Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Music of the Great Composers – Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

    So far we have traversed the time between Bach and Chopin. Literally in the blink of an eye, from 1685 to 1810, momentous changes took place in the world and in music. By 1810, the developed world was captivated by the latest mechanical and chemical innovations, which were changing the lives of tens of millions, in some instances, not so much for the better. It was still primitive, mostly the age of steam and sail power, of candles and fireplaces providing the only reliable evening light and heat, etc.
    In the year Chopin was born, Robert Schumann also entered the world. He was to be a complicated man, not as simple as Chopin or perhaps even as Bach. Perhaps the times had something to do with it. Are we more complex than those who lived at these times? Consider the question, not what everyone says about being “dumbed down,” etc. We use computers now, we communicate with people we may never see halfway around the world, we do business with them as if they were next door. The world is much smaller than it was in Schumann's day, when America was a good deal farther away from Europe and in Europe itself, going to another country was still a considerable adventure. Over the course of Schumann's life, things were to change, but as audiences for music continued to grow, further interest in his music was often a difficult proposition.
    As this thing called “classical music” may be likened to a bridge, to some people fall the gifts and talents to become the towers, to others the spans. Bach, Beethoven and even Chopin, are today considered the towers. Another tower was to follow him, but it would not be Robert Schumann's. For Schumann was to provide a road between Beethoven, whom he deeply admired and one of Schumann's last pupils, Johannes Brahms. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. 
Schumann's birthplace still stands in Zwickau
   Robert Schumann was born in the town of Zwickau, in a Germany that was still divided among a dozen principalities and city states. Schumann's was the state of Saxony, that comprised the districts of Wickau, Leipzig-Halle and Dresden. Leipzig recall had been the home of Bach and later of Mendelssohn, and Halle had been the birthplace of Handel. The region was steeped in the legends and lore of silver mining, porcelain manufacture and the careers of a few great composers, though fewer people even then paid much attention to music.
Robert Schumann's father
    It was the age following the defeat of Napoleon, the age of song, of bel canto opera, and the age of literature called “romantic.” Schumann's father became a relatively successful publisher and bookseller, even compiled a kind of encyclopedia, the Lexicon of Saxony (Staatslexikon von Sachsen). Until the advent of digitizing technologies, selling books was a matter of how many bound volumes you could sell, and encyclopedias, dictionaries, lexicons, were all the rage in gaining for anyone who could read, a wider knowledge. We also note that the rate of literacy had been steadily advancing throughout the past 125 years, as had the leisure hours available for reading, due to the general advance of labour saving technology.
Clara Wieke Schumann 1819-1896
    There was a rising affluence among the middle classes throughout Europe. This was the class from which virtually all the great composers had and would spring. The new audience was still topped by the nobility, who had won perhaps a momentary reprieve from history through the defeat of Napoleon, but who would face other challenges in 1848 and later in the 1870's and well beyond. The wider audience was made up of the middle social orders who still sought the social and cultural leadership of the nobility, who were still thought to be by nature more qualified to judge the merits of such things as music and fine art.
    One of the main reasons for this long standing prejudice in favour of the artistic opinions of nobles was that these people had far more free time to engage in such things. They had also by tradition come to represent the sources of income for many aspiring artists. As we have seen, the nobles frequently sponsored music so as to give their lives more attention from others, usually their social, economic or political rivals. As the economics of this “art for show” wore down during the 18th century, and into the 19th, music that had formerly been the province of the nobility or of the rich, became that of the middle social orders generally; music came out of the palace and into the concert hall.

    It was during this period that the careers of three musical legends rose to public attention throughout Europe; those of Chopin, Franz Liszt and Robert Schumann's wife, Clara Wieck Schumann. Robert Schumann had been the student of Clara's father, Friedrich Wieck, with whom he'd come to study in nearby Leipzig. It was also about this time that Robert was studying law, in which he was to continue at Heidelberg. Here we have another first, and not the last, of composers who would study law. He writes his mother, "My whole life has been a struggle between Poetry and Prose, or call it Music and Law." 
   But from his study with Wieck, Robert had his first misfortune; he permanently injured his right hand, forever dashing his hopes of becoming an internationally famous concert pianist. We do not know how this happened, but some suspect it was due to some weird mechanical contraption that was supposed to exercise hand muscles. We now know that there are certain of us who seem gifted with greater strength or dexterity at the piano than others. Some have the long fingers of a Chopin, or hands capable of huge spans, like Brahms. Most of us fare somewhere in the middle, with average strength enabling us to play most of the repertoire except the works of those who would display what Clara and Brahms would later describe as mere pianistic pyrotechnics.
   Robert Schumann was fated to be the tragic hero of his own life, a largely neglected composer during his lifetime who probably suffered from some congenital physical defect that led to the symptoms we associate these days with benign brain tumours of a kind which grow without metastasising until they finally bring death to the sufferer. We do not know all the details of his life, so it is impossible to draw any firm conclusions. Suffice it to say that Schumann worked very hard over certain years, while he was unable to work for many other years, a pattern some have thought represented a bi-polar personality. By the end of his struggles he didn't care much for his own music at all and due to the tinnitus he also suffered, found it unbearable to hear any music. We owe what we have of him, largely to the lifelong efforts of his wife, Clara and to Johannes Brahms and others who would see in Schumann the bridge from themselves back to Beethoven and the rest of the “classic” composers of their own day.

Song of Love (1947)

    As a public service (not sure how long any of these things will be on-line, but for the time being they are), I have decided to present the links to all 13 parts of the motion picture that was made to “romanticise” the life of Robert Schumann. Of course I have difficulties with many things in this picture. Schumann was 23 years older and Clara was 14 years older than Brahms. Though many have suggested some “romantic” connection between Clara and Johannes, we are among the doubters. Likewise the picture depicts Schumann's “madness” as a delusion, whereas it is more likely that for the final months of his life Schumann was quite likely literally completely reduced to a state devoid of effective consciousness of any kind. There is a hint in the picture that Schumann had had a sister who had suffered a similar fate. We do not know if this was true or not. Some things about us are mysteries to ourselves and others even in this day and age where everything is assumed to be merely matters of blind electro-chemical processes.
    This motion picture, MGM's Song of Love (1947), starring Katharine Hepburn, Paul Henreid, Robert Walker, and Leo G. Carroll, was directed by Clarence Brown.  You will see Schumann and his wife Clara, Brahms and Liszt all portrayed.  You will also hear music by these others as well as Schumann's music.
The bushed composers, Schumann and Berlioz
     Now after all that, I'm sure more people would like to hear something like a great masterpiece by Robert Schumann. I've chosen the symphony that would go down as his third, subtitled Rhenish, his Op. 97. It was his last in this genre composed in 1850, six years before his death and three years before he was to meet the young Brahms.
    The version I have selected was arranged by Gustav Mahler who re-scored all four Schumann symphonies. Note also that this work is in five movements, which would become normal for Mahler. Those familiar with the music will doubtless find nothing much has been changed, that the structure has been greatly lightened and liberated and that the results are great improvements. Here then is Robert Schumann's Symphony #3 in E Flat "Rhenish" Op. 97.  The performance is by the Philharmonia Orchestra
Carlo Maria Giulini conducting.  A studio recording, London, 3-4.VI.1958

1. Lebhaft
2. Scherzo: Sehr mäßig
3. Nicht schnell
4. Feierlich
5. Lebhaft


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