Georg Schumann came
from a family of musicians: his father was the town music director
in Königstein, his grandfather was a Kantor and his brother
Camillo was also a composer. Georg studied music with his father
and grandfather before continuing at Dresden and at the Leipzig
Conservatoire. A talented conductor and choir trainer, he settled
in Berlin in 1900 where he became director of the Sing-Akademie.
He found the choir extraordinarily musical and it learned music
quickly. This gave an impetus to his composing and he wrote
his first piece for them, Drei geistliche Lieder in 1902.
In 1916 he was awarded
an honorary doctorate by the Friedrich Wilhelm University. War
and post-war chaos prevented him from writing a piece in response
to the honour. Finally in 1921 he wrote the Five Chorale
Motets, Op. 71, which were first performed by the Berliner
Sing-Akademie in 1922.
The motets are well
wrought pieces, firmly in the tradition of Bach, Mendelssohn
and Brahms. But they are also rooted in the 20th
century, though the tradition to which Schumann belonged is
the conservative one. Schumann’s music is closer to Reger and
Pfitzner than it is to Strauss, Berg or Schoenberg.
motets are not slavish followers of the past. His harmonisations
of the chorale melody are often quite idiomatic. After a statement
of the chorale he transforms the theme almost beyond recognition,
firmly placing motifs in modern harmonic relationships. He was
equally free with the words, adjusting texts to suit his own
The first motet
in the set is based on a chorale by Nicolai. Schumann alternates
the high and low voices to magical effect at the opening of
the piece. By the middle of the piece, Schumann is getting quite
harmonically adventurous and the chorale almost disappears.
The following two motets are very similar in construction and
sound-world. Only in the fourth motet, “Wachet auf”, does he
vary the structure, by introducing first organ accompaniment
in the second verse and brass accompaniment in the third. The
result is very stirring and would certainly bear reviving.
For the final motet
of the group, Schumann reverts to an unaccompanied choir, but
here they accompany two soprano soloists. The opening, with
its soprano solo and high-voiced choir, as if coming from celestial
heights, is quite magical.
group of choral pieces were written in 1932 and first performed
in 1934 again by the Sing-Akademie. The Three Chorale Motets,
Op. 75 are again structured along the lines of the earlier
pieces. Despite their late date, they remain firmly in the world
of Wagner and Liszt. Like the earlier motets, one is rather
more festal and uses an accompaniment of horns, trombones, tuba
These are well-wrought,
symphonic-scale pieces. The longest motets last over eleven
minutes and the shortest is nearly six minutes long. They would
make strong items in a mixed choral programme and sound as if
they are rewarding to sing. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion
that they are probably as much fun to sing as to listen to …
possibly more so.
The Purcell Singers
under their conductor Mark Ford have already recorded a disc
of Schumann’s earlier motets for ASV. This disc of the later
pieces complements that neatly. In his Gramophone review of
the ASV disc, Malcolm Riley described the disc as ‘revelatory’.
The choir make a
warm, well-blended sound and respond well to Schumann’s luxuriant
textures. As recorded here, they use a big, vibrato-laden sound
which does not always work well with Schumann’s chromaticism.
When Schumann’s textures get complex I would sometimes have
liked a greater sense of line and clarity of texture rather
than the suave and resolved choral sound produced here. There
are odd moments of raw tone in the tenors and sopranos, but
not enough to disturb.
These are fine performances
of well-crafted music. Anyone interested in the byways of German
neo-Romantic composers in the 20th century would
be well advised to try this disc.