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Robert Schumann in Duesseldorf, 1991:
Words and Music

by John C. Tibbetts

In Robert Schumann’s song, “Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes,” a company of friends sing a toast to the empty wine glass of a dead companion. “At this hour it becomes clear to me that nothing can part friend from friend,” they sing. “Though the glass is empty, a hallowed sound echoes in its crystal depths.”

To those of us who attended Schumann-Fest IV in Dusseldorf, June 8–17, 1991, Robert Schumann was like that absent friend. 135 years after his death in 1856, we toasted his memory; and his music still resonated throughout the city.

When Schumann moved to the Rhineland city of Dusseldorf in 1850 to become its new Music Director, he was already famous as a composer and critic. His wife, Clara, was even more celebrated as one of the finest concert pianists of the day. Yet, within three years, officials of the city tried to oust him from his job. Clara, ever loyal, attacked in turn the city’s “petty” cultural climate. Worse, Schumann’s chronic attacks of mental confusion finally led him out of his house in a driving rainstorm on February 27, 1854, to an attempted suicidal plunge into the nearby Rhine. Rescued from drowning, he voluntarily committed himself to a nearby mental institution. Clara was left with seven children to support.

Despite the stresses of these Dusseldorf years, however, there were many happy occasions. Two children were born there. In a final burst of creativity, Schumann wrote fully one-third of all his compositions, including the celebrated “Rhenish” Symphony. And on a fall day in 1853 young Johannes Brahms came to his door and was instantly launched by the elder composer on a spectacular career.

Today the 700-year-old Dusseldorf is a thriving hub of international business and trade. An estimated twelve million people work within and around North Rhine-Westphalia’s capital. But until recently, it has chosen to ignore Schumann, favoring with archives and conferences its other artist-citizens—the poet Heinrich Heine and the painter Paul Klee, for example. In 1979, however, a young woman named Frau Dr. Gisela Schafer, a practitioner of internal medicine as well as a Schumann enthusiast, quietly formed the Robert-Schumann-Gesellschaft, a Society dedicated to researching, preserving, and celebrating the life and work of the composer. “I was born in Duesseldorf in a house on the Bilker Strasse, on the opposite side of the street from Schumann’s home,” says Dr. Schaefer. “I was surprised that there was no Society for Schumann. Now in this time, 1991, we have more than 535 members with offices here and in the West German Bank.”

The area along the Bilker Strasse evokes an important part of Germany’s cultural history. At No. 15 is the house where Brahms came to call on the Schumanns (and where he lived for a time). Across the street is the Heinrich-Heine-Institute, a world center for Heine studies (and which includes in its holdings a valuable archive of Schumann materials). And at No. 6 a short walkway leads the pedestrian off the cobbled street into a charming courtyard filled with flowers and climbing vines. Dr. Schafer’s offices lie on one side of the courtyard; and at the other is the Forschungsstelle, or Research Center, where scholars and celebrated musicians come to gather and share research. Leonard Bernstein has been here (and played some four-hand piano music with Dr. Schafer), as have founding Society members pianist Claudio Arrau and singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. From these tiny offices these days emanates in a steady trickle a Neue Ausgabe samtlicher Werke, or New Complete Critical Edition of Schumann’s works. This 54-volume project, a product of researches going on concurrently in East and West Germany, will take at least twenty years.

Since 1981 the Dusseldorf Schumann Society has sponsored four Schumann Festivals, spaced three years apart. Compared to many other European festivals, like the Salzburg and Edinburgh festivals, the Schumann Fests are small in scale, but their two-week programs take the hundreds of visitors far across the city and environs—from the intimate Bilker Strasse offices in the Alt Stadt (“Old City”), to the modern Tonhalle, home of the Dusseldorf Symphony, the 300-year old Max-Kirche (where Schumann conducted), the salons of the Palais Wittgenstein, and the neighboring cities of Koln and Endenich, with their many Schumann associations.

Each Festival has selected a particular aspect of the composer’s life and work— his contacts with German painters, for example, and his works specifically from the Dusseldorf years. The theme this year is “Schumann and His Poets.” Torn in his youth between careers as a composer and writer, Schumann went on to excel in both fields, producing a fascinating and distinguished body of music derived from, or in some way connected to, the poems and writings of literary forebears like Goethe and Byron as well as direct contemporaries like Heinrich Heine, Friedrich Rueckert, and Friedrich Hebbel. As David Shallon, conductor of the Dusseldorf Symphony and a planner of the Festival put it, "We want to present Schumann in the context of the writings around him—the poets who in some way influenced his music." Scholar Kenneth Whitton, one of many researchers in attendance, says the theme comes out of the larger priorities of the Romantic Age. “There is this great emotional outburst in Schumann’s time,” he says. “Many artists like Schumann expressed themselves in as many art forms as possible. Poets wrote novels, novelists wrote plays, composers wrote criticism, etc. It only could have happened then. It has never happened again, really.”

Did music and poetry achieve a unique fusion in Schumann? To what extent is poetry “musical” and is music “poetic?” In combination must one always be sacrificed to the other? Indeed, can the two art forms—the first highly abstract and sensuous, the latter highly connotative and intellectual—ever be reconciled? These central questions, crucial to any study of Romanticism, were present to one degree or another in all the concerts, presentations, exhibitions, and academic discussions of the Festival.

While scholars from all over the world grappled with these issues in a concentrated, highly academic Symposium—full of learned papers and seemingly endless debate (perhaps of interest primarily to the specialist and connoisseur)—the same subjects were also aired out in a full schedule of concerts and dramatic presentations.

Perhaps the outstanding concert, in terms of sheer concept, scope, imagination, and execution was the evening of Schumann/Goethe songs. These rarely heard works were inspired by two of the most fascinating characters in all of German literature—the child Mignon and the enigmatic Harper from Goethe’s novel, Wilhelm Meister. Moreover, they were performed by an outstanding trio of singers, pianist Hartmut Holl, singers Mitsuko Shirai and David Wilson-Johnson (assisted by recitations from the novel by the popular German actor, Gerd Westphal).

David Shallon helped plan out the concert. He was busy until the last minute before concert time distributing orchestral parts and planning out the staging. “This kind of concert is absolutely the ideal thing,” he said. “We planned to bring in Gerd Westphal, who is a very well known actor here, who lives in Zurich, to choose texts from Wilhelm Meister to connect the songs of Mignon and the Harper. We wanted to alternate soprano and baritone. I’ll have the orchestra and chorus on stage already, in the shadows behind the spotlight. And after the last song we’ll go straight into the Requiem für Mignon. It’s difficult to find the proper context to do a work like that, with large chorus, orchestra, and five soloists. This is it. I doubt if it has been heard here in Dusseldorf before, excepting the recording that was done a few years ago here with Bernhard Klee.”

On stage for last-minute rehearsals the three singers seemed unflappable in the midst of sound checks and a tangle of stagehands, cables, and microphones. It was 6:00 on Wednesday evening, barely two hours before show time, yet the performers had the kind of composure that would have led you to believe they had all the time in the world. After a brief runthrough at the piano of some of the songs, Hartmut Holl, Mitsuko Shirai, and David Wilson-Johnson joined me for an interview. We sat in a tight circle on stage.

“These Wilhelm Meister songs are late Schumann,” said Wilson-Johnson, a sturdy, affable young man who presents a stark contrast to tiny Mitsuko Shirai. “The accepted opinion is that they are not particularly good Schumann. Well, that was a bit like waving a red flag to a bull, as far as I’m concerned! Because if somebody is going to ‘write-off’ these songs, that is enough to get me excited to hear them for myself and work on them myself.”

“This late music brings us close to Anton von Webern,” adds Hartmut Holl. “There are many short gestures and breaks and contrasts. You can’t relax with this kind of music. Frequently Mitsuko and I contrast early and late Schumann songs in our recitals so people can see how different and advanced his later songs really were.”

Mitsuko Shirai, slim and girlish, smiles in agreement. “Relaxing is never in the music—for us or for the listeners. In the music are always these tensions.”

Holl gestures in resignation. “I think you will rarely hear this music—especially both the songs for Mignon and the Harper. They are too hard, too pathological.”

“But here at the Schumann-Fest you have the ideal chance,” insists Wilson-Johnson. “You’re surrounded by people who are here for the right reasons. They’re here because it’s Duesseldorf and its the traditional place to come for this music.”

The dramatic edge of the evening was brilliantly, if simply executed. The four players were isolated at stage right in a tight spotlight. At the conclusion of the set, the house lights came up slightly and the assembled forces of the orchestra and chorus were revealed. As the opening bars of the Requiem für Mignon sounded forth, the growing intensity that had been accumulating seemed to dissolve into an ecstatic release. The vast golden dome of the Tonhalle swelled with the grateful music. It was enough to make one rather lightheaded.

The legendary Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau gave a sell-out Liedmatinee and a week-long Master Class. In the precincts of the Schumann-Gesellschaft in Dusseldorf, of which he is a founding member, or Ehremitglieder, he is referred to as a Kammersaenger Professor. His wife, opera singer Julia Varady (who assisted him in the Master Classes) is an honorary Frau Kammersaengerin. The morning sessions at the Tonhalle found him working with students from Sweden, Belgium, Japan, South Africa, the Netherlands, and Germany. Casually dressed in a brown sweater, he spoke in both German and English as he discoursed about songs like “Abends am Strand” (“Evenings on the Rhine”), “Fruehlingsnacht” (“Spring Night”), “Widmung” (“Dedication”), “Die Alten Boesen Lieder” (“The Old, Sorrowful Songs”), and others. Appropriately enough, the subject of many of these songs, the Rhine, was in full view as it flowed past outside the windows. Fischer-Dieskau was always in motion, sometimes hovering restlessly at a distance, at other times darting forward, clapping his hands, jabbing with a forefinger, singing with the student, adjusting with cupped hands the neck and shoulders, and shaping the mouth like a sculptor working in clay.

Young Karl-Magnus Frederiksson was especially excited. His open features and rather childlike manner belied the big, full-toned baritone voice. “He asked me to come to Berlin in November to study more,” he told me. “I will go, of course. In the beginning here I was nervous. I had only encountered the Maestro on recordings before, and now, suddenly, he stands there in front of me!”

Laurence Gien, of South Africa, shared the feeling. “I stood there in front of him and I was shaking from head to toe. I knew I would be nervous, and I was!”

I asked Gunnar Birgersson what Fischer-Dieskau had said to him at one point during one of the sessions. He had held the young singer’s head between both hands, gently moving if back and forth, whispering something that was inaudible, but apparently rather urgent. “He cautioned me about my head and neck positioning,” he explained. “He told me how to have it correct—it’s like the proper posture of the body. You have to teach it how to ‘stand’ the best way to keep it healthy.”

The Abschlusskonzert (“Farewell Concert”) concluded the Master Class sessions. Some of the singers were chosen by Herr Fischer-Dieskau to present a program of Schumann songs in a salon at the Palais Wittgenstein. There were some outstanding performances by Werner van Mechelsen (“Venetian Boat Sont, No. 1”), Karl-Magnus Frederiksson (“Schoene Fremde”), Hiroshi Oshima (“Belsatzar”), and Gunnar Birgersson (“Der Arme Peter”). A standing ovation and a shower of flowers concluded the program. Afterwards there were tearful congratulations and numerous hugs as the tension relaxed and everybody loosened up. But for those lucky few who accompanied the singers to a reception at the fashionable Park Hotel, the concert was just beginning. After a few more toasts and some more hugs, some of the Swedish performers stepped to lobby piano for an impromptu concert of Swedish folksongs. There was something breathlessly poignant in those young faces, that hushed light, and the raptly listening crowd. All too soon, the evening came to an end and these friends, these new friends, departed separately into the night, back to Tokyo, to Amsterdam, to Munich, to Stockholm….

When I spoke to Fischer-Dieskau in his hotel room at the Park Hotel midway through the week he was a bit concerned about a slight cold. “I don’t know yet about my recital,” he explained. “We shall see.” He spoke softly, sometimes almost inaudibly, his words occasionally rambling off into German. He was dressed casually. Frau Varadi joined us with a tea serving and cookies. Herr Fischer-Dieskau doesn’t do many interviews and, frankly, I was a bit surprised he agreed to see me.

I shared with him some of the concerns and apprehensions of the young students. “I hope they don’t have fear!” he laughed gently. “No, no. That inhibits. That would be terrible!” He relaxed his smile. “I think, though, that the overall quality is not quite good enough. They do not yet know the texts, these German texts. I try to mix into the lessons some extra material, some news about Schumann and the poets. But that’s not enough, they must have their own—their own—” he groped for the word. “Their own fantasy about Schumann.” He nodded at my observation that he seemed to spend more time with the students on the dramatic quality of the music than on purely musical matters. “Yes, analyzing the music is not my task or special field. That they can have from other people better. Interpretation is my goal. I have to tell them how to approach the songs. It’s very difficult, of course.”

We talked of many things as twilight lengthened that evening. He spoke warmly of his 30-year friendship with Frau Dr. Gisela Shaefer, the co-founder of the Schumann Gesellschaft in Duesseldorf. He is delighted that his book on the Schumann vocal works has been translated into English; but he is dismayed that many CD releases of his Schubert and Schumann recordings have so far been limited to markets in Japan. He mentioned with special affection his visits to the Schumann archives in the Heine Institute in Dusseldorf and the Schumann birthplace in Zwickau. He reminisced about his very first recital of the Dichterliebe (“The Poet’s Love”) when he was only 17. “I always sang Schumann. Always. He has been very important for me. Even in the Army I was above all singing him during my ‘prisonship’ [he was a prisoner of war of the American Army in Italy]. I sang these songs everywhere—all over Italy, in the open air, in the trucks, and then later in the hospitals. Sometimes there were only 20 to listen, other times over a hundred filling a big tent or hall or something.”

He doesn’t feel “Messianic,” as he puts it, despite his undisputed position as the world’s leading exponent of the German Art Song. "Yes, I get many letters from people who were convinced to listen to the Lied because of my work," he admits. "I think it’s because I always tried to make the music convincing, yes? [Again, he gropes for the right word.] It must be a combination of voice and interpretation. And don’t forget, I was famous soon for my operatic performances, which helped by work in the Lieder. It is the same for composers. Those who write operas find more listeners for their Lieder." When I ask him about the future of Lieder performance, his face darkens momentarily. “Yes,” he says, his voice almost a whisper, “If the world were without the German Lied it would much poorer. It goes together with the loss of interest in reading, maybe. If you don’t read the lyrics, if you don’t read the great poets, the German ones, then you have not so much interest in the Lieder. I have thought that there might not be a future for this kind of music. Because it is such a tender plant—very careful to treat.”

For now, at least, the tradition is in excellent hands. Fischer-Dieskau’s Liedmatinee at the Deutsch Oper am Rhein featured two Schumann cycles to poetic texts by Heinrich Heine, the Liederkreis (“Garland of Songs”), Opus 24, and the Dichterliebe, Opus 48. Tall and trim in a beautifully tailored brown suit, he completely dominated the stage. In songs like “Abends am Strand,” he has a striking way of listening to the pianist, reacting to him, allowing him seemingly to shape the narrative. This is requisite in Schumann. Moreover, Fischer-Dieskau makes the poet’s moods, the action of each song clear, even if you know little or no German. In moments of reverie, as in “Wenn ich in deine Augen seh” (“When I See Myself in Your Eyes”) he turns inwards toward the keyboard, musingly, speculatively. In a burst of bravado, as in “Der Contrabandist” (“The Bandit”) he will suddenly snap back towards the audience, striding forward boldly and confidently. In “Das ist ein Floeten und Geigen” (“Flutes and Drums”) he shrinks back from some imaginary scene before him, perfectly conveying the horror with which the disappointed lover gazes on the happiness of others. Sometimes, as in “Ein Jungling liebt ein Maedchen” (“A Boy Loves a Maiden”) he will growl out the ditty, his figure pulled up to its full height, chin lowered almost to his chest, eyes scowling furiously. Perhaps most touchingly, in that marvelous passage in “Ich wandelte under den Baeumen” (“I Wandered under the Trees”) when the poet listens to the voices of the birds overhead, he simply gazed slightly upward, his hands loose at his sides, his voice caressing the line, “Es kam ein Jungfreulein gegangen” (“The Young Girl Had Gone”) in a loving, caressing whisper. Moments like this are nothing less than sublime.

Hartmut Holl’s accompaniment was a miracle of shared partnership with Fischer-Singer. The transitions among the Dichterliebe songs, particularly—especially between the two “dream” songs, Nos. 13 and 14—masterfully kept the narrative throughline intact.

“For ten years now we have been together,” Herr Holl had told me earlier in the week. They had first met when he played for him in his first Master Class in 1980. "I think the Lied is really chamber music, and I hate the way it is normally done—that any opera star is asking a pianist to do a recital. Audiences sometimes are very stupid. They think if they pay enough, then it will be good enough! I was never interested to play one night with one singer, and another night with another. Although he does a few performances with old friends—Barenboim and Brendel and so on—I think we like very much just working together. He is a wonderful partner on stage. A real partner, I mean. And you always know in every sound which way he likes to go. And sometimes after a concert, we can say, next time we do it the other way around. But for this second, it is 200 percent the right way! Some people say he’s always studied and—how do you say it?—calculated? No, he’s always changing, every time, playing with the hall, with the audiences. It is always an adventure!”

For many others the highlight of the concerts was a performance of Schumann’s only opera, Genoveva (“Genevieve”). Since its premiere in 1850 it has been only rarely heard around the world. However, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein has a reputation for resurrecting unknown, but worthwhile works.

“We like the rare operas in the repertoire,” said Gunther Weissenborn, the Dramaturg of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein. “You know, we have a repertoire of about 40 pieces and we are doing 480 performances a year, with opera and ballet. We are sold at an average of 9l percent. So, people are interested in the rare works, too, and will come to see Genoveva. I’ve been very keen for several years to make this opera. The Schumann-Fest was a fine opportunity to perform it.”

It’s a Saturday afternoon and we have just witnessed a full rehearsal of the first two acts of Genoveva. It was an intense performance. Conductor Enoch zu Guttenberg, who had come from Bavaria for the five performances of the opera, had, in the heat of the rehearsal, divested himself of his tailcoat. Amiably, he had invited the players to do the same.

“This is what we call a ‘Concertante Auffuhrung,’” continued Herr Weissenborn. “It’s a performance without any staging things. The singers and players are sitting on the stage and wear black suits instead of costumes. We are doing it like an oratorio. If we had to stage it with scenery, props, and costumes, the expense would prohibit it.”

Weissenborn is mixed in his opinions about the performance potentials of the work, which was premiered in Leipzig in 1850 and has had few performance since. “This is the first performance of Genoveva in Dusseldorf, as far as I can say. It’s lovely music and makes a very fresh impression. Like Richard Wagner, he is trying to make a new kind of ‘Music Drama,’ where all the music is connected and not split up into separate arias and such. But it’s not ‘professional’ in the staging and the plot. You can listen to this opera, but maybe it’s not so good to see it. Some of it might seem ridiculous to our eyes these days.”

The gala opening night performance was packed by members and guests of the Schumann Festival. Guttenberg’s direction was spirited and full of conviction. None of the leading singers had ever sung this work before (excepting Siegfried Lorenz, who sang “Hidulfus” in the Kurt Masur recording with the Gewandhaus Orchestra), and they acquitted themselves admirably. Csilla Zentai was an especially intelligent Genoveva, the damsel in distress, Thomas Sunnegardh played the scheming Golo, and Uta Priew sang the sinister witch, Margaretha. Some of Schumann’s finest pages are here, particularly in Act II, and the performers were quite equal to the task. Zentai and Sunnegardh were beautifully matched, for example, in the poignant duet between Genoveva and Golo (“Wenn ich ein Voeglein waer”); Sunnegardh followed that with the chilling monologue wherein we see the tortured mind of Golo, and the massed chorus splendidly conveyed the frenzy of Genoveva’s imprisonment in the tower that concludes the act.

Other Concerts

Other highlights included an absolutely dazzling performance by the Cherubini Quartet (and friends) of the Brahms Quintet, Opus lll and the Mendelssohn Octet. It is a shame that the Cherubini Quartet is less well known in America than in Europe, where they are in constant demand. This was musicianship of an extraordinary caliber, spirited, sturdy, and impassioned. The Brahms, particularly, was full of that youthful ardor that flowered so unexectedly in this late work, making it an ideal companion to the young Mendelssohn. The standing ovation at the end of the concert was answered by a repeat of the famous “Scherzo” from the Octet.

Duo pianists, the Paratore Brothers, performed a program of Schumann and Brahms. They kept the Schumann Andante and Variations and the rarely heard Bilder von Osten (“Pictures from the East”) under tight wraps, evoking their thoughtful, trancelike quality. With the concluding Brahms, however, and some encores (some Brahms waltzes) they threw off their reserve and blazed away.

Joseph and Anthony Paratore had interrupted their tour with the Dresden Philharmonic and the West Germany Symphony to come to Dusseldorf for the Festival. We talked shortly after their rehearsal. Concert time was barely a few hours away, yet they were loose and affable. In a few minutes it seemed they had been old friends of many years. They seemed grateful to speak good old English again.

“We wish we had had more language training as kids,” admitted Anthony. He and his brother live now in Munich. “We grew up in Boston in an Italian family with three sisters and spoke Italian, of course; but we found out real soon that the international part of our career demanded more language skills.”

“When you’re lost in some train station at 3 o’clock in the morning, you learn very quickly!” said Joseph.

Anthony chimed in, “But one of our managers told us a long time ago that if your music is good, it’ll speak for itself! Our German is coming along well and Italian is in our ears, of course. The funny thing is, for an American out here, everybody wants to speak English. Especially here in Germany. They all studied English. For an American, it’s difficult to learn German because everyone wants to speak English!”

The brothers said this was the first time they had presented publicly the Schumann Pictures. “It’s a beautiful piece of music,” said Anthony. “It’s perfectly written for four hands and is seldom heard. I admit that I haven’t found any so-called ‘Eastern’ influences in the harmonies. The title might be misleading. But it’s very ‘Schumannian,’ in that it’s so reflective and meditative. There’s a kind of ‘spell’ over the slow movements, you know?”

“Schumann wrote enough for two pianos or for four hands that maybe we should try to do a recording of it all,” added Joseph. “The trouble is in convincing the record companies to do it. We’re always fighting to do what we want to do—against sometimes what they want to do. It’s all in the packaging.”

For the Schumann connoisseur, there were several revivals of works that in all probability, according to David Shallon, had not been heard in Dusseldorf—or anywhere else, for that matter—since their composition 140 years ago. The Nachtlied, Opus 108, with a text by Friedrich Hebbel, proved to be a major rediscovery. “The first performance of the Nachtlied was actually here in Dusseldorf in 1851, although Schumann began the work two years earlier in Dresden. In my opinion it is a very deep and interesting piece. It’s quite short, just eight or nine minutes, but it has a very special atmosphere, very dark and sinister with deep colors.”

Of less interest, perhaps, were two choral works from Rueckert, also written in the Dusseldorf years, the Adventlied, Opus 71, and the Neujahrslied, Opus 144. Both were performed by the Robert-Schumann-Orchester (a band comprised of advanced music students in the area) under the direction of Hartmut Schmidt. They were wildly uneven pieces, both revealing that distressing tendency in late Schumann to occasionally thump and flounder about, as if restlessly searching for an inspiration or a direction.

The very seriousness of purpose that powers such a series of concerts occasionally can run aground, stranding the music in its own earnest ambitions. This was the case with two concerts on successive evenings, June 15 and 16. The idea was to create a dramatic evening’s entertainment, interspersing Schumann music and adaptations of Schumann music with recitations from, respectively, Peter Lieck and Peter Haertling. The first evening, “Bunte Blaetter” (“Colored Leaves”), took its title from a grouping of short piano pieces that Schumann published in 1852. Despite an absolutely sensational performance by violinist Rainer Kussmaul of the Schumann rarity, the Violin Fantasie, the burden of the readings extracted from Schumann proved too unwieldy for most listeners. Cellist Anner Bylsma’s obvious impatience with having to sit for lengthy periods while the talking droned on and on expressed the feelings of most of us. The problems increased in the second evening, entitled “Kreisleriana.” Peter Haertling concocted an imaginary dialogue between Schumann, the writer E. T. A. Hoffmann, and Hoffmann’s literary creation Johannes Kreisler. These are complicated associations and perhaps cannot be unravelled in this kind of format. The readings fairly buried the accompanying music. Matters were not helped by the awful performances by pianist Gerhard Oppitz of some of the Schumann Fantasiestuecke (“Fantasy Pieces”), Opus 12, and the Kreisleriana, Opus 16. Oppitz flailed about at high speed, his hands flattening the subtle textures and destroying their poetry. He was like a wrecking ball gone out of control.

Sadly, what would have been the crown jewel of the concert series, a recital by the great Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau, was not to be. The news of his death reached us on Monday, June 10. Arrau had been a close friend of Frau Dr. Schaefer and one of the original founding members of the Dusseldorf Gesellschaft.

“He was a pianist who was interesting in singing, in general,” recalled Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. “I think he tried to sing on the piano. He mentioned me kindly several times, although we never were able to work together. The last time I saw him was in Berlin about three years ago. He played the Liszt B Minor.” He paused thoughtfully. Then he continued, slowly—“It was very moving.”

At the beginning of his Lieder recital, Fischer-Dieskau came out onto the stage, alone, and spoke to us about Claudio Arrau. There was a moment of silence. The concert was dedicated to him.

Of course, Schumann’s example, as well as those of his contemporaries Liszt, Berlioz, and Wagner (not to mention later masters like Mahler, Strauss and Schoenberg) has continued to inspire 20th century composers to find new ways to combine words and music. Accordingly, the Festival presented two works by two contemporary composers, the German master Aribert Reimann and the Swiss oboeist and composer Heinz Holliger—respectively, “Gesaenge der Fruehe” (“Songs of the Dawn”) and “In Sieben Fragmente Memoriam Robert Schumann” (“Seven Fragments in Memory of Robert Schumann”). These challenging, highly experimental works interlaced Schumann’s own words—diary entries and letters—with musical quotations from his last works to profile his final years of mental turmoil and collapse. “We looked at many modern scores that all dealt with these aspects of Schumann,” said Dusseldorf Symphony conductor David Shallon. “We decided two of the most interested were the Holliger and the Reimann.”

Holliger’s Gesaenge der Fruehe was written in 1988 and, although it has had several performances in Europe, it has not at this writing been heard in the United States. It draws upon a variety of musical and textual sources. “I use the first piece of Schumann’s Gesaenge der Fruehe piano cycle and other quotations from the Violin Concerto, the Requiem für Mignon, and the ‘Geister’ theme from his last set of variations,” says Holliger. “It’s a sort of analysis of Schumann in the moment of his death.” The quoted texts for speakers are derived from writings by and about Schumann and the poet Holderlin (whose poems are cited by the composer in the piano cycle, Gesaenge der Fruehe). Appended are extracts from the doctors’ reports on the two men and some passages from an eyewitness of Schumann’s last days in the Endenich asylum, Bettina von Arnim (to whom the Gesaenge der Fruehe are dedicated).

The work is in four sections that combine in various combinations a 40-voice choir, full orchestra, and taped speaking voices and sound effects. At times the voices of Schumann, Holderlin, their doctors, and Bettina von Arnim stand alone; at other times they move in and out of phase. Sometimes they are accompanied by a dry, scratching sound (which you slowly realize is the sound a quill pen makes against paper).

An a cappella choir intones the opening declamation of Holderlin’s Der Fruehling (“The Spring”) to the theme of Schumann’s first number of the Gesaenge der Fruehe. It is a moderate, quietly affirming moment. But soon you realize all is not well. There is a disturbing, barely audible muttering in the strings. In the various musical fragments that follow many instrumental textures are exploited—dry, cricket-like snaps and rising twitters and whoops in the strings, whanging sounds from the piano’s innards, explosive plunks and blats from the brass, and hollow breathing sounds from the winds. At one point there is a high, piercing sound in the strings that betokens the auditory tones that bedevilled Schumann. Another time the orchestra bursts into a paroxysm of shrieking strings and blaring brass that builds to a tremendous crash. Later we hear the Gesaenge der Fruehe theme again, this time from the taped sounds of a piano. But the keyboard tones deteriorate gradually, collapsing into a reverberating kind of mush. Finally, near the end of the work a new theme, the “Geister” theme, appears in the chorus. The accompanying strings seem to wander into the figurations that mark in turn the last piece of the Gesaenge der Fruehe piano cycle. This fusion fades away into a quiet murmer as the speaker intones Schumann’s words from a letter to Joseph Joachim shortly before the composer’s collapse: “Now I will end. It grows dark.”

“This is a very serious piece,” says Jens Langenheine, Concertmaster of the Duesseldorf Symphony. “It has a deep message and I think it is breathtaking. But you bring it to an audience last night and they don’t like it; or you play it today, and they liked it very much. As for me, I haven’t listened to a piece in the last two years that seems so concentrated as this one.”

Choir director Christian de Bruyn notes an essential difficulty in performance lies in the handling of the choral parts. “All the singers are treated individually, each with his own part, sometimes together with the others and sometimes not together at all. I am very impressed with the score. Those connections between Schumann and Holderlin are not incidental. Holliger has a good feeling to bring out the things in both lives that fit together.” De Bruyn contends the meaning goes beyond a depiction of an artist’s breakdown. “The chorus stands for life and beauty. The electronic sounds and other music stands for the devastation annihilation.”

Understandably, this makes for heavy going for the listener. David Shallon is philosophical about the mixed reception of the piece. “I’m not surprised people are affected so strongly, one way or the other. For example, there is that prolonged, high note early in the work. It represents Schumann’s breakdown and it is a high A. It is not produced by an instrument but by an electronic tone. It really goes down into your stomach. I’m not surprised if it causes some people great disturbance. They start shouting and some of them get up to leave. We never expected that, but it is quite suitable.”

When Aribert Reimann came to the Dusseldorf Schumann-Fest to hear his Sieben Fragmente fur Orchester: In Memorian Robert Schumann, he had not yet heard the Holliger work and was greatly anticipating a first hearing. “Yes, many composers today love Robert Schumann,” he said. “He is one of the special composers in my life. I have the feeling that I’m very close to his music, and I play it often with singers.” Like the Holliger work, Reimann’s music was also written in 1988. It too quotes the “Geister” theme and it also employs a piercing high tone to represent the oncoming mental and physical collapse of the composer.

After an opening chaos of blares and blatts in the full orchestra, the insistent high tone appears against a scumbling pattern of scrapes and bleats from the strings. Then the brass gently declares the “Geister” theme as the strings subside into a slurring texture. Thereafter it briefly reappears at intervals, rising, then falling into the instrumental textures. The climax of the work is especially moving as a high, solo clarinet in a last futile gesture wails a bleak, winding statement that soon fades away into silence.

“It is appropriate to hear this work in Dusseldorf,” Reimann said after the second performance. “Especially for this Festival you bring Schumann into our own time, 1991. He was a progressive composer and wrote many things that were different and so complicated to understand. He continues to be important for us in these days.”

The work marked an important event. For the first time in many years Dusseldorfers were able to hear the Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie of Chemnitz, a kind of “Sister City” to Dusseldorf. “We are from the eastern part of Germany,” explained the orchestra’s conductor, Dieter-Gerhardt Worm, during a reception for the group after the concert. “We are from the area about twenty miles from Zwickau, where Schumann was born. Now we are ‘Chemnitz’ again. The name changed with the ‘Change!’” he laughed. “The orchestra is more than 150 years old, but only since 1983 has it been named the ‘Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie.’”

It is late afternoon. I have embarked on an hour’s bus ride out of Dusseldorf to a small suburb of Bonn called Endenich. The bustling weeks of concerts, excursions, and symposia seem far away as I stand in the silence of this room on the top floor of No. 182 Sebastianstrasse. This is where everything ended for Schumann. Following more than two year’s incarceration following his suicide attempt in the Rhine, he died in this room on July 29, 1856. Beyond the window in the mild, lemon light I can see the gardens where he spent most of his time during his good days. The house and grounds are now a Schumann Museum, lovingly presided over by Frau Brigitte Barenbruch. The lower floor is devoted to the library and music rooms; and the upper floor to many artifacts, memorabilia, and, of course, the death chamber.

Despite the probing of the musicologists, the interpretations of the musicians, the speculations of the biographers and enthusiasts, the central questions remain unanswered. Were the gulfs between words, music, and Schumann’s own autobiographical expression ever really bridged—or is that merely our imaginations at work, filling in the gaps? The man himself remains inexplicable—how he composed, what the true nature of his mental and physical ailments was, how it all ended in this room. One biographer, Dr. Peter Ostwald, has told me the questions are, quite honestly, inexhaustible and perhaps ultimately unknowable. Another biographer, Prof. Ronald Taylor, wonders at the perpetual, irreconcilable conflicts that beset the composer’s ambitions—“the conflicts between what he wanted to do and what it was given him to do.” Schumann himself once said, “What I really am, I do not know for certain myself.” Perhaps we are doomed— to paraphrase something else Schumann wrote—to erect ladders against the colossus and vainly try to measure it with our tiny gauges.

The words of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau return to me as I turn away and walk back down the stairs. “I think we will not know what manner of man he was. And it is good that we will not know. It is the same case with Mozart, you know? We will have no idea how he managed to do what he did. And that’s for the genius the best way.”

 

© John C. Tibbetts 2004

 

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