Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Triumph of Schumann

[Editor’s Note.—The following excellent article is selected from a critical discussion of the work of Robert Schumann by the great Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg.  It is taken from one of many articles published to “The Century Library of Music,” an excellent twenty-volume collection of assays and pianoforte pieces edited by I.J. Paderewski.]

Some years ago a young lady was sitting at a piano, singing, on board a steamer on the coast of Norway.  When she paused, a stranger stepped up to her, introducing himself as a lover of music.  They fell into conversation and had not talked long when the stranger exclaimed, “You love Schumann?  Then we are friends!” and reached her his hand.
                This is characteristic as illustrating the intimate quality in Schumann’s art.  To meet in a quiet comprehension of the master during a mysterious tête-à-tête at a piano—that is genuinely Schumannesque; to swear by his banner in associations and debating clubs, or amid the glare of festal splendor—that is decidedly non-Schumannesque.  Schumann has never ostentatiously summoned any body of adherents.  He has been a comet without a tail, but for all that one of the most remarkable comets in the firmament of art.  His worshippers have always been “the single ones.”  There is something in them of the character of the sensitive mimosa, and they are so unhappily apt to hide themselves and their admiration under the leaves of the “Blue Flower” of romanticism that it would seem a hopeless undertaking ever to gather them into a closed phalanx, like, for instance, that of the Wagnerians.  Schumann has made his way without any other propaganda than that which lies in his works; his progress has, therefore, been slow, but for that reason the more secure.  Without attempting by artificial means to anticipate the future, he lived an labored in accordance with his own principle:  “Only become an ever greater artist and all things will come to you of their own accord."
                That this principle was a sound one has been confirmed by the present generation, by whom Schumann’s name is known and loved, even to the remotest regions of the civilized world.  It is not to be denied, however, that the best years of his artistic activity were passed before the world knew his greatness, and when recognition at last began to come, Schumann’s strength was broken.  Of this melancholy fact I received a vivid impression when, in the year 1883, I called upon his famous wife, Clara Schumann, in Frankfort-on-the-Main.  I fancied she would be pleased to hear of her husband’s popularity in so distant a region as my native country—Norway, but in this I was mistaken.  Her countenance darkened as she answered dismally, “Yes, now!
                The influence which Schumann’s art has exercised and is exercising in modern music cannot be overestimated.  In conjunction with Chopin and Liszt, he dominates at this time the whole literature of the piano, while the piano compositions of his great contemporary, Mendelssohn, which were once exalted at Mendelssohn’s expense, seem to be vanishing from the concert program.  In conjunction with his predecessor, Franz Schubert, and in a higher degree than any contemporary—not even Robert Franz excepted—he pervades the literature of the musical “romance,” while even here Mendelssohn is relegated ad acta.  What a strange retribution of fate!  It is the old story of Nemesis.  Mendelssohn received, as it were, more than his due of admiration in advance; Schumann, less than his due.  Posterity balanced their accounts, but, in my opinion, it has, in its demands for justice, identified itself so completely with Schumann and his cause that Mendelssohn has been unfairly treated or directly wronged.  This is true, however, only as regards the piano and the musical romance; in orchestral compositions Mendelssohn still retains his position, while Schumann has taken a place at his side as his equal.
                It will be remembered that in the year 1879 an article appeared in the Bayreuth Blätter, entitled, “Concerning Schumann’s Music,”  signed Joseph Rubinstein, but (this is an open secret) unquestionably inspired, and probably more than inspired, by no less a man than Richard Wagner.  The style, the tone, as well as the inconsiderate audacity with which the writer hurled forth his taunts, the public recognized as truly Wagnerian and promptly designated the Bayreuth master as the one who must bear the responsibility of its authorship, in spite of the fact that he had attempted to disguise himself by simpler constructions than those which we recognize as his signed writings.  In this incredible production  Schumann’s art is by all possible and impossible means reduced to absurdity.  Not a shred of honor is left to it.  The very greatest qualities of the master—his glowing fancy and his lofty lyrical flights—are dragged down into the dirt, and described as the most monstrous conventionality.  His orchestral music, his piano compositions, his songs, are all treated with the same contempt.  One does not know which ought to be the greater object of astonishment, the man who did put his name to the pamphlet or the man who did not.  The former is said to have been one of Wagner’s piano lackeys, who was contemptible enough to allow himself to be used as a screen.  There is nothing more to be said of him except that he will never attain the frame of a Herostratos.
                Upon Wagner’s relation to Schumann, however, this article throws so much interesting light that it cannot be overlooked.  Of course, Wagner as a man is here left out of consideration; but from out of the depth of my admiration for Wagner the artist I can only affirm that he was as one-sided as he was great.
                Schumann has indeed raised a most beautiful monument to himself in his unprejudiced judgment of all that was valuable among his surroundings.  I need only refer to his introduction into the musical world of such names as Berlioz, Chopin, Brahms, Gade, etc.  We find him in his youth so busily occupied in clearing the way for others that we are left to wonder how, at the same time, he found it possible to develop his own soul as he must have done in the first great creative period of his life, which, however, was chiefly devoted to piano music.  What a new and original spirit!  What wealth, what depth, what poetry, in these compositions!  The fantasia in C major, with its daring flight and its hidden undertone for him who listens secretly (fur den derheimlich lauscht), as the motto declares; the F sharp minor sonata, with its romantic enthusiasm and its burlesque abandon; Kreisleriana, the Carnaval, Davidsbundlertanze, Novellettes—only to name a few of his principal works—what a world of beauty, what intensity of emotional life, is hidden in these!  And what bewitching harmony—out of the very soul of the piano—for him who is able to interpret, for him who will hear!  But the above-mentioned Bayreuth hireling has not taunts enough for Schumann’s piano music, which he finds to be written in a certain virtuoso style that is absolutely false and on the surface.  “The difficult passages in Schumann,”  he says, “are effective only when, as is mostly the case, they are brought out obscurely and blurred.”
Enjoy KonstantinSoukhovetski's performance of Schumann's Sonata F sharp minor at the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Master Competition, 2011:

                A poor witticism!  And then this talk about virtuoso style, falseness and objectiveness in Schumann’s piano-phrasing!  Can anything more unjust be imagined?  For one ought to emphasize his moderation in his use of virtuoso methods, as compared, for instance, with Liszt or Chopin.  To accuse him of unadaptability for the piano amounts, of course, to a denial of familiarity with the piano; but it is a fact well known to every genuine piano-player that Schumann could not have written a single one of his may piano compositions without the most intimate familiarity with the subtlest secrets of that instrument.  Nor need anyone be told that he was a most admirable player.  One of the best friends of Schumann’s youth, the late Ernst Ferdinand Wenzel, teacher at the Leipsig Conservatory, with whom I often talked about the master, use to recall with a sad pleasure the many evenings in the olden time, when he would sit at twilight in the corner of the sofa in Schumann’s den and listen to his glorious playing.
                The attempt to turn the master’s greatest and most obvious merits into defects is such sharp practice that one would be justified in attribution to its author an acquaintance of that “jurisprudence” which he flings into Schumann’s face, with reproaches for having devoted too much time to it at the expense of his music.  However much energy and infernal ingenuity in the invention of charges, one may be disposed to concede to the writer, here, in the question of the technic of the piano—he has allowed his zeal to run away to such an extent that he has forgotten to cover himself.  In wishing to hit Schumann he hits himself.  He openly betrays how destitute he himself is of any idea of the technic of the piano.  Wagner on other occasions respected, expressed, as is well known, a very different opinion of Schumann’s piano compositions, of which he always spoke with warmest admiration, and in the appreciation of which he was an enthusiast and powerful pioneer.  Liszt advocated Schumann’s claims at a time when no one else ventured to do it.  Wagner, on the contrary, tried to make an end of him long after his death, when his reputation was a firmly established as that of Wagner himself.  If this matter concerned Wagner only as an individual, I should not undertake to discuss it in an article on Schumann.  But it concerns, in my opinion, in an equal degree, Wagner the artist.  It is possible that Wagner the individual would not recognize Schumann’s greatness; but it is absolutely certain that Wagner the artist could not recognize it.  His effort to dethrone Schumann was a total failure, for the simple reason that it was not feasible.  Schumann stands where he stood, impregnable—as does Wagner.
                A survey of Schumann’s art will disclose the fact that, when emerged from his youth and early manhood, he was no longer able, as it seems, to think his own thought with consistency to the end.  He was afraid of himself.  It was as if he did not dare to acknowledge the results of the enthusiasm of his youth.  Thus it happens that he frequently sought shelter in the world of Mendelssohn’s ideas.  From the moment he did this he passed his zenith; his soul was sick; he was doomed long before the visible symptoms of insanity set in.  It is therefore a futile labor to seek the real Schumann in his latest works, as one may do in the cases of Beethoven and Wagner.  This is most obvious if we examine his latest choral compositions.  But before doing this we have, happily, the satisfaction of cataloging as masterpieces of imperishable worth a series of orchestral compositions, and, foremost among these, his four symphonies.  Who has not been carried away by the youthful freshness of the symphony in B flat major; by the grand form and impulse of the C major symphony, and its wonderful adagio with the heaven-scaling altitudes of the violins; by the E flat major symphony, with its mystically medieval E flat minor movement Schumann is said to have imagined here a procession entering Cologne Cathedral, and finally, who has not marveled at the conception of the D minor symphony, with its tragic exaltation and magnificent unity.
Enjoy David Zinman conducting the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich in Schumann's Symphony in B-flat Major:

                Much is being whispered in corners about the attitude of Schumann and Mendelssohn toward each other.  One thing is, however, likely to impress the unprejudiced observer as being curious, viz., that Schumann’s writings furnish numerous and striking evidences of his boundless admiration for Mendelssohn, while the latter in his many letters does not once mention him or his art.  This cannot be due to accident.  Whether Mendelssohn was really silent, or whether the editor of his letters, out of regard for his memory, has chosen to omit all references to Schumann, is of slight consequence.  This, however, is beyond dispute; his silence speaks, and we of posterity have the right to draw our inferences from this silence.  We arrive at the conclusion that here we have the clue to a judgment of the opinions which the two masters entertained of each other.
                Of petty envy on Mendelssohn’s part there can be no suspicion.  He was of too pure and noble a character to be animated by such a sentiment, and, moreover, his fame was too great and too well established in comparison with Schumann’s.  But his horizon was too contracted to enable him to see Schumann as the man he was.  How perfectly comprehensible!  He had his forte in clear delineation, in classical harmony, and where Schumann fell short of his requirements in this respect, his honesty forbade him to feign a recognition which he could not candidly grant.
                The chief impediment to Schumann’s popularity was his total lack of that faculty of direct communication which is absolutely indispensable to the making of a good conductor of a beloved teacher.  I fancy, however, that he troubled himself very little about this.  In fact he was too much of a dreamer.  Proofs are not wanting that he actually took pride in his unpopularity.  Thus in a letter to his mother he writes:  “I should not even wish to be understood by all.”  He need give himself no anxiety on that score.  He is too profound, too subjective, too introspective to appeal to the multitude.

                If there is anything at all that Schumann has written which has become, and which has deserved to become world literature, it is surely his songs.  All civilized nations have made them their own.  And there is probably in our day scarcely a youth interested in music to whom they are not, in one way or another, interwoven with his most intimate ideals.  Schumann is the poet, contrasting in this respect with his great successor, Brahms, who is primarily a musician, even in his songs.
                With Schumann the poetic conception plays the leading part to such an extent that musical considerations technically important are subordinated, if not entirely neglected.  For all that even those of his songs  which this is true exert the same magic fascination.  What I particularly have in mind is his great demand upon the compass of the voice.  It is often no easy thing to determine whether the song is intended for a soprano or alto, for he ranges frequently in the same song from the lowest to the highest register.  Several of his most glorious songs begin in the deepest pitch and gradually rise to the highest, so that the same singer can rarely master  both.  Schumann, to be sure, occasionally tries to obviate his difficulty by adding a melody of lower pitch, which he then indicates by smaller notes placed under the melody of the original conception.  But how often he thereby spoils his most beautiful flights, his most inspired climaxes!  Two instances among many occur to me—Ich grolle nicht and Stille Thranen—for which one will scarcely ever find a singer who can do equal justice to the beginning and the end.
 Enjoy Rosana Schiavi, Soprano, and Adriana Azulay, Piano, in their performance of Schumann's "Stille Thranen"

                 Schumann failed, perhaps, of the full achievement which his rare gifts entitled us to expect, because of his openness to influences is intimately connected with that germ of early decay which prevented him from consistently pressing on to his goal.  But whatever his imperfections, he is yet one of the princes of art, a real German spirit to whom Heine’s profound words concerning Luther may well apply:
                “In him all the virtues and all the faults of the Germans are in the grandest way united; so that one may say that he personally represents the wonderful Germany.”


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