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Being Robert Schumann – Brahms Symphony No. 1

April 14 @ 2:30 pm

London-born conductor Leo McFall explores a lineage of musical camaraderie connecting Robert and Clara Schumann to Brahms, and onward to Dvořák. Featuring the drama and romance of Schumann’s only opera with his Genoveva Overture; the zest and colour of Dvořák’s Legends and Slavonic Dances; and Brahms’ towering Symphony No. 1.

Leo McFall, conductor

Leo McFall is Chief Conductor of Symphonieorchester Vorarlberg since the 2020/21 season. Winner of the Deutsche Dirigentenpreis 2015 and a finalist in the Nestlé and Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award 2014.

His recent appearances as a guest conductor have included projects with Bamberger Symphonikern, BBC Philharmonic, Belgrade Philharmonic, Bundesjugendorchester, Dortmunder Philharmonikern, Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, Orchestre National de Lyon and Sinfonia Lahti. Opera productions with the English National Opera (La Traviata), Glyndebourne Festival, Glyndebourne on Tour (Vanessa and Così fan tutte), zur Opera North (The Turn of the Screw), and Theater Heidelberg (Rusalka).

Leo McFall enjoyed a close working relationship with Bernard Haitink, assisting him in the preparation of concerts with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Chicago Symphony, Royal Concertgebouw, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich and Vienna Philharmonic.

His first titled position was as Kapellmeister of the Meininger Staatstheater, where he conducted a wide-ranging repertoire. During this time he was also Assistant Conductor of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, where he prepared the orchestra for Herbert Blomstedt, Christoph Eschenbach, Philippe Jordan and Jonathan Nott. Born in the United Kingdom, Leo McFall studied conducting at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy, where his tuition from Leif Segerstam was complemented by classes with, among others, Hannu Lintu, Jorma Panula and Jukka-Pekka Saraste. He undertook further studies with Johannes Schlaefli at the Zurich University of the Arts. As a violist and pianist, he participated in masterclasses with Krysia Osostowicz, Yonti Solomon and Ferenc Rados.

Leo McFall’s recording with the NDR Radiophilharmonie for the Label CPO (Emilie Mayer: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2) was received to great critical acclaim and has been awarded with the “Opus Klassik 2021” in the category “Symphonic Recording / Music 19th century”.

APRIL 14, 2024


Although the Victoria Symphony bid “Adieu” to the troubled and magnificent German composer in January, the Being Robert Schumann series comes to its official conclusion with an epilogue of sorts. The present program, in which the orchestra will be led by Leo McFall, traces the chain of influence that led from Schumann to his younger friend and protégé Johannes Brahms, and then from Brahms to Antonín Dvořák, who in turn would expand the world of classical music well beyond its Central European ancestry.

As Victoria Symphony director of artistic planning Matthew Baird noted in a programming meeting, there is a sense of paying it forward. “The baton is passed, from Schumann to Brahms, and then from Brahms to Dvořák.”

This is how history is made: through friendships and rivalries and by the slow accretion of influences, as well as through moments of high drama, inspiration, and crisis. And while it’s sad that we don’t have a breathless minute-by-minute account of how these three composers’ lives intertwined—pity those future historians who will have to parse the social-media and email records of the early 21st Century—we do have an almost equally invaluable resource: letters.

Whether simply diligent or suffering from some form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, Schumann carefully filed a good portion of the missives sent to him. Having survived time, silverfish, and war, 28 stapled volumes of his correspondence comprising about 5,500 letters addressed to him are currently held by the Jagiellonian Library in Kraków, Poland. A sizeable portion of the estimated 20,000 letters between Schumann and his pianist wife, Clara, is also held at the Robert Schumann House in Zwickau, Germany. Should you happen to read German, work continues on publishing this material, with several volumes already available for purchase.

Brahms was not considered an especially dutiful correspondent during his lifetime, and while his manuscripts have been dispersed around the world, the Brahms-Institut in Lübeck, Germany has recorded approximately 11,000 written communications—most addressed to the composer rather than from him. And while this writer can’t find an authoritative count of the letters Dvořák posted during his 62 years, many have been compiled and published by the Czech historian Otakar Šourek.

So what do these letters say? Well, it’s no exaggeration to claim that these three massive talents made up an unusually robust mutual-appreciation society. “I live in your music,” Schumann told Brahms. “There has never been anything like it before.” Brahms replied by addressing Schumann as his “Honoured Master,” saying “You have made me so immensely happy that I cannot attempt to thank you in words.” After which, of course, he did.

Later on, Brahms repaid the favour by convincing his own publisher to take on Dvořák’s music, after the latter had sent him an uncharacteristically fawning request. The ensuing Slavonic Dances [Op. 46, and later Op. 72] would eventually rival Brahms’s own Hungarian Dances in popularity.

The works in this program set out this lineage in sonic terms. Schumann’s Genoveva Overture, Victoria Symphony music director Christian Kluxen says, finds the older composer exploring the same kind of story that inspired Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. Wagner’s written comments described the third act as “unlucky and foolish… no objection of mine could induce Schumann to discard it.” In Kluxen’s view, the immediate reaction was brusque. “Wagner, as always, said ‘Oh, this is [expletive deleted],’ which made Schumann very unhappy.

“But at this time there’s the two sides of music,” the conductor continues. “There’s the Schumann/Brahms side, and there’s the Wagner/Liszt side. And the Schumann/Brahms people, they said that music had no future with Liszt and Wagner. They would say that music should be more traditional, should develop more traditionally. And this is why it’s interesting to have one of Schumann’s latest works, which shows that he was continuing to not be very modern—but then you have Brahms, who takes over.”

The Dvořák works on the bill—the first three of his ten Legends and the third, fifth, and seventh Slavonic Dances, from Op. 72—highlight another factor in the Schumann/Brahms/Dvořák triangle: the rise in European nationalism that began in the early 19th century and intensified following Schumann’s death in 1856. Brahms, Kluxen points out, hailed from Hamburg, the same part of North Germany where his own family has roots. “People there are very non-rural,” he says. “It’s a trading centre, a harbour, so they get all the influences from around the world first, and this makes people feel special in Hamburg.

“But Brahms didn’t want to be a North German composer,” he adds. “He wanted to be the German composer, which he then became—in all humility, you could say, because it took him 20 years to compose his first symphony before he thought he was okay.”

“What about those Hungarian dances?” you might well ask.

“There are always these Hungarian moments in Brahms’s music that connect to Bohemia and to Hungary, showing that Germany was really a very, very big country in the 19th century,” Kluxen replies. “And remember that at this time the area of Czechoslovakia where Dvořák came from was very, very much part of Germany as well, geographically and historically. So you cannot say ‘Oh, Dvořák was a Czech composer.’ He was Bohemian!”

Wars have been fought over less, but we won’t get into that now.

What is certain is that ending with Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 in C minor makes for a very fitting conclusion to the Victoria Symphony’s Schumann saga. The work’s gestation period was almost certainly prolonged by Brahms’s sensation that his mentor was standing behind him and looking on, not always with a kindly eye, and in it he is certainly mourning Schumann’s death, as well as reflecting on his complicated relationship with the composer’s widow. And that’s another way history accumulates—not in syllables but in sound.

Notes by Alex Varty

Robert Schumann (1810—1856) 
Genoveva Overture   

Antonín Dvořák (1841—1904)
Legends, Op. 59 
No. 1 Allegretto
No. 2 Molto moderato 
No. 3 Allegro giusto – Andante giusto
Slavonic Dances, Op. 72 
No. 3 in F major – Skočná (Allegro)
No. 5 in B-flat minor – Spacíká (Poco allegro)
No. 7 in C major – Srbské Kolo (Allegro vivace)


Johannes Brahms (1833—1897)
Symphony  No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 
Un poco sostenuto; Allegro
Andante sostenuto
Un poco allegretto e grazioso
Adagio; Più andante; Allegro non troppo, ma con brio

DVOŘÁK: Slavonic Dances, Op. 72, Nos. 3,5,7
Performed by the Prague Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor: Jiří Bělohlávek


DVOŘÁK:  Legends, Op. 59, Nos. 1-3
Performed by Prague Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor: Jiří Bělohlávek


April 14
starts at 2:30 pm


Victoria Symphony


Farquhar at UVic
University Farquhar Auditorium, Ring Road
Victoria, BC V8P 5C2 Canada
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Concert Credits

Concert Programme

  • R. Schumann
    Genoveva Overture
  • Dvořák
    Legends, Op. 59, Nos. 1-3
  • Dvořák
    Slavonic Dances, Op. 72, Nos. 3,5,7
  • Brahms
    Symphony No. 1 in C minor