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Illinois Arts Council

    NSCS June 2006



    By Donald Draganski



      Most listeners are familiar with Robert Schumann primarily as a composer of piano music, chamber music and lieder, in addition to his well-known symphonies and piano concerto. It may therefore come as something of a surprise to learn that Schumann secured his international reputation with his oratorio, Das Paradies und die Peri, composed in 1843 and set to a text by the Irish poet Thomas Moore.


      In that year the thirty-three-year-old composer had already composed over 150 songs, three string quartets, his first symphony, and a veritable library of piano music. He was also editing the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, a journal that he had founded nine years earlier. A growing family (he and Clara would eventually produce a brood of seven children) made further demands on this phenomenally busy man's time and energy. (It should also be noted that Schumann suffered from frequent bouts of manic-depression. During his active periods he produced one work after another in quick succession with amazing speed and alacrity; but when he suffered through his spells of depression - he referred to them as "turbid melancholy" - he would brood for months in a state of paralytic inactivity.)


      Schumann had encountered Thomas Moore's poetry many years earlier, and in 1841 the composer's boyhood friend Emil Flechsig suggested adapting Moore 's Lalla Rookh, which he had translated into German, as a suitable libretto for an oratorio. Schumann eagerly agreed and, in a letter to a friend, 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. I plan to put all my energy into it and hope to have finished it within a year." Although a few interruptions slowed his work a bit - he complained of a larcenous cook who stole fifty bottles of wine from his cellar - he completed the oratorio on the 16 th of June, 1843.


      Thomas Moore, the Irish poet whose work so inspired Schumann, was born in Dublin in 1779. He was the first Catholic to be admitted to Trinity College , where he received his degree in 1798. The next year he left for England and became quite the social success in London , first as a singer, then as an essayist and poet. A brief position as a deputy in the British Admiralty took him to the United States and Canada . Shortly after his return to England , he read a highly uncomplimentary review of his poetry in which the writer referred to Moore as a "public nuisance" and his poetry as "licentious." The ever-mercurial Moore challenged the critic to a duel; both survived - the critic's pistol was unloaded - and the two became fast friends. A long and productive period followed, interrupted by a brief period of exile on the continent to avoid debtor's prison. His last years were marked by chronic money problems, although his straits were relieved somewhat during his last years when he was awarded a Civil List pension. He died in 1852.

      Moore 's Lalla Rookh , published in 1817, consists of a series of oriental tales and stories, with alternating verse and prose passages. It tells the story of the emperor's daughter, Lalla Rookh ("Tulip Cheek"), who is traveling from Delhi to Kashmir to be married to the king of Bucharia. During the journey a Kashmiri poet, Feramorz, diverts the princess by spinning four verse tales. Upon their arrival in Kashmir , the young poet identifies himself as the very king to whom Lalla is betrothed, and the work concludes with a traditional happy ending.


      Of the four tales with which the Kashmiri poet entertained the princess, Schumann chose the second, " Paradise and the Peri," as the text for his musical setting. Peris, according to Persian mythology, are fairy-like creatures who are the offspring of fallen angels and mortals. Although Peris have been entrusted with the task of accompanying the saved to heaven, their questionable parentage bars them from gaining admittance into the heavenly realm. However, Moore 's Peri has been promised entry into heaven if she can produce a suitable gift. In Part One, she presents the blood of a warrior killed by a tyrant, but the guardians of Heaven dismiss this gift. In Part Two, the Peri brings back the sighs of a young maiden who died in the arms of her beloved during a time of plague; this gift is also found wanting, But in Part Three, the gatekeeper to Paradise accepts the final gift: the tears of a repentant criminal, and the oratorio ends triumphantly as the Peri is ushered into paradise.


      Upon completion of the oratorio, Schumann wrote the following in his diary: "On June 16 th my Peri was completed after several days of strenuous work. What a great joy! I don't know of anything similar in the musical repertory. I don't like to write or speak about my own works; my wish is that they will have a good effect on the world and secure for me the loving memory of my children."


      The work received its premiere six months later at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, in December of 1843. The public response was sufficiently favorable to schedule a second performance a week later. Within five years the work had been presented in most of the European music centers, and by 1848 it had even reached the shores of America , where it was performed by the American Musical Institute in New York .


      As John Daverio states in his excellent biography of Schumann, "The Peri was the work that made Schumann into an international, as opposed to a merely German phenomenon. Not only was [Schumann] getting older; he was poised to develop into a cosmopolitan figure."


    © 2005 by Donald Draganski


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