed., 2011.

Laura Tunbridge (2003). “Schumann’s Manfred in the Mental Theatre.” Cambridge Opera Journal. vol. 15, pp. 153-183.


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