Schumann was greatly moved by Byron’s 1817 poem, Manfred. He based a “dramatic poem with music” on it, of which this is the overture. The swirling, brooding music, full of drama and passion, describes Byron’s tormented Romantic anti-hero.
When, in 1911, Rachmaninoff composed his Etude Tableau in C minor, he seemed to recognise its potential for expansion. Years of revolution and exile followed in which he could devote little time to composition, earning his living instead as a touring concert pianist. When he returned to this composition, he’d had years to develop it; the original theme became the climax of this concerto’s second movement. The opening is complex, moody and brilliant, dropping us right in the middle of something that appears already fully alive. The slow movement pulls forward with a tremendous sustained force of concentration; a slow, determined journey. The kaleidoscopic finale is fierce, fast and highly demanding on the soloist.
Between his fourth and fifth symphonies, Tchaikovsky wrote this programme symphony based on Byron’s poem. Manfred is a despairing wanderer tormented by guilt and memories of lost love. The tragedy is interspersed with more hopeful encounters: the magical delight of a mountain waterfall in the second movement, the peasant dances of the mountain folk in the third. The fourth movement is a kind of infernal dance. In a Romantic fantasy reminiscent of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, but with a more hopeful ending, Manfred meets his beloved’s ghost and receives her pardon.