Heinz Holliger / Clara Schumann: Romancendres

Christoph Richter, Dénes Várjon, SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart, Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR, Heinz Holliger

A fascinating concept album circling around the fragility of artistic sensibilities in German musical and literary romanticism. Two important pieces by Swiss composer Heinz Holliger (born 1939), both of them inspired by Robert Schumann, are combined with a chamber work by Clara Schumann. They all intersect in the year 1853, when 20-year-old Johannes Brahms first visited the Schumann couple in Düsseldorf. The initial piece, Clara’s three wonderfully melodic romances for cello and piano, is followed by Holliger’s imaginative and multi-faceted hommage to Robert’s “Romances” in the same scoring. Much to Brahms’ approbation they were burnt by Clara in 1893 as she feared her late husband’s reputation could suffer if compositions from the onset of his mental illness would be publicised. All that survives is a vivid description by violinist Joseph Joachim. Holliger takes this verbal account as a starting point for a music that subtly meditates upon the double character of love and death, music and silence, romances and cinders. “Gesänge der Frühe” first performed in 1988 is scored for choir, orchestra and tape. Schumann’s last piano work of the same title from 1853 is superimposed in a most visionary way with texts from the late period of Friedrich Hölderlin – another romantic genius who fell prey to mental illness.

Featured Artists Recorded

July 2007 & February 2008

Original Release Date


  • Drei Romanzen, op. 22
    (Clara Schumann)
  • 1I Allegro molto03:12
  • 2II Allegretto02:54
  • 3III Leidenschaftlich schnell03:46
  • Romancendres
    (Heinz Holliger)
  • 4Kondukt I (C.S. - R.S.)02:47
  • 5I Aurora (Nachts)05:58
  • 6II R(asche)S Flügelschlagen05:21
  • 7III "Der Würgengel der Gegenwart"03:06
  • 8IV "heiter bewegt" - ("Es wehet ein Schatten darin")02:09
  • 9Kondukt II ("Der bleiche Engel der Zukunft")02:02
  • Gesänge der Frühe
    (Heinz Holliger, Friedrich Hölderlin)
  • 10I Der Frühling - "Die Sonne kehrt zu neuen Freuden wieder"08:29
  • 11II An - "Elysium"09:40
  • 12III An Diotima - "Schönes Leben!"04:41
  • 13IV "Geh unter, schöne Sonne..."05:26
Heinz Holliger has always been fascinated by the relationship between mental instability and artistic creativity; the music Schumann composed in 1853, just before his final mental collapse, is the starting point for the two substantial works on this disc. Romancendres … is a commentary on a set of romances for the same instruments that Schumann composed in that year. … Gesang der Frühe borrows the title of Schumann’s last completed piano work for a massive set of choral pieces that combines settings of poetry by Hölderlin with spoken extracts from letters to Clara and from the report of the autopsy… It makes an immensely powerful, multilayered work, full of dense orchestral writing and highly wrought climaxes. The cello-and-piano pieces expand the soundworlds of the two instruments to create an extraordinary friction between Schumann’s and Holliger’s musical realms.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian
In essaying his Romancendres, Heinz Holliger has attempted a conceptual realization of those miniatures shot through with allusions to the Robert-Clara-Brahms triangle as well as a sense of the music struggling and ultimately failing to prevent its own demise. … Clara’s Romanzen offer an apposite context: hardly on the level of her Piano Trio but with a formal and expressive proportion (necessarily?) lacking in most of her husband’s compositions from 1853. Schumann’s masterpiece from that year is Gesänge der Frühe… Unsurprising, then, that Holliger took its title in 1987 for a work that makes explicit his debt both to Schumann and the whole mid-Romantic ethos. Having established the connection between Schumann and Hölderlin at the outset, this half-hour choral piece unfolds as a voyage of exploration around the former’s imminent demise.
Richard Whitehouse, International Record Review
Die “Romancendres” für Violoncello und Klavier sind ein mustergültiges Beispiel für das fiktionale Anknüpfen an etwas Ungreifbares, hatte Clara Schumann die Cello-Romanzen ihres Gatten doch 1893 dem Feuer übergeben. Motivation genug für Heinz Holliger, eine kompositorische Spekulation zu wagen, die die Klangsphären von Cello und Klavier manchmal bis zur Unkenntlichkeit verschmilzt. Eine weltschmerzhaltige „Klangeinäscherung“ … in der Christoph Richter und Dénes Várjon alle Register schattenhafter Umnachtung ziehen.
Dirk Wieschollek, Fono Forum
Das Orchester, von Holliger selbst dirigiert, lässt dramatische, schrille Klänge ertönen. Neue Musik, um Wahnsinn zu illustrieren? Nun, anders als Arnold Schönberg sucht Holliger nicht Romantik durch Rationalität zu überwinden, eher treibt er sie auf die Spitze. … Er zitiert Schumann nicht, er setzt Schumanns Musik mit anderen Mitteln fort.
Dietrich Heißenbüttel, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik
Schumanns Cello-Romanzen wurden 1898 von Clara verbrannt. Für sie stehen, in einer Cello-Fassung, Claras eigene Romanzen von 1853 und Holligers komponierte Reflexion über die verbrannten Werke: „Roman-cendres“ mit ihren vielfältigen und komplexen Schumann-Anspielungen… Holligers „Gesänge der Frühe“ kombinieren „fast halluzinationsartig“ gesetzte Hölderlin-Lyrik mit gelesenen Dokumenten… Ein bewegendes Programm mit vielfachen Spiegelungen über 150 Jahre hinweg.
Franz Cavigelli, Neue Zürcher Zeitung am Sonntag
Vor allem aber hat er diese Musik als Asche gedacht: Fahl tönt sie und sehr zart, dank vielfältigsten Spieltechniken zerfallen die üblichen Klänge der Instrumente oft zur Unkenntlichkeit – und wirken dabei alles andere als grau.
Whether Friedrich Hölderlin, Robert Walser or the artist-musician Louis Soutter, ECM's recordings of the Swiss composer Heinz Holliger, launched in the early 1990s, reflect his fondness for artists poised between creativity and madness, life and death, volubility and mute solitude. Only last autumn he conducted stunning performances of three works by another soul-mate, Bernd Alois Zimmermann (ECM 2074). Now, with “Romancendres”, he comes to grips with the fractured late music of Robert Schumann, producing fascinating syntheses of his own creative obsessions. The recording was made in Sindelfingen and Lugano in 2007-08 and will be released to mark the 70th birthday of this composer, oboist and conductor on 21 May.

Two years ago, in an interviews with the Zurich Tages-Anzeiger, Holliger confessed that his enthusiasm for Schumann had became “worse and worse”. Even as a teenager he had been moved by the difficult and still partly controversial late works. Later he was enthralled by their structure, their “labyrinthine” quality, which unfolds, he maintained, not in lines but in “spirals”. In his album “Romancendres” (the title combines the French words for 'romance' and 'ashes') the spirals receive a number of aesthetic and biographical twists. It all began in the year 1853, when the 20-year-old Brahms paid his first visit to the Schumanns in Düsseldorf and Robert Schumann was dismissed from his post as director of the city's musical society. As the symptoms of his encroaching madness became increasingly obvious, he finally stopped composing altogether.

Clara Schumann, toward the end of her life, is known to have burnt several of her husband's last works – with the express approval of Brahms. Believing that they were of inferior quality, she feared that they might damage her husband's posthumous reputation. One victim of the flames was the Five Romances for cello and piano, whose existence only became known in greater detail in 1971. Holliger has written a fascinating meditation on these pieces and their fate – an 'interpretative composition' based on revealing descriptions of them left behind in a letter from Joseph Joachim. Holliger's music harbours a variety of hidden allusions and references. The opening dirge, for example, presents Clara Schumann's initials C and S (E-flat in German letter notation). The final figure in the concluding section is formed of notes representing Schumann's place of death, EnDEniCH (E-D-E-C-B).

The “Romancendres” are preceded by Clara's own Three Romances of 1853, performed with diaphanous tone, pliant rhythm and voluptuous abandon by the German cellist Christoph Richter and the Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon, whose performance of Schumann's late violin sonatas with Carolin Widmann attracted great attention last autumn.

The “Gesänge der Frühe” ('Songs of Dawn'), for chorus, orchestra and pre-recorded tape, was completed in 1987 and alludes in complex ways to Schumann's final piano pieces of the same title. The recording's intellectual radius is further enlarged by the fact that Schumann's pieces were inspired by Hölderlin, a poet much on Holliger's mind at a time when he was deeply engrossed in his Scardanelli Cycle (ECM 1472-73). Holliger described his Gesänge in the aforementioned Tages-Anzeiger interview with Susanne Kübler: “The piece has what might be called a documentary level in that letters from its dedicatee, Bettina von Arnim, are included on the tape along with the autopsy reports on Schumann and Hölderlin. To this I've added an almost hallucinatory music. After all, I don't want to imitate Schumann as a composer; I seek inspiration from his compositional technique, even his cryptograms.” At the end, to the scratching of his quill, Bruno Ganz speaks the portentous words from Schumann's letter to Joseph Joachim: "... I will stop now, it is getting dark."