Should a real musician be so tormented with music?

Misha Donat

  • Robert Schumann: Herald of a ‘New Poetic Age’ by John Daverio
    Oxford, 618 pp, £30.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 19 509180 9
  • The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr by E.T.A. Hoffman, translated by Anthea Bell
    Penguin, 350 pp, £7.99, April 1999, ISBN 0 14 044631 1

When the celebrated violinist Joseph Joachim visited Schumann in the asylum at Endenich, near Bonn, in May 1855, he discovered that the composer – by this time in the tertiary stage of syphilis – had been spending his time compiling an alphabetical list of cities. Nearly a year later, Brahms found Schumann doing almost the same thing: ‘I looked again at his reading matter,’ he reported back to Joachim. ‘It was an atlas and he was occupied with making excerpts, childish ones, of course. Towns, rivers, etc. whose names begin with Aab, Ab, Aba, etc., gathering together the many St Juans, etc. He showed me a whole lot of paper completely covered with such writing.’

Four years before that, while still at home, and in a much happier frame of mind, Schumann had begun to put together a catalogue of references to music in the works of Shakespeare, Schiller, Goethe and other great literary figures, and had also made a detailed inventory of the contents of his own music library. Throughout his adult life Schumann kept a diary chronicling both inner thoughts and external events (the joint diary the Schumanns kept during the first three years or so of their marriage even contains encoded references to their sexual activity), and for much of it had maintained a household book into which he entered meticulous details of his daily expenses. No doubt the psychiatric fraternity would see in such orderliness Schumann’s means of counteracting a fear of mental disintegration. Certainly, that fear remained with him through much of his life. When he was in his early twenties his brother Julius and his favourite sister-in-law, Rosalie, both died of tuberculosis. Schumann noted in his diary:

The night of 17-18 October [1833] – the most frightful of my life – Rosalie’s death just before. At this point, a crucial segment of my life begins. The torture, of the most dreadful melancholy from October until December – I was seized by an idée fixe: the fear of going mad.

The punctiliousness with which Schumann catalogued his life and his possessions extended also to his creative work. No other great composer so assiduously compartmentalised his output, setting out systematically to master and exhaust one form of composition before embarking on the next. Until 1840, the year of his marriage to Clara Wieck, Schumann had concentrated almost exclusively on piano music. After abandoning his law studies, he had trained as a pianist, but his ambitions to become a virtuoso performer were thwarted by a permanent injury to one of the fingers of his right hand. Various theories have been put forward as to the cause of the disability: that it resulted from the use of a mechanical device for strengthening the fingers, or that it was brought about by the mercury commonly administered to sufferers from syphilis, or that it was entirely psychosomatic, the result of Schumann’s guilt over excessive masturbation in his youth.

Even within a single genre, Schumann’s output shows evidence of methodical orderliness. The early part of his piano decade found him determined to write music of a decidedly virtuoso bent: the Toccata op. 7, and the Paganini studies op. 3. Then came a concentration on variation form, in such works as the ‘Impromptus on a Theme of Clara Wieck’ of 1833, and the Etudes Symphoniques which were begun in the following year. (Schumann’s famous Carnaval, whose seeds were sown in a projected set of variations on a waltz by Schubert, also dates from this period.) In the mid-1830s he confronted the problem of the post-Beethovenian piano sonata: all three of his sonatas, together with the C major Fantasie op. 17 were first drafted at this time. And at the end of the decade came those highly original cycles of shorter pieces, including Kreisleriana, Kinderscenen and the Humoreske.

The systematic expansion of Schumann’s creative activities which began in 1840 was signalled by an astonishing outpouring of song. Some 250 were written in that year alone, including most of those for which Schumann has remained famous. In a sense the Lieder of 1840 are the vocal equivalents of the cycles of piano pieces he had written earlier. In the tragic Dichterliebe, to poems by Heine, the voice seems like an extension of the piano: in every one of the 16 songs the vocal part tails off in midstream, and it is left to the piano to utter what the voice can no longer express. At the end, the singer stands by while the piano plays a long postlude that sums up the entire cycle.

Also from 1840 is another Heine cycle, as well as Frauenliebe und Leben, set to poems by Adelbert von Chamisso conveying the idea of marriage as seen through the eyes of a woman, and an extended series of Eichendorff settings. Behind these cycles lies the influence of Beethoven’s proto-Romantic An die ferne Geliebte, whose title – ‘To the Distant Beloved’ – was clearly significant for Robert and Clara during the years of enforced separation that preceded their marriage. Schumann had quoted a phrase from Beethoven’s cycle in the opening movement of the Fantasie.

Once he had mastered the art of the Lied, making what many consider the greatest contribution to the repertoire after Schubert, Schumann turned his attention in 1841 to orchestral music. His first two symphonies (the second of them later revised, and published as no.4) date from this time, as do the Ouverture, Scherzo und Finale, and the first movement of what would eventually become his famous Piano Concerto in A minor. The following year, having made a thorough study of the string quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, Schumann turned to chamber music; and in 1843, to the oratorio, with a setting of sections from Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh, under the title of Das Paradies und die Peri. After this there was a hiatus, caused partly by a bout of severe depression, and partly by the emergence of a new style; and it was not until 1847 that Schumann managed to concentrate on what for any self-respecting composer was the ultimate goal – the creation of an opera. But Genoveva, based on tragedies by Friedrich Hebbel and Ludwig Tieck recounting the life of St Geneviève, was hardly a success in Schumann’s own lifetime, and it has entirely disappeared from the repertoire today.

With a few notable exceptions (the Rhenish Symphony and the popular Piano Concerto among them) posterity has not been kind to the music of Schumann’s final creative decade; and it is one of the strengths of John Daverio’s book that it devotes so much space to a sympathetic account of some sadly neglected works: not only to Genoveva and Das Paradies und die Peri, but also to the Scenen aus Göthe’s ‘Faust’, as well as Schumann’s second oratorio, Der Rose Pilgerfahrt, the shorter choral works and the incidental music to Byron’s Manfred. John Daverio is largely uncritical of these and other late pieces, and has no time for those who find them problematic in comparison with the music of Schumann’s earlier years. ‘Whoever hears signs of decay in the late music,’ he asserts, ‘simply does not know it very well.’ It is true that opportunities to hear the wonderful Faust scenes, the Requiem für Mignon or the choral ballade Vom Pagen und der Königstochter are few and far between, but many listeners may miss the spontaneity and occasional wild fantasy of the early piano works. That the migration from the heart to the head was a conscious one on Schumann’s part is suggested by a diary entry from the summer of 1846:

I used to write most, practically all, of my shorter pieces in [the heat of] inspiration; many compositions with unbelievable swiftness, for instance my First Symphony in Bb major was written in four days, as was a song cycle of twenty pieces [i.e. Dichterliebe]; the Peri, too, was composed in a relatively short time. Only from the year 1845 on, when I began to invent and work out everything in my head, did a completely new manner of composing begin to develop.

The change in Schumann’s creative outlook in his later years also affected his attitude to what he came to regard as the excesses of his youth. As early as 1843, he sent some of his piano works to the author of a forthcoming critique and warned:

You will easily see to what degree they are immature and lacking in finish. They are for the most part reflections of my turbulent earlier life when man and musician always strove to express themselves simultaneously; such is the case even now that I have learned to master myself and my art better. Your sympathetic heart will discover how many joys and sorrows lie buried together in these little bundles of notes.

Schumann’s mixed feelings towards the music he wrote when he was in his twenties may explain, at least in part, why he subsequently revised so many of them. There can have been no other major composer who so consistently reworked his earlier scores, almost always to the detriment of the original. (Of his large-scale works, only the last of his three piano sonatas, in F minor, is more satisfying in its later manifestation.) Schumann’s revisions were largely concerned with making the music more symmetrical and less eccentric. To this end, repeats of sections were inserted, and some of the bolder harmonic experiments toned down. The wild beginning of Kreisleriana, for instance, in the ‘wrong’ key, sounds much more impulsive without its subsequently added repeats, though it has become traditional to observe them. On the other hand, few pianists would want to follow Schumann in his emendation of the opening bars of the Davidsbündlertänze, where, in place of a single held note beneath which the music magically underwent a change of key, he punctuated the shift in tonal direction with a silence whose sole raison d’être was to render a repeat of the section following that silence practicable.

Was it perhaps Clara Schumann who encouraged these revisions? She and Brahms actually fell out some 35 years after Schumann’s death, over Brahms’s insistence on issuing the earlier – and he thought superior – version of the D minor Symphony. Certainly, Clara was taken aback by the recklessness of some of Schumann’s piano music in its original form. ‘You shock me sometimes’ she told him when she first saw the score of Kreisleriana. ‘I wonder if it is true that this man will be my husband?’ In 1839, the year after he wrote Kreisleriana, we find Clara imploring him:

Listen, Robert, couldn’t you just once compose something brilliant, easily understandable and without inscriptions – a completely coherent piece, not too long and not too short? I’d so much like to have something of yours to play that’s specifically intended for the public. Obviously, a genius will find this degrading, but politics demand it every now and again.

Clara Wieck’s request for a work without inscriptions brings to mind the web of literary allusions that runs through Schumann’s piano music – not just such obvious manifestations as the textual postscripts found in two of the numbers of the Davidsbündlertänze (they were suppressed in the second edition of the work), or the quotation of a quatrain from Friedrich Schlegel’s Die Gebüsche over the first movement of the Fantasie, but the more cryptic references to extra-musical sources which inform the substance, and sometimes the structure, of Schumann’s music. It is Daverio’s central thesis that Schumann, who once defined music as ‘poetry raised to a higher power’, constantly sought to evoke a literary analogue in his music. In this and in its love of hidden allusions and cryptograms lies much of the fascination which Schumann’s music holds for us today, though it is certainly true that the poetic beauty of his great works is more than able to speak for itself.

The two writers whom Schumann most revered were Jean Paul and E.T.A. Hoffmann. For him, Jean Paul’s Flegeljahre was a book ‘like the Bible’, and he once famously declared that he had learned more counterpoint from its author than from his music teacher. On another occasion he remarked: ‘If the whole world read Jean Paul, it would certainly be a better, but unhappier place – he’s often brought me close to madness, but the rainbow of peace and of the human spirit always hovers delicately over all the tears, while the heart is wondrously elevated and tenderly transfigured.’

The penultimate chapter of Flegeljahre, entitled ‘Larventanz’, or ‘masked ball’, was the literary source for Schumann’s early piano cycle Papillons, and Daverio provides an admirable translation as an appendix to his book. The novel’s twin protagonists are Walt and Vult Harnisch – the former a poet and dreamer, the latter a dark-complexioned, passionate artist. (The term ‘Doppel-gänger’ was coined by Jean Paul.) They may be seen as the literary embodiment of Schumann’s creative alter egos, Eusebius and Florestan – the names with which he signed so many of his works and critical writings. In German, the word Larve signifies both ‘mask’ and ‘larva’; and in its latter meaning it would naturally be expected to give rise to a fully-fledged ‘papillon’. Schumann originally quoted the final sentence of Flegeljahre at the head of his Papillons. The flute-playing Vult, realising that the twins’ dream of creating a collaborative novel will never be realised, leaves their house for ever:

Noch aus der Gasse herauf hörte Walt entzückt die entfliehenden Töne reden, denner merkte nicht, dass mit ihnen sein Bruder entfliehe.

(Walt was still enraptured by the fleeing sounds coming up from the street, for he didn’t realise that with them his brother was fleeing.)

Schumann later claimed that only the last of the dozen numbers in his cycle, with its quotation of the traditional closing ‘Grandfathers’ Dance’ and its evocation of a chiming clock as the signal for the dancers to disperse, was directly inspired by Jean Paul. Even so, there are other links between Schumann’s piece and the novel which seem clear. The curious geometric pattern assumed by the dancing figures in the ballroom (‘What a fertile zodiac-heaven of criss-crossing, zigzagging shapes!’ is Jean Paul’s description) which inspires Walt Harnisch with a feeling of poetic elevation is echoed in a passage where Schumann has the pianist’s interlocked hands descending the keyboard in rapid alternation; and the animated antics of a giant boot that capture Walt’s imagination are represented in the third number of Papillons, played in galumphing octaves. There is, too, the moment where, by taking a wrong turning, the absent-minded Walt finds himself in the punch room, instead of the ballroom, and hears ‘beautifully muted music wafting from a considerable distance’. The notion of hearing a snatch of a dance tune from afar, before it emerges into the foreground as though a door has suddenly been thrown open, is one that Schumann duly carried through into his music: the agitated sixth piece of Papillons is interrupted by a leisurely waltz-tune, played pianissimo; and the same tune explodes with force in the otherwise gentle tenth number. It was fragmentation of this kind, coupled with the music’s kaleidoscopic changes of mood (both were to become important features of Schumann’s mature music) that caused problems for early listeners to Papillons. When Clara Wieck played the piece at one of her father’s musical soirées in 1832, Schumann noted in his diary that the assembled guests ‘incapable of grasping the rapid alternation, looked at one another in amazement’.

Equally significant is an earlier chapter of Flegeljahre, not mentioned by Daverio. The novel’s starting-point, and one of Jean Paul’s great comic scenes, is the reading of the last will and testament of the town of Hasslau’s most eccentric inhabitant, Van der Kable. According to the terms of the will, Walt Harnisch will inherit the bulk of the estate, on condition that he fulfil successively, and for a specified length of time, the various professional roles that had been assumed during his life by Van der Kable himself. With every mistake he makes, Walt will sacrifice a part of his inheritance. Thus it is that he finds himself having to act as a piano tuner for a day, under the watchful eye of a notary. At the house of the bookseller Passvogel, the instrument is clearly in a poor state:

It wasn’t so much that the piano wanted tuning, as strings to tune. Instead of a tuning-hammer, Walt had to turn and work the musical keys with a cellar key. A pretty, adorned 15-year-old girl, Passvogel’s niece, was leading a boy of five – his son – around in his shirt, and was singing quietly, trying to weave a quiet piece of dance music for the little devil out of the random tuning notes. The contrast between his little shirt and her long chemise was agreeable enough. Suddenly three strings broke – a, c and h according to the official Hasslau catalogues, which, however, do not specify in which octave. ‘Merely letters from your name, Herr Harnisch’, said Passvogel. ‘You know the musical anecdote about Bach. All you’re missing is my p!’ ‘I’m tuning B flat,’ said Walt, ‘but I can’t help the breakages.’ Since the lame notary was knowledgeable enough to realise that a tuning-key couldn’t break three strings at once, he stood up, looked and found the reason. ‘Out of the Ach we’ll get a Bach!’ (the bookseller joked, turning away). ‘How many puns chance produces that certainly wouldn’t be written down in any library of belles lettres. Only the lame notary was convinced that the affair was strange, and warranted reporting; and while he was taking another look at the sounding-board, out of the sound holes behind the paper spirals peered – a mouse.

Anyone who knows Schumann’s Carnaval will recognise here the likely source of its construction out of musical ciphers, or ‘sphinxes’, as the composer called them. His original title for the work had been Fasching: Schwänke auf vier Noten (‘Carnival: Jests on Four Notes’). That title itself concealed the four notes in question on which the work is based, in their two principal formations: A-S-C-H and S-C-H-A. (In German notation, H is our B natural, while S, or ‘Es’ yields the note E flat.) Asch was the home-town of Schumann’s one-time fiancée, Ernestine von Fricken; and he must have been intrigued to find that the same letters figured in his own name. Eventually, Schumann settled on a synonym for ‘Fasching’ – Carnaval – and held his first title over for a later work in which the four-note motifs did not appear: Faschingsschwank aus Wien.

Few people read Jean Paul these days. (His real name was Johann Paul Friedrich Richter: the first part of the pseudonym by which he is universally known was adopted in homage to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.) His discursive style, his elaborate metaphors and his love of obscure puns make him tough going even for a native German speaker. English translations have been few and far between. The very title of Flegeljahre is difficult to render into English. Often used to define the period of adolescence, the word carries a sub-text of unruliness. Thomas Carlyle, who translated several of Jean Paul’s novels, opted for ‘Wild Oats’, which conveys the right idea, though it is altogether too free.

Daverio devotes a good deal less space to Schumann’s other preferred writer, E.T.A. Hoffmann, from whom the composer borrowed the titles of some of his piano works – Kreisleriana, Nachtstücke and Fantasiestücke. The character of the eccentric Kapellmeister and composer Johannes Kreisler, Hoffmann’s most enduring literary creation, is found not only in his collection of writings called Kreisleriana (they include his famous reviews of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and of the Piano Trios op.70), but also in an outrageously comic novel in which an elaborate tale involving Kreisler is bizarrely interwoven with the autobiography of a cat. A forward signed by Hoffmann himself in the guise of the book’s editor informs the reader that the cat had written his own life story using pages torn from a book (to wit, the biography of Kreisler) partly as a pad, and partly as blotting-paper; and that the two sources had been accidentally conflated at the printer’s. In his excellent introduction to the new Penguin Classics edition – The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr together with a fragmentary Biography of the Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper – Jeremy Adler suggests Jean Paul’s novel-within-a-novel, Life of Fibel, as a possible literary antecedent; but there is an earlier, and more famous, book by Jean Paul which assumes a similarly schizophrenic form. In The Army Chaplain Schmelzle’s Journey to Flätz, a sub-narrative leads a ghostly existence, in the shape of a continuous stream of footnotes which appear to have no relevance to the main text. Once again, the hapless printer is blamed: in order not to interrupt the flow of his narrative, the author had entered the footnotes in a separate book, and in his enthusiasm had forgotten to indicate where, and in what order, they were to be placed.

In calling his novel The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, Hoffmann was paying homage to Laurence Sterne; but the notion of the fragment as a literary form derives not so much from Tristram Shandy as from A Sentimental Journey. Hoffmann even begins the Kreisler portion of his novel by retelling the incomplete narrative of a windy night on the Pont Neuf, which Sterne finds on a sheet of waste paper serving as a plate for his breakfast. The Kreisler segments of Hoffmann’s novel are themselves fragmentary: not only does the biographer repeatedly apologise for the scanty information he has at his disposal, but characters constantly interrupt each other and overheard conversations pass out of earshot in mid-sentence. (Ironically enough, the Penguin edition is more fragmentary than intended: just as the story reaches its climax, a genuine printer’s error has resulted in a blank page, as though in additional tribute to Sterne.) A further volume announced by Hoffmann at the end of the book was never written, but we cannot be sure that this promise itself was not intended simply as a teaser.

Although the pages of the Kreisler biography so unceremoniously ripped from their context by the feline would-be author allow the reader to piece together most – though, tantalisingly, not quite all – of the involved operatic plot, they are not arranged in chronological sequence. They begin, in fact, towards the end of the narrative, before gradually working their way back towards the starting-point. The story as a whole, then, has a circular structure, not unlike that of some of Schumann’s song-cycles. The name Kreisler, as the Kapellmeister himself is at pains to point out, means ‘circler’.

The bourgeois world of the cat’s story functions not only as a parody of a Bild-ungsroman (Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is the obvious target), but also as a deliberate – and intentionally frustrating – antidote to the tale of heightened passions which unfolds in the remainder of the book. Murr himself is a literary snob, though he is surpassed in this respect by his friend Ponto the poodle, who reads ‘Jacques le fataliste’ and knows only too well how to worm his way into the affections of his masters. He can, he proudly tells Murr, do ‘the talking dog trick, the dying and coming back to life trick, refusing the piece of white bread offered by a Jew and devouring the piece offered by a Christian with relish’.

For all their incongruity, the novel’s alternating strands are not quite as haphazard as may at first appear. The cat’s master also figures as one of the principal characters in the Kreisler story, though it is true that he assumes a very different guise in each of the novel’s opposing worlds: unremarkable bourgeois in Murr’s surroundings (fortunately for the cat, he owns a well-stocked library), necromancer and universal puppet-master in Kreisler’s. At one point in the cat’s contribution, the exasperated Hoffmann intervenes, accusing him of plagiarising Kreisler’s philosophy of life.

Murr’s autobiography ends at the point where he is about to be housed with Kreisler himself, and it is the cat’s death that provides Hoffmann with his excuse for failing to complete his novel. (Murr was Hoffmann’s own cat, and when the animal died, in 1821, he announced the sad event to his friends with a black-bordered card.) As for the figure of Johannes Kreisler, he was to a certain extent Hoffmann’s own alterego. Hoffmann was himself a composer (his proto-romantic opera Undine was praised by Weber), and it is not by chance that every piece of music attributed in the novel to Kreisler is a composition by Hoffmann.

The idea of creating a work that unfolds on two interwoven planes is one that can be traced in Schumann’s Kreisleriana, which consists basically of an alternation of slow and quick movements, with each type having its own key. Yet the wildly impulsive nature of Schumann’s piece, which begins with a stormy movement in the ‘wrong’ key altogether, surely owes as much to Hoffmann’s ‘Kreisleriana’ section in Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier as it does to Kater Murr. The earliest story in Hoffmann’s collection is called ‘The Musical Sufferings of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler’ (it was issued in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung of 26 September 1810), and it is easy to see why the figure of the tormented musical genius would have struck a sympathetic chord in Schumann. In that very first story, Kreisler finds himself coerced into playing something at a soirée. Out of a pile of music offered to him, he chooses Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and reaches the end of the work to find that not only have most of the assembled guests long since departed, but that the music has taken on a life of its own:

The quarto leaves suddenly stretched themselves into a giant folio in which a thousand imitations and developments of the theme were written, which I had to play. The notes came to life, and sparkled and leaped around me; an electric fire passed through my fingertips onto the keys. The spirit from which it emanated left my imagination far behind; a thick fragrance hung around the whole room, as the candles burned lower and lower; from time to time I could make out a nose, or a pair of eyes, but they vanished at once ... Should a real musician be so tormented with music as I have been tormented today, and am so often tormented?

The notion of the tormented genius is one that continues to exert a spell on us at the end of the 20th century, and it no doubt explains, at least in part, why Schumann’s reputation now stands so much higher than that of his friend and almost exact contemporary, Mendelssohn. For Schumann, Mendelssohn was the Mozart of his time – the composer who most successfully reconciled the contradictions of the age. But unlike Schumann, Mendelssohn did not weave his autobiography into his music – and, when all is said and done, his life story was a good deal less enthralling than Schumann’s. Daverio tells Schumann’s story with skill and insight. His prose is not always elegant, but he has written one of the most significant contributions to Schumann literature for several years.

As for Kater Murr, it was last published in English in a valuable two-volume selection of Hoffmann’s writings issued by Chicago University Press in 1969. This fine new translation by Anthea Bell reads rather more smoothly, without being any less faithful to the original. Bell’s annotations rely heavily on the notes contained in the German Insel Verlag edition, and ought properly to have acknowledged their liberal borrowings.