Discover Schumann’s The Pilgrimage of the Rose

Discover Schumann’s The Pilgrimage of the Rose

Robert Schumann, composer.

This weekend, the Houston Symphony presents a never-before-seen production of Schumann’s The Pilgrimage of the Rose, featuring singers, contemporary dancers, chorus and orchestra. I recently got to ask the Houston Symphony’s new Musical Ambassador/Assistant Conductor Carlos Andrés Botero a few questions about Schumann’s choral masterpiece.

Calvin Dotsey: How would you describe Schumann’s The Pilgrimage of the Rose? What does it sound like? What story does it tell?

Carlos Andrés Botero: In 1851, Robert Schumann was hired by the Düsseldorf Choral Society and Orchestra to be their music director and principal conductor. The composer took advantage of this unique opportunity and composed several pieces which are today major contributions to the choral and symphonic repertoire.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Germany saw a surge in popular interest for simple folk stories and countryside mystique. The demand for such themes was so high that some of the most successful writers of the day, brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, made their careers solely publishing so-called “fairy (or folk) tales.”

From left to right, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm as painted by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann in 1855.
From left to right, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm as painted by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann in 1855.

Robert Schumann, newly appointed in Düsseldorf, composed his own “fairy tale” by transforming the genre of song cycle (of which he himself was a prolific creator) with the powerful forces now at his disposal. His source for the text is a poem by Heinrich Moritz Horn. The story tells us about the journey of a rose who is transformed into a human by fairy magic and over the course of a year experiences a wide spectrum of human emotions: rejection, fraternity, fear, fellowship, faith, romantic love, gratitude and motherhood.

CD: What makes this one of Schumann’s great masterpieces?

CAB: Of the techniques that Schumann displays like no other, his refined ability to convey the depth of spoken language with musical sounds stands out. Every note seems to be serving to literally paint with sound the development of the story. This is not a dramatic tale in the sense we today have developed of “romantic” sound. The Pilgrimage is a wonderful opportunity for our ears to explore the subtleties of color and sound that a musician of his caliber is able to evoke. I think this is precisely the reason why the work fits so well into our Music Director’s search of a New Sound for the orchestra.

The performances this Saturday and Sunday will feature contemporary dancers.

CD: Houston audiences will be treated to a new, semi-staged presentation of The Pilgrimage of the Rose this weekend. How will dance and lighting be incorporated into the performance?

CAB: What we have been working on for this coming weekend is a visual component that will add even more layers of meaning to the aural perception of the piece. This was not originally intended by the composer, of course, but  we are giving the characters created by the author “bodies” in the form of dancers. So, if you want to follow either sound, movement or both combined, you will be able to enjoy the storytelling in the way that you prefer. From the first downbeat we are going to take our audience back to 1851 and watch the genius of Schumann telling us this compelling tale as if we were in an improvised street theater in Düsseldorf.

Don’t miss Schumann’s The Pilgrimage of the Rose, complete with contemporary dancers, singers, chorus and orchestra this Saturday and Sunday at Jones Hall!

If you would like to learn even more about this piece, join Carlos and Andrés at Rice University for a special “Musically Speaking” concert experience tonight! Learn more about our “Musically Speaking” Series here.

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