Robert Schumann
(b. Zwickau, 8 June 1810: d. Endenich, 29 July 1856)

Das Paradis und die Peri ("Paradise and the Peri"), op. 50 (1843)
Secular oratorio in three parts on a text by Emil Flechsig and Adolph Böttger
after Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh


In 1841 Schumann's boyhood friend, Emil Flechsig, sent him a German translation of Thomas Moore's extravagant epic poem Lalla Rookh. Schumann, recently married and caught up in his "year of the symphony," was immediately captivated by one of its tales, "Paradise and the Peri," and resolved to set it to music as something "halfway between an opera and an oratorio." He enlisted the services of his poet friend Adolph Böttger to revise the text and make it suitable for musical treatment. Flechsig's original was abridged, his translation altered, and new verses added to create more opportunities for first-person dialogue rather than third-person narrative. Then the text lay fallow while Schumann devoted himself feverishly to his "year of chamber music," 1842.

It is easy to see what attracted the composer to this exotic tale. Thomas Moore's poem, inspired and personally encouraged by his close friend Lord Byron, was one of the most famous literary causes célèbres of its time; its publication in 1817 had earned the poet the then unheard-of fee of L3000, and the book was soon translated into most European languages and even several from the Orient (a translation into Telugu appeared in 1920). This latter fact is particularly ironic since the book itself is written in imitation of oriental models, particularly the verse forms of Persia. In a prose frame story, the princess Lalla Rookh travels from Delhi to Cashmere, where she is to enter an arranged marriage. Along the route she is joined by a young poet, Feramorz, who entertains her with four exotic tales in verse to pass the time of the journey, and with whom she soon falls in love. On her arrival she discovers that Feramorz is none other than her promised bridegroom.

One of Feramorz's tales of adventure is "Paradise and the Peri," a perfumed story rooted in Persian mythology. Peris were beautiful, wraith-like female creatures who had fallen from heaven and were made to do penance on earth. In Moore's tale, the Peri is told that she will be readmitted to heaven if she can bring back that which is dearest to the gods. It is her three attempts to do so that are captured in the three parts of Schumann's oratorio. In Part 1 she brings back a drop of blood from a hero who has died in battle for his nation's freedom. Rebuffed, she returns in Part 2 to bring back the dying sigh of a young woman who has perished at the side of her stricken lover during an epidemic of the plague. Again she is rebuffed, until in Part 3 she returns with the repentant tear of a rueful sinner. The gods are placated, the gate opens, and the Peri's sojourn on earth comes to an end.

Moore's "Paradise and the Peri" quickly became famous enough to warrant separate publication - and translation. A German version of Lalla Rookh by the well-known early romantic Friedrich de la Motte-Fouqué, "preserving the syllabic quantities of the original," was published in Berlin as early as 1822. So famous was Moore's book that in 1821 it was staged at the Berlin Royal Palace in pantomime and tableaux vivants that were in turn engraved and published in 1823. The standard German translation was provided by Theodor Oelckers, an homme des lettres equally noted for his German versions of Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, de Tocqueville, and Walter Scott. Oelcker's five-volume edition of Moore's collected poetry appeared in 1843 in time for Schumann to make use of it in his own oratorio.

Schumann was attracted to the tale not only by the exoticism of the Orient - an attraction that he shared with many of his contemporaries, from Spontini and Meyerbeer to Richard Wagner, who confessed to Schumann that he had considered setting it himself - but equally by its patently Christian moralism, which held a special appeal to a newlywed member of the German bourgeoisie. His expressed intentions for the work carry a similarly sanctimonious air: writing to his Dutch admirer Verhulst, he claimed that "my wish is that it may do some good in the world and assure me of a loving place in the memory of my children." Yet along with these sententious pronouncements he was also fully aware of its significance to his own development as an artist: "It is my biggest work, and I hope my best." It was indeed to be his first work for large forces - chorus, orchestra, and a full panoply of vocal soloists - and he resolved to make it unlike anything heard before.

In February 1843 Schumann started work on the score, fully alive to the novelty of its conception. His "secular oratorio" - a genre little cultivated at that time - was to have no recitative, but only lilting arioso that barely stands out from the arias. These latter were kept in an intimate, delicate style reminiscent of his lieder and redolent of German Innigkeit. Dramatic effects were shunned: Schumann deliberately avoided the "canary-bird music" of the Italians and kept Meyerbeer in mind as a cautionary example of how not to proceed. Final cadences are never demonstrative but seem to lead into the next number, conveying the impression of a through-composed score. Against this intimate backdrop, in which the entire story is viewed, in musical terms, through the eyes of its frail and sensitive heroine, only a few neo-Handelian fugal choruses (end of Part 1) and some descriptive orchestral music for the battle and plague scenes were allowed to stand out.

The score was completed on 16 June of the same year and immediately went into rehearsal for performance at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Mendelssohn being away at the time, Schumann himself took charge of the rehearsals and mounted the conductor's rostrum to conduct the première on 4 December. It was his début as a conductor, and though he failed to impress musicians with his abilities as an interpreter, the work itself was instantaneously and lastingly successful: the performance had to be repeated on the 11th and again, this time in Dresden, on the 15th.

Today, in an age when the "secular oratorio" has few champions, it is difficult to reconstruct what a success of this magnitude could mean to a German composer of the mid-nineteenth century. Those of the musical public who scorned Schumann as a dabbler in small forms and domestic Hausmusik and who doubted his abilities to create anything significant were forced to revise their opinion. Even Clara Schumann's estranged father, Ferdinand Wieck, found it incumbent upon himself to effect a reconciliation with his son-in-law. The work's publication history for the remainder of the century fully reflects its triumphant reception. The Leipzig house of Breitkopf & Härtel immediately brought out Das Paradis und die Peri in vocal score in 1844, in full score the following year, and in that interesting if now defunct form of a "vocal score without words" in 1848. A thirty-six page annotated concert guide with musical examples was issued by Dr. Ferdinand Peter, Count Laurencin d'Armond, in 1859; a French vocal score appeared in Paris in 1865; an arrangement for harmonium and piano in Leipzig in 1875; and even a "translation into tonic sol-fa notation" in London in 1887. This is not to count the many publications of its separate numbers, especially in England, where Paradise and the Peri (and above all the "Chorus of Houris" from Part 3) became hugely popular in a great many retranslations into English.

By the end of the century the historical significance of Das Paradis und die Peri seemed to be secure. The great scholar and "hermeneuticist" Hermann Kretzschmar, writing in 1890, could praise it as the "latest development in the history of its genre" and the first secular oratorio that could stand alongside its sacred counterparts as a supreme work of art. Observing that the absence of dramatic contrasts might be seen as a shortcoming, he concluded that
"Schumann wanted ... everything to be viewed and delineated through the eyes and from the soul of the Peri, and that he imparted a touch of her sorrows, her longing, and her loving nature even to situations which objectively appear in a different light... The heights and depths seem slightly to merge and blur, but they are bestrewn with flowers, and the power of Schumann's melody never celebrated a greater triumph than in Das Paradise und die Peri." (Führer durch den Concertsaal, II/2, Leipzig, 1890, pp. 296f.)

Bradford Robinson, 2005

Performance material: Breitkopf und Härtel, Wiesbaden