The complicated musical genius of Robert Schumann, by Steven Isserlis

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Schumann remains one of the most misunderstood of all composers. Cellist and Schumann devotee Steven Isserlis peers behind the myths

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‘To him, above all, belongs my heart, I love him like an honoured friend, to him I owe my most beautiful hours - I lament deeply for him, too, for the shadows of sadness - the sorrow we feel in his songs - fell ever more thickly upon him…What do we know of his inner  being, what can we know, there, where reason ceases and madness begins?’

Edwin Fischer’s poetic words speak to all lovers of Schumann the composer and the man. Schumann does feel like an intimate friend, perhaps more so than any other composer. Strange that one can feel so close to a man who has been dead for over 150 years and who, in his lifetime, was famously taciturn and shy; but through his music Schumann confesses to us his deepest secrets – treats us, the listeners, as trusted companions in all his moods. He is perhaps the most autobiographical of all composers, taking us into his confidence in a way that earlier composers would have considered unthinkable. But despite this openness, there are many facets of Schumann the man and the musician that I feel are frequently misunderstood. Even Fischer’s words, affectionate though they are, seem to me a bit ambiguous.

Certainly, shadows fell upon Schumann, and there is great sadness in some of his later music, as in his early works; but there is also joy, humour, hope. It is significant that Schumann tended not to compose during his periods of depression; he would wait until he felt better – or use music as a path back to health. To describe any of his works as the product of madness, thus implying that he was not in full control of the composing process, is misleading. The most serious result of this misconception is that only about a third of Schumann’s works are heard regularly in today’s concert halls; it is probably fair to say that he is the most under-valued of the great composers.

Schumann and the past

The view of Schumann as the embodiment of Romanticism bypasses his deep knowledge of the music and traditions of the past. Like all truly innovatory music, his has strong roots in the world of his predecessors. In so many of Schumann’s major works – the symphonies, for instance, and much of the chamber music – one can hear how steeped he was in the great German Classical traditions, influenced particularly by Handel, Beethoven, Schubert and his own scholarly contemporary and friend, Mendelssohn. His debt to Bach is obvious, too: his many fugues, including a set on the name Bach, pay open tribute to the great master. But other works, particularly some of the later ones, look back even further. The Mass in C minor, Op 147, and the Requiem, Op 148, for instance, owe something of their spirit to that of early church music, the works of Palestrina and others, whose music he enjoyed conducting with his choir in Dresden. Listening to these gravely beautiful late works, one would be hard put to identify their creator as the composer of Carnaval, Dichterliebe – or indeed the piano or chamber music he was writing in the same years.

And then there are the choral ballades of 1851-53 – “Des Sängers Fluch” (“The Singer’s Curse”), et al. Strange to think of Schumann as Wagner’s fellow traveller – the two men could hardly have been more different in every way; but there is a definite link here, in these powerfully nationalistic compositions based on German legends. One can hear further evidence of Schumann’s fascination with the world of ancient myth in other works, too – in songs such as “Der Handschuh”, Op 87 (set to Schiller’s text), or even (I believe) in the echoes of troubadour-like melodies in the Fourth Symphony.

Schumann and the future

It is striking – and brings joy to the heart of devoted Schumaniacs the world over – to observe how composers from almost every national movement have revered Schumann. Even those who tended to reject Beethoven (and detested Brahms) – Debussy, Ravel, Tchaikovsky and Britten, for instance – loved Schumann. In our own day, countless composers have paid tribute to him in their compositions – surely more than to any other composer.

Why should this be? My explanation is that Schumann, for all his classical discipline, seems to compose without rules. If in one work he is writing in (apparently) conservative forms, in the next he will be writing stream-of-consciousness music that takes us to realms undreamt of by other composers of his time. Take, as one example, the opening of the slow movement of the First Piano Trio, Op 63: in this extraordinary passage, we are led into the world of depression, an eerie room without a window of hope (and yet suffused with extraordinary beauty).

Or the Gesänge der Frühe, Op 133, for solo piano: Schumann wrote of these pieces that they “describe the emotions on the approach and rise of morning, though more as feelings than painting”. To our ears they sound futuristic – Mahlerian or beyond. How must they have sounded to his contemporaries? No wonder Clara never performed them in public. Even when in his later music Schumann chose to write within classical disciplines, there is always experimentation hidden just beneath the surface. His restless spirit is constantly searching, probing, finding – or needing – new ways to express his strange inner life. Perhaps more than any other composer, Schumann can take us into the land of dreams.

Schumann and children

Although many composers had written music for children, Schumann was perhaps the first truly to enter the minds, the souls, of the young, sometimes portraying, sometimes reliving, the experience of being a child. Indeed, Cyril Scott went so far as to suggest that Schumann’s music for youth had affected the whole attitude of Germans to children. The Album for the Young for piano is the most famous example of his writing for (rather than about) children, but there is also a Lieder-album for the Young, three Kindersonaten for piano and so on; in all of them, he combines humour, tenderness and a mastery that ensures that he is never talking down to his young audience or performer. Where he portrays childhood from the standpoint of adulthood (as in Kinderszenen), it is with a deep understanding of the joy and sadness of youth.

Schumann the writer

The young Schumann was perhaps the most influential – and certainly the most perceptive – critic of his day. In fact, his background was literary rather than musical – although one might not guess it from this extract from a story written in Schumann’s late teens:

“She rushed through the cemetery, bare-breasted and with a long white nightgown carelessly dangling from her body, to read an inscription on the gravestone. ‘Here lies a broken heart.’ Smiling, she sat down on the grave. Now a skeleton…sat next to her and threw its arm around her. ‘You want a kiss,’ she said shyly. The skeleton laughed, gave her an icy kiss, and left. ‘I must have sinned,’ she cried out, and went into the church, where the skeleton was sitting at the organ, playing a waltz.”

Hmm…even more embarrassing than his music written around the same time (such as the early Piano Quartet in C minor – not exactly a masterpiece). But from those rather less-than-promising beginnings, he quickly developed a literary style which, while still somewhat strange to our eyes, had in its time (and still has, to a certain extent) a powerful effect. His famous first review, of Chopin’s variations on Mozart’s “Là ci darem la mano”, gives us a strong taste:

“Eusebius quietly opened the door the other day. You know the ironic smile on his pale face, with which he invites attention. I was sitting at the piano with Florestan. As you know, he is one of those rare musical personalities who seem to anticipate everything that is new, extraordinary, and meant for the future. But today he was in for a surprise. Eusebius showed us a piece of music and exclaimed: ‘Hats off, gentlemen, a genius’.”

I wonder how the editor of Gramophone would react to a critic who turned in that sort of review today? With a kindly lecture on the perils of drink, perhaps. But that article transformed Chopin’s reputation in the German-speaking world. Schumann’s perspicacity is all the more striking since these early variations of Chopin’s give the average listener little clue of what was to come in his mature works. Similarly impressive is the mammoth review he gave Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, working only from Liszt’s piano arrangement. His writings about lesser composers are instructive, too – always kind, but firm, gently pointing out their failings and encouraging them to do better. Interesting to remember, also, that at this stage Schumann’s own music was almost totally unknown. Having heard present-day composers discussing their more successful colleagues’ works, I can attest that, unless basic human nature has changed considerably over the years, Schumann’s generosity is – well, unusual!

Schumann’s literary style – and the style of writers he loved – carries over into his music in a unique way. Carnaval is heavily influenced by the fantastic writings of Jean-Paul, Kreisleriana based on a literary invention of ETA Hoffmann – and so on. Of course, those connections are all well known today; but think back to how far that literary/musical sensibility is from virtually any other music being written at that time (the mid- to late-1830s) and the freshness of Schumann’s genius shines out anew.

Relationships with his inner circle

A complicated man, Schumann’s relationships with his closest friends were often deeply tangled. His musical father-figure, Clara’s father Friedrich Wieck, turned sour beyond measure when the young couple became engaged (although they still moved to Dresden, where Wieck was then living, in 1845 – curious). Another father- (or at least older-brother) figure was Mendelssohn, only a year older than Schumann, but light years ahead in terms of success and confidence. “He is a real God,” Schumann wrote of his older colleague, employer and champion.

But there were tensions, too. One wonders if Mendelssohn – who, like many contemporaries, first encountered Schumann as a critic – ever fully appreciated the extent of Schumann’s genius? One gets the distinct impression that both composers would have been fairly astonished to learn that Schumann’s star rides somewhat higher these days than Mendelssohn’s. But nevertheless Schumann was loyally devoted, devastated by Mendelssohn’s tragically early death, and delighted when Clara named the Schumanns’ last child (whom Robert was never to see) Felix, after the man they both revered.

The famous Robert/Clara/Brahms triangle has been discussed enough. Sometimes overlooked, though, is the short time-span of the friendship between the two men. They met only five months before Schumann was taken to the asylum. So it is all the more poignant to read about how important Brahms became to his former mentor, both personally and musically. He was one of the very few to visit him in the asylum, and he kept Schumann up to date with his latest compositions – a lifeline for the poor forgotten ghost of a composer.

Schumann’s influence on Brahms is fascinating, too. The music that Brahms played to the Schumanns during their momentous first meeting was almost completely unlike the music for which he is now most famous. It was wild, full of demonic fantasy – adolescent, even (albeit an adolescent touched with extraordinary genius). Later, having endlessly studied the contents of Schumann’s huge library of music from the past, Brahms was to metamorphose from the comparatively unbridled Romantic into the great musical classicist of the second half of the 19th century.

One wonders, too, whether it was not just Schumann’s library, but rather his tragic fate, and the deep hurt that this caused Brahms on so many levels, that caused this transformation. Few of Brahms’s works written after Schumann’s death have that distinctly “unfinished” feel that is so typical of Schumann. Gone too, for the most part, are the personal messages to close friends, in the form of musical quotations; his music grows a beard, as it were, the romanticism kept firmly in check, strongly as one feels it in the underlying emotional world. It is as if the mature Brahms should have lived before the mature Schumann, not the other way round – an intriguing curiosity of musical history.

Robert and Clara

Well, this relationship is too complicated to be portrayed now with any real authority. The way it is often depicted, however – as the ideal romantic marriage – is clearly wrong. The tensions were enormous. Clara’s ambition and her understandable frustration with her role as Robert’s assistant and as housewife/mother were certainly factors in the marital tension. But Robert, gentle soul though he was, was also extremely difficult and at times passive-aggressive. Furthermore, he refused to share his new compositional projects with his former muse; how hurtful that must have been to Clara! It is clear that there were increasing differences between them.

Clara’s compositions, lovely though some of them are, firmly inhabit the world of Mendelssohn; Robert’s hail from a different planet – or rather, from many different planets. Her refusal to perform her husband’s late music, and her (sometimes successful) attempts to destroy some of it says it all, really.

In fact, they seem to have been worlds apart by the end of their time together. Their sex life seems to have been still fairly lively (according to Schumann’s perhaps rather-too-much-information-packed diaries); but emotionally one gets the impression almost of desperation between them. With Hollywood-like irony, just around the time that Brahms first appeared on the scene, Schumann had been reading Siebenkas by Jean-Paul, a novel in which a man flees from an unhappy marriage, leaving a more compatible friend to take his place. Arriving at the asylum in Endenich in 1854, Schumann informed the doctor that his first wife was dead; assured that he had only one wife, and that she was stillvery much alive, he apparently “laughed heartily”. All very strange.I have to confess to being less than a devoted fan of Clara’s – not just because she destroyed Schumann’s penultimate work, the Five Romances for cello and piano, but because of her (as I see it) extreme coldness to the children. The letter she wrote to her two eldest daughters the day after Schumann’s death is not exactly a lesson in sensitivity: “He was a wonderful person – may you, who loved him so dearly, become worthy of such a father; may you, Elise, change your way of being, may you both try to make me as happy as possible.” Not the kindest way to break tragic news. It was all so long ago, though. It is impossible to understand all the complexities of these personalities and their interactions with each other.

So why, then, does it matter? Why do we care so much about Schumann – not just the composer, but also the man and his fate? Because he makes us care. He makes us care by drawing us in through his music, inviting us to understand, to love him. As he himself put it: “Love me well…I ask for much, because I give much.”

Explore Schumann's life and music...

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This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of Gramophone. To subscribe to Gramophone, visit:

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