In Schumann’s choral works, older traditions hybridize, flowering in new form. Was Schumann developing a new approach to music drama, nipped in the bud by Wagner’s revolution in opera ? What might have been had Schumann not fallen in and died young ? Der Rose Pilgerfahrt isn’t as ambitious as Das Paradies und die Peri (more here and here), Genoveva (more here) and Szenen aus Faust, but it’s worth knowing as a bridge connecting song, oratorio and music theatre. While Das Paradies und die Peri is exotic, fuelled by Persian legend and vaguely religious heroism, Der Rose Pilgerfarht is simpler, a Märchen, or fairy tale.
“Johannis war gekommen. der Erde Hochzeitzstag” : Images of spring,rebirth and fertility. Elves dance in sprightly chorus.delicate, dotted rhythms, with just enough kick to brighten the night time darkness. The Queen of the Elves warns the Rose that: one cannot want what one is not, but transforms the Rose into a young girl, who wakes, alone in a meadow. Rejected by the first humans she meets, the Rose wanders into a graveyard when an old man us digging a grave for a miller’s daughter. Yet the choir aren’t mournful. The chorus is quite earthy “Wie Blätter im Baum, wie Blumen vergeh’n” Nature’s way, death and regrowth. Now we hear solemn brass and woodwinds, for the Rose is homesick. Magical, sparkling chords : the Chorus of Elves sing “Hoff’ nicht auf Glück, komm’ zurück !” She can’t hear, though. She’s found new home. she resembles the dead miller’s daughter so closely that the family take her in as their own. Everyone’s happy. calm, joyful music, bucolic folk-like dance though, refines : Schumann doesn’t do crude. The tenor part is so lovely that he could be singing Lieder. But, echoes of Der Freischütz surface. A men’s chorus, illustrated by hunting horns, sings of the forest, and the mysteries therein. Who is this strange Rose-child, and where did she come from ?
The narrative continues, the alto (the Queen) describing events as they unfold, followed by bass alto and soprano and choir : different “voices” describing events as they unfold, from different musical perspectives. Max, a huntsman, falls in love with The Rose and she with him. They marry, and in a year, as the tenor tells us, economizing on scene changes, they have a lovely baby son. He thrives, but the Rose knows she cannot stay. She leaves a rose, “ihr ebenspfand, und gibt’s dem Kindlein”. Grateful for having had such happiness, she hands on to her child a symbol of eternal protection. “Zun End ist mein’ Pilgerbahn“. Her pilgrimage was to experience love and happiness. Having found it, she’s obliged to go home, as pilgrims do. She’s been human for over a year, not bad for a bloom. The poet, Moritz Horn, who sent Schumann the text after having heard Das Paradies und die Peri, wanted a maudlin ending. Schumann, who know Paradies better than Horn did, wasn’t having that. Der Rose Pilgerfahrt thus ends with a gorgeous chorus of angelic voices. Magical, gossamer textures, more Fairy Land and elfin than angelic in the usual religious sense of “angels”. Schumann, via Mendelssohn, has come a long way from oratorio.
There are at least five recordings, but my go to’s are Frühbeck de Burgos from the 1980’s and Christoph Spering from1998. Frühbeck de Burgos conducted the Dusseldorfer Symfoniker and choir, a nod to the fact that the piece premiered in Dusseldorf in 1851, with Schumann himself as conductor. Obviously not the same personnel, and with modern instruments. His soloist were Helen Donath, Brigitte Fassbaender, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Nicolai Gedda and Thomas Moser. Lovely, sumptuous sound, and great singing. Christof Spering conducted Chorus Musicus Köln and Das neue Orchestre with Camilla Nylund, Rainer Trost, Andreas Schmidt and others. Spering’s sound is lighter and brighter which suits the piece well. He recorded the piece twice but I haven’t yet heard the more recent piano song version though it features Christoph Prégardien. There’s also a recording which apparently features Jonas Kaufmann, uncredited, in the chorus.
Original Source: Perfumed Schumann Der Rose Pilgerfahrt