Two hundred years ago this February, baby Chopin’s fingers first reached out towards that famous Funeral March. Four months later, other fingers were feeling their way into the world, eager to celebrate spring and youth and love: these belonged to little Robert Schumann of Saxony. While both are still popular composers in the concert hall, it is probably only the elder of the two who is a ‘name’ to the general public. If The Simpsons wanted to show a wildly Romantic pianist impressing the girls with his sweeping scales, his gaunt good looks and flying hair, out-Liszting Liszt himself, the boy prodigy would of course be called ‘Chopin’. Yet it is portly, bookish Robert Schumann who I believe offers the richer hoard of masterpieces, and whose personal story is equally dramatic. True, there is no George Sand to add spice, but instead we have the intriguing Clara Wieck, virtuoso pianist, composer, muse, one of the most significant creative spirits of her age.
It was neither Chopin nor Schumann who obsessed me as a young music lover, but rather Johannes Brahms. I was determined to write a play about him – a verse drama, indeed – but as I began to research young Hannes’s somewhat seamy life, and his own painfully frustrated obsession with Clara (Schumann’s wife since Brahms was four years old) it became apparent that this was always going to be the Schumann show. That student production at Exeter stays in my memory chiefly for its incidental music, even if Schumann’s works didn’t have the same visceral effect on me as Brahms’s. Yet the life was fascinating, a veritable showcase of Romantic emblems, involving a tyrannical ‘Barrett of Wimpole Street’-style father, forbidden love and heady impulsiveness, featuring syphilis and mercury treatment and consequent insanity, culminating in that suicidal plunge into the Rhine, a river which winds throughout Schumann’s writings, from songs in Dichterliebe to the glorious Third (Rhenish) Symphony.
When one speaks of Schumann’s ‘writings’, it’s important not to forget that he was a prose stylist of some distinction, and he has always been attractive to writers on literature, as D. H. Lawrence specialist, John Worthen, reminded us with his recent study of the composer. Schumann’s own more fanciful prose has dated, along with that of the German novelist and humorist ‘Jean Paul’ who so influenced him, yet his music reviews are still valued today. His critical judgement was crucial in restoring, or in some cases unearthing, works which are now established classics. As we listen to the latest CD of Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony, we should recall Schumann’s role in salvaging this most extraordinary of Ninths. And who was it but the twenty-one year old Schumann himself who noted in his first published article the talents of a certain young Polish
composer-pianist (‘Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!’) and, many years later, recommended Brahms to the world. But ironically he himself suffered badly at the hands of critics who – particularly once they got wind of his madness – considered him a poor orchestrator. There was a famous debacle at the first rehearsal of his ‘Spring’ Symphony (a work inspired by that Schubert discovery) where he was publicly humiliated by the orchestra for misjudging the pitch of the horns and trumpets in the very opening bars. Commentators still remark on his muddy orchestration, but it only takes a conductor such as Szell or Sawallisch or Zinman and all becomes clear. His four symphonies may not be in the same league as the four by his protégé, Brahms, but they are unlikely to drop out of the repertoire.
Meanwhile, no one has ever doubted the extraordinary quality of Robert Schumann’s compositions for piano, in which he expressed his own psychological complexity and even anticipated Jung by making ‘Florestan’ the extrovert side of his personality and ‘Eusebius’ the introvert. I began to become dimly aware of this myself in the 1970s, watching the TV quiz ‘Face the Music’: every other question from Joseph Cooper’s ‘dummy keyboard’ seemed to be something from a work called Carnaval, which panellist Robin Ray obviously knew inside out. That sent me off to the local second-hand record shop where I found Arthur Rubinstein’s incomparable RCA interpretation. Carnaval is a cryptic autobiography, a work of inexhaustible Shakespearian variety, whose characters – one of whom is Chopin himself – can be interpreted in innumerable ways, and which never sounds the same twice. There are early recordings by Rachmaninov, Myra Hess, Michelangeli that I would not be without; but no pianist worth their salt has passed it by, and the ‘available recordings’ are legion. Forty years on from that Rubinstein encounter, as my teenage daughter picks through her grandmother’s ragged sheet music, sight-reading passages from Kreisleriana or the haunting Arabeske, I realise that what I met was just the tip of a very substantial Rhine-berg.
Schumann himself spoilt his chances of being a virtuoso performer when, only a year after that article on Chopin, he damaged his hand in a patent finger-stretching machine. But he took cruel revenge in some of his compositions. They are by no means all like Album for the Young. In the week I am writing this, I have been listening to the Fantasie in C, a warhorse among pianists, apparently, but one which has somehow eluded me. A half-hour tribute to Beethoven, its coda is notoriously difficult; but how delightful to let a new work grow in the consciousness, to let those horizons expand still further. Because there are so many other Schumann works: the dances and studies and variations and sonatas for piano, not to mention the trios, quartets and quintets, the concertos, the choral music… We soon reach the limits of Chopin’s perfect world; but Schumann’s is a real, broad, unpredictable ocean, whose margin fades for ever as he moves.
Nor have I yet mentioned the songs, which I instantly took to half a lifetime ago,
when I heard Ian Partridge singing them. Robert Schumann wrote enough songs for several lifetimes. 1840 alone saw the composition of eighteen complete cycles, including Dichterliebe, perhaps the greatest ever written – Schubert’s Winterreise must rival it, but the poems are not so good. Because he was a writer himself, Schumann knew to choose fine verse. It is surprising how this has fatally weakened other song writers (Elgar, for example, whose taste in poetry was execrable) and how a good choice of poem can reinforce the composition. Britten is interesting in this regard: he not only had superb literary judgement, but evidently recognised the same quality in Schumann when he chose to record his little known late setting of scenes from Goethe’s Faust. Britten knew how few composers (perhaps only Mahler) had succeeded in setting Goethe the dramatist. Schumann’s lyrical poets of choice were the likes of Heine and Eichendorff, major German Romantic poets, which Schubert’s Wilhelm Müller was not. What makes him a great writer of song-cycles – and Liederkreis is almost as good as Dichterliebe – is, I think, that he is a master of organic structure: one song leads to another, much as they do in Beethoven’s only cycle, An Die Ferne Geliebte, whose melodies are in fact deliberately echoed in the Fantasie in C. As in Beethoven, there is always a writerly sense of an underlying narrative, rather than just a surface story about, say, a lovesick miller. What makes Schumann such a great writer of individual songs is that there is never a note wasted. If the words demand a tiny scrap of a song, he’ll give us one. But he can do masterly strophic settings. Or even an eight minute mono-drama, such as Die Löwenbraut.
The song-cycle, I would suggest, has been more influential than we give it credit for. It could even be argued that the modern taste for poetic sequences (from The Waste Land to Station Island) emerges from a familiarity with German Lieder, carefully filtered through the Victorians. Yes, naturally the Elizabethan sonnet sequence has its say, but the sheer dramatic variety of the sung narrative in Schumann’s many lyric groupings – and the unsung plots behind many of his instrumental pieces – must have fed those very musical Brownings and Tennysons and Rossettis, for whom the voice and piano were a natural accompaniment to their middle-class existence. Anyone searching for the true pitch of late English Romanticism would do well to listen to Ich Grolle Nicht rather than wade through Maud. And Schumann’s repugnance at the trivialisation of high culture surely played accompaniment to Matthew Arnold’s big scenes. The composer knew what he was doing when he concluded Carnaval with a protest march against the Philistines. Since by the year 2010 we are now well and truly in the Philistine camp, witnessing the final fireburst of that same Romantic sunset, Robert Schumann’s voice – as I hope this little Fantasie of my own has suggested – still calls to us.