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ASO performs Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust

Scenes from Goethe’s Faust is the iconic poetic rendering of the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil, set to music by a composer who knew very well what it was like to be haunted by demons, his mental state often frayed.  This year sees the bicentennial of Robert Schumann’s birth, and the American Symphony Orchestra marks the occasion on April 9 at Lincoln Center with the rarely-performed Scenes from Goethe’s Faust.  This completes the trilogy of the composer’s dramatic oratorios in which the orchestra previously introduced audiences to Manfred and Das Paradies und die Peri.  The ASO will be joined on stage by the Concert Chorale of New York directed by James Bagwell, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.

A New York Times review of the 2006 ASO/Concert Chorale performance of Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri stated: “With … the kind of bursting lyricism we associate with the composer at his most fruitful, this two-hour piece leaves one wondering why we hear it so seldom and why its music has not done more to broaden and deepen the way Schumann speaks to us today.”

In his program essay for Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, ASO music director Leon Botstein discusses Schumann’s intense engagement with literature, describing him as “perhaps the first in a long line of great 19th– and 20th-century composers whose ambitions were as much literary as they were musical.  One might count in that group such diverse personalities as Wagner, Berlioz, and Prokofiev.”

Part I of Goethe’s drama Faust, published in 1808, immediately became the epitome of early Romantic sensibility, establishing the author as the equivalent of Shakespeare in the German literary tradition.  Part II of Faust, finished in 1832, was more symbolic and philosophical, exploring the spiritual and mystical in an allegorical depiction of Faust’s redemption as the fundamental struggle of the human soul.  Botstein writes that, while Part II seems resistant to the conventions of theater and particularly opera, its conclusion suggests “that music is possibly the only language to express properly the profound truths encountered by the soul in its final encounter with mortality. … Throughout the 19th century, composers would have only fragmentary success in rendering Part II in music.  For most concert-goers, the most memorable attempt is that of Gustav Mahler, who chose the same text that Schumann did as the basis of the second part of his Eighth Symphony.”

Botstein concludes: “In the long history of musical settings of Goethe’s Faust, including Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust and Liszt’s Faust Symphony, Schumann’s effort is certainly among the most compelling.  The 19th-century obsession with Faust never resulted in a work that combined popularity with profundity.  The only one that became a staple of the repertoire was Gounod’s opera, which most German critics and opera lovers have held in contempt.  Although Schumann succeeded, this work has undeservedly remained a rarity. … Schumann gave much of Goethe’s masterpiece its most eloquent, intense, and profound musical incarnation.”

In its presentation of this under-appreciated work, the ASO will be joined by some new musical partners and several returning colleagues.  Frequent collaborators James Bagwell and the Concert Chorale of New York, along with the celebrated Brooklyn Youth Chorus, will perform with the orchestra.  The list of exceptional soloists includes tenor Michael Spyres and baritone Andrew Schroeder, both of whom worked with the ASO in Meyerbeer’s grand opera Les Huguenots at the 2009 Bard SummerScape festival.  Reviewing Les Huguenots, the Financial Times proclaimed that Spyres’s “buoyant singing … ha[d] a natural ease, plus ardour and suppleness,” while the Wall Street Journal said that Schroeder “sang with warmth and fluiditiy.”

The ASO’s influential work on behalf of neglected works and composers continues to earn praise.  Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed, reviewing the orchestra’s January concert of rarely heard pieces by American pioneer Henry Cowell, wrote: “Leon Botstein, the ASO music director and missionary of musical underdogs, led engaging and idiomatic performances.  A hoped-for Cowell revival has had several false starts in recent years.  But Friday was a revelation, and this time I think we are finally in business.”

Maestro Botstein’s pre-concert talks, which he began delivering last season, start 75 minutes before each concert.  They provide added insight into the rich, unusual programming that characterizes ASO’s Lincoln Center series.  His illuminating talk on Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s “Faust” starts at 6:45pm in Avery Fisher Hall, shortly before the concert program.

All tickets to the ASO’s Lincoln Center concerts are just $25 and are available by calling (212) 868-9276 (9ASO) or visiting  All ticket sales are final.

The American Symphony Orchestra’s 2009-10 season and programs are made possible, in part, through support from National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.  Additional support is provided by Atlantic Philanthropies; Bay and Paul Foundation; Mary Duke Biddle Foundation; GG Group; Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation; HBO; Carroll, Guido, & Groffman, LLP; DuBose and Dorothy Heyward Memorial Fund; Faith Golding Foundation Inc.; The Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation; Open Society Institute; Per Annum, Inc.; Rockefeller Brothers Fund; Solon E. Summerfield Foundation Inc.; The David and Sylvia Teitelbaum Fund Inc.; and The Winston Foundation.


Friday, April 9, 8pm
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
Robert Schumann: Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (1853)
Andrew Schroeder, baritone
Twyla Robinson, soprano
Kyle Ketelsen, bass-baritone
Michael Spyres, tenor
Hanan Alattar, soprano
Sara Jakubiak, soprano
Katherine Pracht, mezzo-soprano
Eve Gigliotti, mezzo-soprano
Matt Boehler, bass
Concert Chorale of New York / James Bagwell, director
Brooklyn Youth Chorus  / Dianne Berkun, artistic director

American Symphony Orchestra / Leon Botstein, conductor

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© 21C Media Group, March 2010

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