The five settings of texts by Mary Queen of Scots, composed in December 1852, were Schumann’s last songs. They have until recently had a poor press. That great Lieder-lover Eric Sams called them “dismal… We can only conjecture [he continues] what personal meaning he found in them. The first begins ‘I am going away’. The last ends ‘Save me’. Soon after their completion came his mental breakdown, his attempt to drown himself in the Rhine, and his incarceration in the asylum at Enderich, where in July 1856 he died”. Nowadays Schumann’s later music is undergoing re-evaluation. Though there can never be serious doubt that the glorious early harvest of solo piano works then songs with piano yields the best of him, the rest of the story is not a total and irrevocable decline; its blanket dismissal will no longer do.
My own view of the Mary Stuart songs has veered over the years, from not so wholly bleak as Sams to not so wholly positive as Graham Johnson and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. (Johnson invokes Wagner for the songs’ declamatory power; Fischer-Dieskau compares them to Elizabethan lute songs for simplicity, economy, naturalness.) Even so, when invited by the BBC to orchestrate them for the bi-centenary of Schumann’s birth this year, I couldn’t summon up the enthusiasm except on condition that I be allowed to add a framework around these very short numbers; and possibly, in addition, further punctuation / commentary between them. Merely to score the originals – a job that could be easily done in a couple of days – didn’t seem worthwhile by itself.
The BBC bought this: and I’m most grateful!
At work over Christmas 2009 / New Year 2010 a warmer regard for the originals developed as I made a very simple, restrained instrumentation, alongside the newly-composed framework and the three eventual interludes. For Schumann’s late plainness is here a strength: the songs’ dumbness becomes eloquent; their sense of constriction – going round and round the same limited cycle of motifs and chords – expressive of claustrophobia and obsession: that of the wretched imprisoned heroine herself in her increasing isolation and despair, that of the composer who (pace Sams’s “conjecture”) identifies with her so closely.
Yet it is still arguable that, by itself, the original cycle makes a drab impression, even in the hands of the most ardent interpreter (I grew up with the recording by Régine Crespin). Somehow it is both too long and too short: neither Wolf/Webern in gemlike concentration, nor opening out into a potential dramatic, even operatic, scena.
My additions – which even run to very brief interpolations within three of the songs (allowing soprano and music to breathe; are so wholly within Schumann’s idiom that they probably won’t be noticed) – attempt to address the “too short” problem, without taking the piece towards the stage. Rather, the new music gives a series of cameo-portraits of Mary herself, using material mostly derived directly from the original sources but not confining itself exactly to Schumann’s language: a sympathetic resonance with it (I hope), not a literal replication. Only the brief Prologue and the more extended Epilogue contain completely independent invention. The work as an entity, therefore, contains the five original songs as within a medieval Reliquary, surrounding the precious remains by a suitable setting, tactful and unobtrusive for the most part, but occasionally allowing the Queen’s repressed thoughts and unuttered words to break through.
The complete shape: -
Prologue – brief and lamenting, calming into
1. Farewell to France
2. After the birth of her son
Mary’s prayer for her child’s safety is unaltered except for the punctuating silences, and scored with somber sonority. Above, in a different texture, key, tempo, instrumentation, shines a Halo, sounding without ceasing, filling the gaps in the song until, just before its closing Amen, both fall silent together.
Then the Halo, along, winds down into
entr’acte: Sarabande / Bourée – two dance-patterns from Mary’s happier youthful days in France, entwining in alternation.
3. To Queen Elizabeth
A song of hope, fear, and reproach, ending upon a drumroll from the preceding dance-interlude, to link to
entr’acte: at first sad and reflective, using a motif from no.4 (not heard yet): enclosing a miniature scherzino on a motif from no.3; and slowing down into
4. Farewell to the World
entr’acte: upon the previous song’s prevailing motif; the drum again appears, now with a hint of its dire role in Mary’s ultimate fate.
Epilogue: it bursts in as the Prayer closes, developing its principal material alternating with a return of the Prologue’s. After a climax which at last lets the latent emotion out of its confines, comes a brief recollection of the Sarabande (no Bourée now, though), then a concluding transformation of no.4’s motif into the hint of a Funeral march.
© Robin Holloway, May 2010
This programme note may be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer.
One of Holloway’s most wonderful and imaginative creations. His orchestration of the rarely-heard five songs of Mary, Queen of Scots, which Schumannn set in 1852, was commissioned for the BBC Promenade Concerts in 2010. Holloway only agreed to the commission if he could enclose these rather austere songs with a prologue and an epilogue and interpolate a couple of entr’actes to provide a fuller picture of Mary’s life. He thus placed Schumann’s sacred relics into a beautiful setting. Hence the title Reliquary.
Repertoire Note by Peter Marchbank
"Holloway’s original brief was simply to score the songs but he went beyond that, providing a framework that includes Elizabethan rhythms and harmonies, for example, to introduce an address to Mary’s rival, Queen Elizabeth. Holloway doesn’t restrict himself to Schumann’s harmonic language: indeed, there are flashes of Parsifal and Pelléas and in the pungent dissonances of the second song, Strauss.
A reliquary is a decorated casket for the display of relics, and Holloway’s Reliquary similarly provides a jewel-case that enhances the items therein. Not only do the Schumann songs shine with added lustre but the presentation is an object of aesthetic beauty in itself."