Schumann: The Faces and the Masks, by Judith Chernaik

February 4, 2019 at 10:00 pm (Book review, books, Music)

  As I write this, I am listening to Robert Schumann’s Romance for Oboe and Piano.

For about two weeks, I have been reading Judith Chernaik’s new biography of this great composer. Ron and I have been immersed in this wonderful music. In addition, I’ve been absorbed in the story of Schumann’s life. That life was a turbulent mixture of frustration, disappointment, elation, and deep love. And through all of it, glorious music, one piece following another, first almost exclusively for solo piano, then piano accompaniment for singers, then chamber groups and full orchestra.

Robert Schumann was born in 1810 in Zwickau, in the kingdom of Saxony, in Germany.

Robert Schumann’s birthplace, now the Robert Schumann House Museum. The author’s researches were greatly aided by the papers relating to Schumann collected and kept here.

Schumann’s exceptional musical talent having become evident early on, a teacher was found in Leipzig to take him in hand. This was the German pianist Friederich Wieck. Wieck believed that Schumann had ahead of him a great career as a concert pianist. Unfortunately, while experimenting with a device to strengthen his fingers, he injured himself irrevocably. He could still play, but his opportunity to ascend to the concert stage was gone.

(Although Chernaik includes this story in her book, there are those who believe that the problem with Schumann’s hand may have had another cause. Click here for more on this article from the WQXR blog.)

Despite this setback, Schumann continued his studies with Wieck, concentrating more now on composing. Wieck had a daughter Clara who was an extremely talented musician. She began giving concerts while she was still a child. As she entered adolescence, her gifts became even more pronounced. She and Schumann were inevitably thrown together on frequent occasions. He was nine years her senior.

Clara  was not only prodigiously gifted but remarkably independent. She was her own person, free from the usual restraints suffered by young girls. She was already acclaimed as an artist; she moved in sophisticated circles in Paris and Vienna. As a child, she was passionate and willful, with a wild temper and strong opinions.

Clara and Schumann fell in love. When Clara turned sixteen, they informed her father of their wish to be married. To their shock and dismay, he opposed the idea. In fact, he flat out forbade the union. Clara was a minor; despite her vaunted independence, she could not marry without her father’s consent. For four years he did everything he could to place obstacles in the way of their plans. (Meanwhile, at her father’s behest, Clara was giving concerts all over Europe, all the while earning good money.) Ultimately, Robert and Clara had to go to court and sue for the right to marry. This they did, finally becoming husband and wife on September 12, 1840.

It should be noted that while all this was  going on, both Robert and Clara were making strides creatively. She was constantly concertizing as well as  composing; he was composing as well as writing for and editing the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik (The New Journal for Music) which he had founded in 1834.

The first half of the biography is taken up with this crisis and its felicitous albeit hard won resolution. Incurable romantic  that I am, I was so outraged by Friedrich Wieck’s obstinacy and cruelty that I could barely contain myself. When the couple were finally wed, I cheered out loud!

Robert and Clara Schumann, 1847

As a married couple, Robert and Clara continued their relentless work of giving concerts, composing music, writing and reviewing the works of other composers, and having musical evenings in their home. Add to that the children: they just kept coming;

Six of the Schumann offspring; a seventh, older daughter Julie, was living with Clara’s mother at the time this photograph was taken. An eighth, Emil, died at sixteen months in 1847.

Clara was the more famous of the two during their lifetimes, but Robert had many advocates in the musical community. Among them were his close friend Felix Mendelssohn and the fiery pianist and composer Franz Liszt. But his greatest champion was Clara.

Plagued by ill health all his life, Schumann was at length placed in Endenich Asylum near the city of Bonn. One of his chief consolations at that time was to go into Bonn (accompanied by an attendant) and stare up at the statue of the city’s most famous son, Ludwig van Beethoven. After two excruciating years at Endenich, Robert Schumann died. The year was 1956; he was 46 years old.

Clara received constant support from other musicians during this extremely stressful time. One was the gifted young violinist Joseph Joachim. The other was a youth of whom great things were expected. His name was Johannes Brahms.

Johannes Brahms, age 20

The exact nature of the relationship between Clara and Brahms has been an  endless subject of speculation down through the years. One thing is certain: they both worked tirelessly to keep Schumann’s music before the public and to win for him the recognition he deserved. In 1877, Clara signed a contract with  publisher for a thirty-one part edition of Robert Schumann’s Collected Works. Brahms was a great help to her in this endeavor. The resulting volumes have been reprinted on numerous occasions. And Judith Chernaik divulges this welcome news:

A new scholarly multi-volume Urtext edition of the collected works, collating all the early publications, Schumann’s autograph scores, and manuscript drafts is close to completion.

Chernaik concludes with this statement:

The works contained in these volumes are Schumann’s enduring gift to the world.

Here is a large helping of that gift:

 

 

The lovely Traumerei was one of Vladimir Horowitz’s favorite encore pieces. I love the shots of the audience in this video; they are so deeply moved.

 

Schumann’s mighty Second Symphony. The sadness of the third movement is heartrending, yet the finale blazes forth in triumph! (Ron and I both have a special love for this work.)

 

Paradise and the Peri is a little known work of Schumann’s, technically termed a secular oratorio. I love  these few minutes of it:

 

Finally, the Piano Concerto in A minor.  As with all of his piano music, Schumann composed this with Clara in mind. Judith Chernaik says of this piece:

It remains to this day a joyful expression of love between a supremely gifted composer and an artist of the first rank, delighting listeners at the time and ever since.

This was among a handful of works that, many years ago. first taught me to love classical music:

 

 

 

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