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Robert Schumann: A Magellan of the Interior

by John C. Tibbetts

The generation to which Robert Schumann (1810–1856) belonged, in the words of cultural historian Jacques Barzun, “had been made highly self-conscious by the turmoil of 25 years of revolution and war all over Europe. They no longer had the rather simplistic view of the 18th century that intellect, reason, was all sufficient. They knew there were other elements to the human organism and they observed them.” All across Europe revolution in politics, philosophy, social structures, and art was in the air. Compared to his friends, Robert Schumann (1810–1856) must have seemed a reluctant revolutionary. While firebrand Hector Berlioz tucked a sword into his belt and joined the Parisian street riots in 1830, while the charismatic Franz Liszt supported displaced Hungarians with charity concerts in the 1830s, and while the political zealot Richard Wagner took to the Dresden barricades in the 1848 uprisings, Schumann confined his democratic convictions to his journalism and his music.

While the din and clamor of many of yesterday’s revolutions have faded, Schumann’s own battles remain as personal and vital as ever. I do not refer just to his campaigns in the pages of his magazine, Die Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, against the academic pretensions and salon frivolities of the 1830’s music world. That was a safe cause, after all, open to the Berlioz’, the Chopins, the Liszts of the day. It was de rigeur for this generation of artists and the arch-Romantics—and those that preceded, them such as E.T.A. Hoffman, Novalis and Jean Paul—to locate and pillory those philistines who so stubbornly blocked the cause of progressive art. “Schumann was like the point man in the left-wing platoon,” says Robert Winter, a musicologist at UCLA. “His whole life was an intellectual and artistic odyssey that set a pattern for his contemporaries.”

But Schumann’s real revolution was primarily a deeply personalized musical one. A blazing force in the most innovative music of the day, his work wrought a complex and frequently obscure weave of private, coded messages, enigmatic, extra-musical allusions, and autobiographical references. While many performers and listeners alike have been fascinated and intrigued— Leonard Bernstein once declared, “the mere mention of Schumann’s name can send shipboard strangers into each other’s arms”—others confess they are troubled and dismayed by the sheer weight of autobiographical and extra-musical references in Schu-mann’s music. “There are so many personal things buried in the notes that either you can feel included, if you’re ‘in the know,’” Garrick Ohlssen has told me, “or you feel guilty, like a voyeur, looking on in secret into someone else’s private life.” Pianist Vladimir Feltsman was more directly critical: Works like the Davidsbuendlertaenze, he said, “are mostly pieces, pieces, pieces! They may contain beautiful ideas, but mostly they are shishkabob!”

Just as he polarizes listeners, Schumann perceived in himself a profoundly divided soul. He seems to have been conflicted, psychologically and artistically, from the very beginning. As a child he alleviated the nightmare of the deaths of his beloved father and sister by solitary hours spent scribbling preciously obscure novels and reading the tales of Walter Scott and the mystical effusions of Jean Paul. Against his wishes to pursue music, his mother demanded he attend law school. After three years of desultory study in Leipzig and Heidelberg, he stubbornly drove himself into a frenzy of music studies with Professor Friedrich Wieck. Determined to marry Wieck’s daughter, the brilliant pianist Clara Wieck, he had to fight in the courts Wieck’s fanatical resistance. After their marriage in 1840, they led a life that was anything but conventional according to contemporary middle-class standards. “Yes, it was most unusual in many respects,” says biographer Peter Ostwald. “It was a dual career marriage, and both Robert and Clara found themselves reversing traditional gender roles.” Somehow, in the midst of bearing eight children, Clara continued her concert career. And Robert, while trying to compose, frequently found himself staying at home, tending to the children, and laboring in the role of house-husband. “You have to ask yourself how Clara was able to be this dedicated wife and mother,” remarks biographer Nancy B. Reich, “and, at the same time, achieve the position as a great concert artist—who concretized longer than anyone else in 19th century Europe!”

Schumann’s growing family took up several residences during the 1840s, moving from Leipzig to Dresden and to Dusseldorf. It was during this latter period that Schumann’s chronic emotional disorders grew more severe. Yet, as he had done since his youth, he seemed to maintain a curiously detached perspective over his inner tumult, as if he were calmly surveying from high ground the wreckage of his mind. “Schumann was aware of something very unusual, something peculiar, something distressing about his mind,” says biographer Peter Ostwald, a practicing psychiatrist; “and in his teens already he became concerned about that. He was almost like a patient in psychotherapy who wants to go to all the trouble of revealing what it is he has observed about his suffering. So he would proceed day after day, starting around the age of 15 or 16, to record everything that he noted—his fluctuations in mood, his experiences, his doubts, his self-observations. And this makes him a very interesting person for a psychiatric study.”

Indeed, there was a hint of self consciousness, even of theatricality, in his breakdown and attempted suicide during Carnival season in the winter of 1854. Meanwhile, during Schumann’s subsequent two-and-a-half year incarceration in a private mental asylum in Endenich, Clara was faced with the sole responsibility of his medical bills and the family’s support. Complicating the situation was the advent of the young composer, Johannes Brahms, who had recently entered their lives and whose subsequent relationship with Clara continues to arouse controversy to this day.

Schumann’s music reflected all the struggles, triumphs, and failures of his complicated private and professional life. Out of the piano music, particularly the cycles Papillons, Carnaval, Davidsbundlertanze, Intermezzi, Kreisleriana, and the sonatas emerges a musical speech giving voice to diverse and frequently contradictory moods and attitudes. He even gave these voices names—“Florestan,” the brash activist, and “Eusebius,” the reticent and moody dreamer. The two voices are dazzling creatures, masked characters who appear and then vanish. Michael Steinberg, Artistic Advisor to the San Francisco Symphony, has said that these two voices become for us a kind of musical discussion, even a debate, on the issues of life and death, love and hate, magic and artifice, reality and nightmare. “Schumann enables listeners and readers to hear all sides of these issues, inviting us to draw the line across the bottom of the arithmetic and arrive at our own sum.” Another Schumann biographer, Professor Ronald Taylor of the University of Sussex, de-scribes Schumann’s dialectic as a kind of “artistic parallax,” like sighting an object in the heavens from two observatories stationed far apart. For the larger vocal, instrumental, chamber, and choral works, toward which he devoted much of the last twelve years of his creative life, he drew upon his vast knowledge of literature and philosophy—poets Heine and Eichendorff for his many songs, Goethe for his Scenes from Faust, Thomas Moore for The Paradise and the Peri, Friedrich Hebbel for his opera, Genoveva, Byron for Manfred, etc.

All the while, prompted by his own divided nature and reinforced by the dictums of philosophers such as Schopen-hauer, and authors such as E.T.A Hoffman, Schumann relentlessly pursued his own inner demons. Like Orpheus, the fabled poet of word and music, Schumann returned from his secret underworld doubting himself at the very threshold of his achievement. To paraphrase Hoffmann and William Blake, Schumann removed the pale exterior covering the play of his inner muscles only to marvel at its mysterious and “fearful symmetry.” At such times, he knew words alone were inadequate. “It’s strange that just when feelings speak most strongly in me, “ he wrote, “I cease being a poet and turn to music.” And even when musical expression fell short of his goal, as it did at the end of his life, only silence remained….

“What I am left with,” Professor Taylor has said, “is a sense of wonderment, the sense of a musician who was always in a state of conflict—with what he wanted to do and what it was given him to do. His ambitions were not always congenial to his creative powers.” Paraphrasing Schopenhauer, it seems Schumann was not merely a man of talent, a marksman who can hit a target others cannot hit; rather, he was the man of genius who aims at a target others cannot see.

“I am affected by everything that goes on in the world,” said Schumann, “and I think it over in my own way—politics, literature, and people. That is why my compositions are sometimes difficult to understand, because they are connected with distant interests; and sometimes striking, because everything extraordinary that happens impresses me and impels me to express it in music.

We can only guess to what degree Schumann’s harrowing interior journeys contributed to his great musical accomplishment. There was a special moment during the last concert in the Dusseldorf Schumann Festival in 1991 when pianist Christoph Eschenbach concluded a long evening with one last solo keyboard work. The final work. The work Schumann was writing in 1856 when his suicidal impulse overwhelmed him and he raced away from the piano to the bridge that spanned the Rhine. After speaking quietly by way of explanation, Mr. Eschenbach played for a few minutes. Then, suddenly, his hands dropped to his sides. He sat, motionless, the music silenced—exactly where Schumann himself had stopped writing. The vanishing point. The audience was silent, startled, suspended in a noiseless void that yet seemed to thunder and shake. Then the applause began.


© John C. Tibbetts 2004


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