Posted on

The Men Behind the Music – Emma’s blog

With thanks to Emma Lancastle for the following blog.

During their February Tour, Ensemble Cymru, are examining a varied programme of chamber music for Clarinet, Violin and Piano. Some of the greatest classical music has been created in times of grief and hardship, and the programme presented by the Bangor-based company explores the works of some famous names, and some lesser-known composers, towards the end of their lives.

As the concert in Cardiff looms nearer, we examine the hardships endured by the composers during their lives, and what journeys they undertook across Europe and the Americas at the time the works were created.

Schumann – Märchenerzählungen

Robert Schumann

The programme opens with Schumann’s Märchenerzählungen (or Fairy Tales in English). This set of miniatures was completed in 1853, just 3 years before his death. By the time Schumann was composing the “Fairy Tales”, he was struggling to manage the symptoms of his deteriorating mental health, and had lost his post as a conductor and musical director at Dusseldorf.

Schumann had always sought solace from his illness with explorations of the fantastical, although Schumann’s love of tying literature to his chamber music may not be as innocuous as presumed. Even some 20 years earlier, Schumann had began to use the alter-egos “Florestan” and “Eusebius” in order to describe the two contrasting halves of his personality, using fictional characters to narrate his mood-swings. By the end of his life in 1856, Schumann’s mental health had deteriorated significantly, and he feared for his life and the safety of his loved ones. Hearing songs of the angels and voices late at night, perhaps there is a reason why there are so few clues to the actual inspiration of his “Fairytales”.

Poulenc – Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in B-Flat

Whilst Schumann’s work depicts the inner turmoil of mental health issues, Poulenc’s difficulties were more political. A member of Les Six (a group of French composers), Poulenc and many of his contemporaries were forced to remain in Paris during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. For Poulenc, as a gay man, this was a period in which his life was in obvious jeopardy. Some years later, difficulties which prevented the publication of his opera, coupled with the serious illness of his partner, eventually caused Poulenc a nervous breakdown in 1954. One year later, his partner died. Nevertheless, Poulenc recovered from his grief to find love again, and took to travelling America where he showcased his latest vocal works and operas. Poulenc’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in B-Flat was composed in comparatively happier times. Commissioned by the renowned clarinettist, Benny Goodman, the real tragedy is that Poulenc, after surviving Nazi occupation of France, occupational challenges and many personal bereavements, died suddenly of a heart-attack before the sonata was premiered in 1963.

Mozart – Sonata for Violin and PIano in B-Flat Major K.375

Although Mozart is primarily known for his prodigious talents, his life was not without difficulty either. The young Mozart travelled to Mannheim and Paris 1778 in an unfruitful attempt to seek employment, and whilst in paris took to pawning his valuables to survive. It was during this time that Mozart’s mother fell ill, and she died; it is believed that Mozart himself held himself responsible for the death of his mother, in part due to the lack of funds which caused the delay in a doctor being called.

Reluctantly taking work found by his father in Salzburg in 1779, it is here it is thought Mozart composed the Sonata in Bb major K. 378 , although the “Sonatas pour le Clavecin ou Pianoforte avec L’accompagnement d’un Violon” weren’t actually published until 1781. Mozart had moved to Vienna, where he stayed under employment of Archbishop Colloredo. With grandiose dreams of befriending the emperor, which luckily soon happened, Mozart began this stage of his professional life dining with valets and cooks in the Mansion of the Archbishop, as a musical servant to the elite.

Milhaud – Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano Op.157b

Darius Milhaud , like Poulenc, was a member of Les Six, although unlike his friend, Milhaud had no choice but to leave France during the Nazi occupation due to his Jewish background. Having already travelled extensively to the Americas, Milhaud emigrated with his family to the US during the war, and spent the remainder of his life balancing teaching positions in both California and Paris.

In 1936, when the Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, Op. 157b was composed, Milhaud was already suffering with rheumatoid arthritis. Despite the continued worsening of his illness, which eventually lead him to be bound to a wheelchair, Milhaud continued to travel and compose extensively, producing a vast number of works and earning a name as one of the most prolific composers of the 20th Century.

Ensemble Cymru are performing at Chapter on Wednesday 15th February, 7pm.

Tickets are £10, £8 for concessions, and £3 for students. To book tickets call 029 2030 4400 or visit