A, E♭, C, B

Paul Driver

  • Robert Schumann: Life and Death of a Musician by John Worthen
    Yale, 496 pp, £25.00, July 2007, ISBN 978 0 300 11160 6
  • The Cambridge Companion to Schumann edited by Beate Perrey
    Cambridge, 302 pp, £19.99, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 521 78950 9
  • Schumann’s Late Style by Laura Tunbridge
    Cambridge, 246 pp, £50.00, October 2007, ISBN 978 0 521 87168 6

Robert Schumann died in an asylum near Bonn in 1856, having committed himself there two years before, following a suicidal plunge into the Rhine near his home in Düsseldorf. He had had many periods of depression and anxiety before that, and biographers have tended to regard his life as a continuous fight against the congenital mental instability to which the deaths of his sister and father when he was in his teens have also been attributed. The black cloud at the end of Schumann’s life has been seen as overshadowing everything on the way, but John Worthen’s biography refuses idle teleology. An emeritus professor of English at the University of Nottingham, Worthen has written about D.H. Lawrence and the Wordsworth circle and makes no claim to musical expertise; but he has been seized by the Schumann case. Paying fierce attention to original sources, among them Schumann’s autopsy report (printed as an appendix) and the domestic diaries that he kept jointly with his pianist wife, Clara, he shows that Schumann’s problems can be explained without a theory of inherited madness. What Schumann faced was the purely physical nemesis of syphilis.

This isn’t news, but Worthen’s single-mindedness is salutary. Until tertiary syphilis destroyed Schumann’s mind, he was pretty much sane. Worthen claims that only in the 1931 biography by his daughter Eugenie is his final collapse not seen as the consequence of chronic mental illness – and her account was liable to seem like special pleading. Yet the evidence Worthen marshals strongly suggests that neither Schumann nor his contemporaries saw his many troubles as the result of mental disturbance. It is striking, for instance, that when Clara’s father, the relentlessly hostile Friedrich Wieck, was preparing a legal case against Schumann in an attempt to prevent their marriage, he adduced every kind of vice and failing other than mental instability. Or, needless to say, syphilis. An early chapter makes clear that, at the time Schumann contracted syphilis, the lingering nature of the ‘pox’ and its hereditary transmission were unknown. Schumann thought himself cured. He didn’t pass it on either to Clara or to their many children, but it set him up for a life of ever greater derangement and a dreadful end.

Schumann may not have been insane, but he was certainly odd. His taciturnity was bafflingly extreme. He would let people talk on at embarrassing length before responding with a blunt or irrelevant few words. With the garrulous, self-absorbed Wagner, he ‘stayed as good as dumb for almost an hour’, so Wagner complained, deciding that Schumann was ‘a highly gifted musician, but an impossible person’. This reticence made teaching difficult. A student at the Leipzig Conservatory, waiting for a reaction to the piece he had played, was finally told: ‘It’s odd; whenever you strike a high E flat, that windowpane rattles.’ Nor was conducting made easier by his uncommunicative manner. He had a small pursed mouth – Worthen doubts that contemporary artists dared show it as it really was – and was disinclined to open it. Yet his articulacy as a writer is outstanding among composers. He was the editor of a music newspaper and a music critic whose judgments remain canonical (he praised Berlioz, Chopin and Brahms); as Reinhard Kapp puts it in The Cambridge Companion to Schumann, he ‘made music itself a subject for reflection but never reduced it to the merely aesthetic or technical’. ‘The Poet Speaks’, for instance, the title of the affectingly musing movement at the end of the piano sequence Kinderszenen, might seem ironic, but is one of many magical passages in Schumann when music really does seem to be breaking into speech, and meanings tremble on the edge of the specific. Not only one of the most literary of composers (he responded to words when setting them and wrote his own), Schumann was able to take literary ideas over into music.

Worthen makes clear the assiduousness with which he made himself a musician. He was a late starter as a pianist and composer, having concentrated on literature in his teens, but under the tutelage of Wieck, a formidable piano teacher, and with rigorous self-discipline, he became a professional musician able to stand beside the fabulously gifted Mendelssohn. He once said that had he grown up like Mendelssohn, ‘destined to music from childhood, I would have surpassed the lot of you’. ‘I always feel as if I hadn’t in fact achieved enough in the world (e.g. compared with Mendelssohn),’ he wrote to Clara in 1840, his ‘year of song’, during which he produced, among other things, Myrthen, Frauenliebe und -leben, Dichterliebe and the two Liederkreis. In January 1841, he sketched his Symphony No. 1 in four days. In 1842, his three string quartets took him respectively a week, three and a half weeks, and half a week to write. In 1850, Symphony No. 3, the Rhenish, took a month, and the lyrical Cello Concerto 13 days.

This fertility is not to be seen as a manic-depressive symptom, not at any rate by Worthen, whose level-headedness is his virtue. His marshalling of fact, whether medical, legal (the Wieck court case is meticulously recounted) or financial (we always know how many thalers something cost or someone earned) is impressive. His handling of Robert and Clara’s complex, protracted courtship amounts to an embedded romantic novel of uncommon intelligence. What I miss is a sense of excitement about the music Schumann was writing. When the masterly Papillons and Carnaval emerge from his early efforts, I felt the need for a fanfare, but all his works are treated here as matter-of-factly equivalent. True, Worthen has no pretensions as an analyst, but even on a biographical level passion is missing. I spent the first 339 pages looking forward to the brilliant young Brahms entering the Schumann household. But after half a dozen sentences he’s barely mentioned again until Schumann is in the asylum and Brahms visits him there.

The problem with The Cambridge Companion is rather the reverse: there is much insight into the music here, but one sometimes has to prise it out. It is a shame to go from Worthen’s lucid, journalistic (but rarely clichéd) prose to the cumbersome erudition of Beate Perrey’s preface, actually more of a puff: the non-specialist contributors have ‘new and perceptive things to say precisely because the perspective from which to view Schumann’s work is different from the set of values within which Schumann studies may sometimes have found themselves enclosed’. Her own chapter, ‘Schumann’s Lives and Afterlives: An Introduction’, is nonetheless a good overview. She quickly makes Worthen’s point about biographers with ‘a particular investment in Schumann’s madness’ who ‘inevitably ended up reading Schumann’s life backwards’, and cites his ‘lifelong inclination to silence’, as well as his fondness for generic composition (piano music, songs, symphonic works, chamber music, oratorio, in successive periods). But the suggestion that his use of quotations from other people’s music as well as his own indicates that once in a while he ‘enjoys taking a break from himself’ seems oddly naive; and the claim that the extensive and innovative use of literary allusion in his music is that of ‘an outsider to his art’ overlooks the fact that in his piano masterpieces of the 1830s he turned the art of music inside out. Perrey sneers at the ‘so-called Classical repertoire’ (the musical ‘canon’ gets inverted commas), while conceding that these masterpieces, profoundly eccentric in structure, are, however mysteriously, a mainstay of it. The brief discussion of the Romantic ‘fragment’ that follows by way of explaining this fact goes seriously astray in likening Schumann’s method to collage.

Ulrich Tadday, on the other hand, is persuasive on Schumann’s debt to Romantic aesthetics, particularly as epitomised by the novels of Johann Paul Friedrich Richter (Jean Paul). Nicholas Marston, writing on Schumann’s heroes Schubert, Beethoven and Bach, quotes the 19-year-old composer telling Wieck: ‘when I play Schubert, it’s as if I were reading a novel “composed” by Jean Paul.’ And in his chapter on Schumann’s ‘Novel Symphonies and Dramatic Overtures’, Scott Burnham, one of the non-specialists, sees the four symphonies as embodying the diversity of ‘characters’ and ‘tones’ that Schumann found in Jean Paul’s writing and heard echoed in Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, with its ‘heavenly length . . . like that of a thick novel in four volumes, perhaps by Jean Paul’. (Schumann was the person who discovered Schubert’s Ninth, finding it lying in a pile of manuscripts in Vienna.) ‘Picturesque, episodic, more spatial than temporal, more epic than dramatic, Schumann’s symphonies’, Burnham argues, ‘are above all permeable and open rather than relentlessly and hermetically coherent.’ Classical and baroque methods of construction are seen not as exclusive principles but as methods that can be combined: the ‘relentless, baroque-style rhythmic texture and motivic saturation’ of the symphonies, ‘when packed into four-square rhyming phrases with classical-style harmonic language, make for a compressed and spirited local intensity’. It’s striking how close to Burnham’s formulation Wieck came in his legal indictment of Schumann, in which he represented the music as ‘baroque originality combined with unlimited contradictions’.

Two of the most stylish essays are by John Daverio, who drowned in the Charles River in Boston in March 2003, a death that may have been accidental but eerily echoes Schumann’s plunge into the Rhine at a similar time of year. His first essay surveys Schumann’s early piano music, dwelling on its exuberant play with masks and ciphers. The three ‘Sphinxes’, motifs derived from the musicalised letters (A, E flat, C, B) of Asch, the hometown of Ernestine von Fricken, to whom Schumann was engaged, are printed in the score but not meant to be played, ‘much as children were supposed to be seen and not heard’. Both this and Daverio’s other contribution, an attempt to ‘come to terms’ with Schumann’s generally depreciated late music, show a fondness for Barthes’s writings on Schumann. He quotes Barthes’s suggestion in the essay ‘Loving Schumann’ that his music, with its rapid mood changes, discontinuities and self-interruptions, inhabits ‘the realm of the intermezzo, a rather dizzying notion when it extends to all of music’. For Daverio this amounts to saying that Schumann’s music, particularly the early piano work, resembles the ‘succession of frames in a film’; this is less of an insight than it sounds, when the flitting continuity of Papillons, say, has already been evoked by the butterflies of the title. Barthes makes the pleasing point that ‘Schumann lets his music be fully heard only by someone who plays it, even badly.’ (I’ve been putting this to the test.)

In Daverio’s ‘Songs of Dawn and Dusk’, the book’s last chapter, the Barthes reference is to his last work, Camera Lucida, in which he compares a (possibly non-existent) childhood photograph of his dead mother to the first piece in Schumann’s 1853 piano collection, Gesänge der Frühe, which he sees as a memento mori. This strange, sombre piece, in which bars of bare octaves alternate with bars of block harmony, suggesting an eviscerated chorale, seems to have become emblematic of Schumann’s troublesome later style. Charles Rosen in The Romantic Generation singles it out as among the ‘few rare undeniable masterly successes’ of this period. Daverio, while regretting that our knowledge of Schumann’s final illness has had a negative influence on the reception of these works (there are many of them), and citing positive influences such as that of the Violin Concerto on Brahms, finds a startling amount in the 39 bars of the first Gesang der Frühe. ‘Future critics of Schumann’s music,’ he writes, ‘might well give some thought to unriddling the meaning of the polarities – between archaic and modern, vastness and intimacy, development and stasis, detachment and expressivity – that inform not only the first of the Gesänge der Frühe but the late music as a whole.’

Laura Tunbridge, who contributes a chapter on Schumann’s post-1836 piano music, is one such critic. In her new book, Schumann’s Late Style, she subjects the Gesang to a three-page, note-by-note analysis, and probes its subtexts and contexts, including the Barthes connection, yet does not altogether persuade me (pace Rosen), nor, it would seem, herself, of its distinction. What Daverio calls the ‘breakthrough’ in the piece (a central, suddenly loud passage) she puts down to a lapse of memory on Schumann’s part. Her evaluations differ little in the end from the general estimate: by and large Schumann’s inspiration did dry up in later years. She takes a less charitable view than I do of the Violin Concerto, a work that has nearly but never quite entered the repertoire. ‘It is difficult not to listen’ to the outer movements and ‘wonder whether these repetitions could have been driven by anything other than obsession’. (Yes, but the slow movement is haunting.) Her Barthesian attempt at a positive conclusion – ‘beneath the surface of this music we can detect a body that beats’ – is unconvincing. Earlier she applies the same metaphor to Schumann’s late chamber works (the three Violin Sonatas, the third Piano Trio), suggesting that ‘the problem . . . is that the composer’s body is far from healthy.’

Tunbridge is interesting on Schumann’s mania for collecting and cataloguing. From re-editing his early piano music, collecting his stray pieces into albums, gathering up his writings on music as well as those by others, Schumann ended up in the asylum trying to list every concert he’d ever been to. Such passions need not be seen as pathological. As Tunbridge says, they resulted in the 19th century in ‘the proliferation of antiquarian societies, the development of the historical novel, and the rise of national libraries and museums’. And overhauling his earlier works also preoccupied the eminently sane Wordsworth. The cases are indeed comparable. Just as Wordsworth covered the daring effects of his early versions of The Prelude with a glaze of syntactic propriety in the 1850 edition, so Schumann regularised the inspired eccentricity of early piano works such as Davidsbündlertänze, adding repeat marks to phrases that seemed dangerously evanescent, solidifying harmony, stabilising tempo, removing the apparatus ascribing the 18 pieces variously to his fictional alter egos, Florestan and Eusebius, and even dropping the word ‘dances’ from the title.

Most pianists perform Schumann’s amended versions; they are what we mostly hear. That they ‘retain something of their audacity is testament to the extent’ of his innovations, Tunbridge writes. The matter is not straightforward, however. The changes he made in 1851 to the D minor Symphony from ten years before, which now became his Symphony No. 4 (chronologically, it is the second) intensified its revolutionary, four-movements-in-one structure yet made the music thicker and heavier, deleting astonishing features like the guitar included with pizzicato strings in the Romanze, and securing his future reputation as a terrible orchestrator. The earlier score was preserved (thanks to Brahms prevailing over Clara after Schumann’s death), and was recently performed by the Northern Sinfonia at the Proms. The dancing lightness of the performance was bracing but almost shocking, as though the real originality of the work were, after all, its portentous, obsessive insistency, that development-in-stasis which Daverio finds characteristic of Schumann’s late style.

But it is the originality of the earlier style that dazzles and is important to musical history. In his song cycles for voice and piano, and what Rosen calls the ‘song cycles without words’ for piano alone that pre-empted them (Papillons, Carnaval, Davidsbündlertänze) , Schumann created a new relationship between musical and verbal meaning, and made it possible for musical works to be constructed ironically. There is much playfulness and wit in Haydn; Mozart’s G minor String Quintet follows a lacerating adagio with a positively flip finale; and the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony quotes themes from earlier movements in a way that seems to turn them into memories of a completely different work; but no one before Schumann in Davidsbündlertänze ends a work with a movement announcing itself superfluous. ‘Superfluously Eusebius added the following and much happiness shone from his eyes’: these words are inscribed above the final piece in the work’s first edition, and refer to a little slow C major waltz, which, as Rosen has pointed out, sounds trifling if played by itself but heard at the end of Davidsbündlertänze has an extraordinary pathos. (The effect might be compared to the end of The Winter’s Tale, when the statue of Hermione is found to be ‘breathing’.)

Rosen, to whose writings several of the contributors to the Companion are indebted, explains that Davidsbündlertänze begins and ends in the ‘wrong’ key; that the ‘post-ultimate’ waltz stands in the traditionally pathetic ‘Neapolitan’ tonal relation to the work’s main key of B minor; that the Ländler that first defines this key (in the second piece) returns at the end in a way which suggests it is being heard at a distance both of space and time; and that thus we appreciate how Schumann has built a complex structure – the piece takes at least half an hour to play – not on anything like a sonata principle but on the ironic possibility of pulling the rug from under it at the end.

Reinhard Kapp’s deftly synoptic chapter, ‘Schumann in His Time and Since’, and Jörn Peter Hiekel’s look at his compositional reception since 1950 trace Schumann’s influence in intricate ways, though Kapp omits the obvious example of Grieg (the opening of his Piano Concerto mimics Schumann’s), and Hiekel the equally blatant one (at least to Anglo-Saxon ears) of Robin Holloway, whose orchestral Scenes from Schumann and Fantasy-Pieces for ensemble are detailed ‘re-compositions’ of passages from Schumann. Kapp sees a line of descent from Schumann to Mahler, Debussy and Berg, and Hiekel finds Schumann connections in works by Luigi Nono, György Kurtág, Henri Pousseur, Heinz Holliger and Wolfgang Rihm; as Kapp claims, Schumann appears to be ‘one of the most influential composers in the history of Western music’.

But the driving force of that influence is surely the irony that allows a cheap little waltz to support and consummate, even as it undermines, a large-scale musical structure. The desolate, slow finale of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the ‘Pathétique’ in B minor (the same key as Davidsbündlertänze), which arrives when one feels the work has already ended (audiences always clap after the rousing third movement), works in this way. The symphonies of Mahler and Shostakovich, the concertos of Hans Werner Henze, the amazing early scores of Peter Maxwell Davies all depend on a deep-seated, structural irony. Davies’s orchestral Second Fantasia on John Taverner’s ‘In Nomine’ concludes with a passionately introverted, 15-minute Lento molto for strings that climaxes on terrifying brass harmonies, but then there is a ‘post-ultimate’ section: the woodwinds sneak in and take half a minute to reduce the 40-minute piece to absurdity.

It is satisfying that Schumann’s most adventurous and influential works are also, as Perrey reminds us, among his best loved, with an assured place in the ‘so-called’ repertoire. Trying to play Papillons, I have a sense at once of the oddity and abruptness of the invention and its absolute rightness under the fingers. Schumann is the pivot of the classical tradition not just because he comes halfway between the baroque and us, and looks both ways, but because his approach to the piano (if not to the orchestra) has settled in our minds as the way the instrument should sound. Romantic piano music is the first music many people discover, perhaps through trying to play Schumann’s pieces for children, and its figurations and inner voicings continue to seem magical.