Schumann had begun his career as a revolutionary Romantic, or Romantic revolutionist: no other Romantic, not even Chopin, is comparable to him in youthfulness and in originality. In common with Chopin, he used the piano exclusively as the medium for the expression of his, ‘storm and stress’ up to his Opus 23. Like Chopin, he was able to say at the piano all that he had in his heart. At the same time, he was able to use his new, virtuoso—and much more than merely virtuoso—piano style as a protest against the empty, shallow, brilliant, drawing room virtuosity which, after Hummel and Weber, was making a great show in his period, along with the activity of really great virtuosi like Liszt or Henselt. This new, bold, original piano music adopted the titles and forms of études, toccatas, intermezzi, variations, and dances; but the true title for them all would be the one that was given to only a few: fantasies for the piano—Kreisleriana, Jean Pauliana, Eichendorffiana in music. It is only logical that, after twenty-three opera for the piano, the twenty-fourth should blossom forth into a song cycle. The discussion, however, of this fusion of poetry and piano music characteristic of Schumann, this ‘poetic’ piano music and its forms, must be reserved for a special chapter [see section II below].
To begin with the three quartets: they have not become ‘classics’ of quartet literature. They are written after Beethoven, as is shown by the slow movement in each. That in the first is a direct echo of the Adagio of the Ninth Symphony. That in the second—Andante, quasi Variazioni—is like a variation of the Adagio ma non troppo of Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 127; even the key corresponds. Similarly, the Adagio molto of the Third Quartet is also a fully developed slow movement—though more passionate, more excited, more agitated than any in Haydn, Mozart, or even Beethoven.
The same thing applies to the Schumann type of symphony. It becomes more lively, youthful, ‘Romantic’ than Mendelssohn’s as it departs further from the Classical pattern. Like Mendelssohn’s two great symphonies, Schumann’s First Symphony, in B-flat major, is descended from Beethoven’s Pastoral. Schumann called this composition of his the Springtime Symphony and originally gave the movements the following headings: 1. The Beginning of Spring (Andante), 2. Evening (Larghetto), 3. Merry Play (Scherzo), and 4. Spring in Bloom (Allegro animato e grazioso). The impulse to compose this work had come from a poem by Adolf Bottger. But it is significant that Schumann finally suppressed those headings, and that only a rhythmic suggestion of the poem was left, namely of its last line: ‘Now Spring is blooming in the vale’ in the principal motif of the first movement. This Springtime Symphony has much less program, much less ‘painting,’ than does Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony if one does not take the use of the triangle in the first movement as a symbol of that ‘Awakening of Spring,’ or interpret the horn call and the flute cadenza in the Finale naturalistically. Everything has become an ‘expression of feeling’; the poetical stimulus has been transfigured and subjected to the laws of symphonic form.
The most characteristic symphonic work of Schumann’s is his Fourth Symphony, Op. 120, in D minor, which, although reworked and reorchestrated in 1851, actually originated only a few months after the First, in the summer of 1841, and really must be counted as the Second. It joins together five movements—Introduction, Allegro, Romanze, Scherzo, and Finale—into an uninterrupted whole; and, quite logically, in its original form of 1841 it bore the title Symphonic Fantasy. This unity is not merely an external feature, for all the movements are developed from melodic seeds that are given in the Introduction; they are blossoms of various colors springing from the same bush. Here again Schumann, after his usual manner, concealed the poetic incentive for this work, and gave only a possible hint in the guitar accompaniment of the Romanze. He did not wish to be more clear than that: the music buries the ‘program’ in mysterious depths. We here stand before a new form of the symphony—one possessed of a thematic homogeneity which Beethoven had felt no need of, although this feature perhaps goes back to the ‘reminiscences’ in the Finale of the Ninth Symphony.
Romantic disintegration of Classical structure is found also in one of the most beautiful and most compellingly lovable of all Schumann’s works, his Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54, the first movement written in May, 1841, the last two in the summer of 1845. We are here not dealing with Schumann’s relationship to the problem of virtuosity. Instead, we are here concerned with the cooperation of two forces—piano and orchestra—which no longer displays the pure equilibrium that it did with Mozart, nor the dramatic give-and-take that it did with Beethoven. The soloist now is carried, supported, and caressed by the orchestra. In the relative importance of the three movements there prevails a new subjectivity; for the Intermezzo, to which Beethoven’s slow movement had shrunk, breathes an intimacy which the heroic Beethoven would never have permitted himself.
Mannerism is a part of the diagnosis of the pathological aspect of the Romantic movement. In earlier centuries copying—even the weaker sort of copying—was a part of the craft; in the new century the heightened conception of the artist demanded ever new creative effort. Fortunate was the man who, like Wagner, Verdi, or Brahms, was equal to this effort, and in his own work increased in stature. Schumann was not such a person. One may say that his real tragedy lay in the fact that he disintegrated in the attempt to do as the ‘great ones’ had done—to become universal. The attacks of insanity are but an outward symbol of this tragedy, a typically Romantic fate. Schumann is a representative of eternal adolescence, of enthusiastic intimacy; the task of becoming a man, in the creative sense, weighed too heavily upon him. Liszt, in a letter to Heinrich Heine on April 15, 1838, understood very well the split in his generation when he said that all the artists of his time were ‘very badly situated’ between the past and the future. ‘The century is ill.’ Schumann began as a champion of the future; in establishing a connection with the past he collapsed. But Schumann as a young man did not as yet know anything of the end in store for him. With this youthful Schumann, who is ‘immortal,’ we shall be concerned in the chapter on piano music [see section III below]. Had Schumann never passed his thirty-fifth birthday, he would have been the Shelley of music, the star of youth most resplendently gleaming.
In the matter of texts, Schumann began where Schubert had left off, with Heine. The great German poet who stands in the midst of Schubert’s work, Goethe, contributed only a few passages from the West-östlicher Divan and—in Schumann’s later, brooding years—the songs from Wilhelm Meister. There was a new generation of poets, filled with a somewhat more penetrating conception of the Romantic era, who kindled Schumann’s ardor: Joseph von Eichendorff, with his original feeling for everything natural, full of the secrets of night; the Swabian Justinus Kerner, a mixture of simplicity and mysticism; the fine and sensitive Adalbert von Chamisso.
Schumann loved cycles. Often—as in the Heine song-sequence, Op. 24 —the connection is as little manifest as in the Carnaval or the Kreisleriana piano cycles; nevertheless, it is perceptible in the relation between the keys and in the contrasts. Contrast often permits Schumann to achieve epigrammatic brevity, which is at once extreme tension and fulfillment. Schumann set to music one of Heine’s ironic quatrains (Op. 24, No. 8), with prelude and repetition of the emphatic question at the end, in eleven measures. It requires no indication of the manner of delivery, so perfect is the musical investiture of the word. The next cycle, Myrthen, Op. 25, is marked by a ‘dedication’ and an epilogue as a gift for his ‘beloved bride’ Clara Wieck. This cycle contains no less than twenty-six numbers, by various poets—Goethe, Rückert, Byron, Moore, Heine, Burns, and Mosen. It is kaleidoscopic and yet unified, forming a compendium of Schumann’s complete lyrical expression, with the nocturnally tender eroticism of the ‘Nussbaum’, the mysterious exuberance of the ‘Lotosblume’, the high spirits of the second song out of the Schenkenbuch, the intimacy of the Suleika song from the West-östlicher Divan of Goethe, or the folk quality of the Highland songs of Burns.
Three ballads (Op. 31) follow, to texts by Chamisso, among which is the ‘Kartenlegerin,’ marked with a naturalism that anticipates by several decades comparable pieces of Musorgsky. This goes to show that the Romantic movement could on occasion make an about face; for Chamisso’s ‘Kartenlegerin’ is a translation from Béranger, and Béranger was indeed the anti-Romantic par excellence, full of disrespect for everything that had ‘come into being historically,’ such as the nobility and the priesthood, never inclined to flee into a corner far from the world, a lover of clarity, sobriety, and earthiness. It is characteristic that for Schumann, the apparently dreamy composer, even this opposite was not excluded.
With the years—beginning as early as 1840—his exclusiveness changed: he wished to descend to the level of the people. He composed an entire album of songs for the young (Op. 79), without at times being able to prevent its simplicity from becoming highest refinement, as for example in Mürike’s ‘Er ist’s’ (No. 23). In setting this text even Hugo Wolf can hardly be said to have excelled him. A folk quality became the hallmark also of Schumann’s later ballads and romances. Nothing is more significant of this tendency than his ‘Two Grenadiers’ (Op. 49), the text of which, in a French translation, was also set to music about the same time by Wagner. Out of Heine’s ballad Wagner made a great, operatic scene, with recitatives and orchestral tremolos, without any regard for the strophic form of the poem; and he placed the melody of the ‘Marseillaise’, which is a kind of apotheosis and climax of the song, in the accompaniment. With Schumann, it is presented by the voice; everything is simple, compelling, completely aware of the limits of the ballad.
Schumann wrote his Op. 3, the six ‘Studies for the Piano arranged from Paganini’s Caprices’, in 1832, and his Op. 10, the ‘Six Concert Etudes composed after Paganini’s Caprices,’ in 1833. He, like Liszt and Chopin, did not care particularly about mere virtuosity. Their mission, clearly realized by all three of them, was precisely that of striking at virtuosity with its own weapons. In the remarks with which Schumann introduced his ‘Studies’, Op. 3, there are a few highly characteristic sentences: ‘In no other type of musical composition do poetic liberties sound so well as in a caprice. But if, behind the lightness and the humor which should characterize it, there may also appear soundness and deeper study, then there is genuine mastery. After elimination of all external difficulties, the imagination will be able to move surely and playfully, give its work life and light and shadow, and complete with ease what in a freer representation might be lacking.’
Again, it is a matter of the mastery of a new realm of magical sound. This mastery includes, of course, not only technique but also the widening of the compass, the hinting at melodies, basses, and middle voices, the variety in tone color in the two hands, scales in double-notes, leaps, new finesse in the use of staccato and legato, etc. It includes a new realm of style, of freer expression, of more rapid alternation between intimacy and brilliance, between softness and sharpness. And corresponding to this new content, which with Schumann always had poetic backgrounds, there was also the new, kaleidoscopic form. One need only glance at some of the titles of Schumann’s piano works to become aware of his predilection for this kaleidoscopic form—the Papillons, Op. 2; the Intermezzi, Op. 4; the Impromptus on a Theme by Clara Wieck, Op. 5; the Davidsbündler Dances, Op. 6; the ‘Scènes mignonnes’ entitled Carnaval, Op. 9; the Phantasiestücke, Op. 12; the Scenes from Childhood, Op. 15; the Kreisleriana, Op. 16, the Novelletten, Op. 21, the Nachtstücke, Op. 23, etc.
Quite similarly, Schumann personified the divisions of his own ego: in Florestan, vehement, enthusiastic, fiery; in Eusebius, youthful, dreamy; in Raro, mature, calm, the master. They are the Davidsbündler, the members of David’s League, a secret order which has rallied about the great, the genuine, the progressive, and which is directed against everything shallow, merely pleasant, mediocre, Philistine. The fraternity which Liszt in his Six Essays (1835) wished to organize lived in Schumann’s soul. Florestan, Eusebius, Raro—they are all ‘Beethovenites,’ ardent admirers but not imitators of Beethoven. They seek the key to a hidden, Romantic realm of the future, upon ‘new paths.’ Taking up each of Schumann’s piano works—and not only his piano works—one can say whether it came from Florestan, Eusebius, or Raro. Sometime at the end of each movement the composer himself indicated the ‘author’ or pair of authors by initials, for example in the Davidsbündler Dances, Op. 6, whose musical motto comes from C. W.: Clara Wieck, the beloved, idolized female member of the society, later Schumann’s wife.
Even when Schumann did not avail himself of the ‘kaleidoscopic’ form and resorted to the Classical pattern of the sonata—as in his sonatas in F-sharp minor (Op. 11), G minor (Op. 22) and F minor (Op. 14)—he remained a Romantic, not led by the Beethovenian model or any other Classical model. The Allegro of the F-sharp minor sonata originally bore the title ‘Fandango,’ the wild dance of a desperate couple—Florestan and Chiara. The F-minor sonata consisted originally only of a fantastic Allegro and similarly fantastic variations, and it is questionable whether it gained much by the addition of a scherzo. In the G-minor sonata the place of the slow movement is filled by a romance of the most extreme compactness and intimacy. A fourth work of this sort, the most beautiful, dedicated to Franz Liszt, renounces the title ‘sonata’: it is the C-major Fantasy, Op. 17. As to the ‘content’ of the three movements, the original titles, later suppressed, may give some clue: ‘Ruins,’ ‘Triumphal Arch,’ ‘Constellation’. As to their Romantic intention, note the motto, four lines by Friedrich Schlegel, which Schubert had once set to music: ‘Through all the tones there sounds / Throughout the colorful earth / A gentle tone, sustained, / For him who secretly hears’. In this work a dream of the Romantics had become a reality, through the most delicate musical resources, the most carefully considered pianistic means. Here virtuosity stands completely at the service of poetic music, of musical poetry.
Dramatic is the introduction; agitated, syncopated, the figure that holds the forms together: Seated in the intimacy of the salon, Klaas in an armchair beside me, I watch you and Ingrid playing Schumann’s second violin sonata. Ingrid, you’d told me, feels a particular sympathy with Schumann’s music; when it is sombre and unsettled, as here, when it stands still and become a mere murmur, leaving you with nothing to hold onto anymore, that’s when she comes into her own: Her perceptiveness is served by a touch of the highest sensitivity. As one both passionate and introspective, dreamily inward and expressive, she responds to both strands of the composer’s character. You hadn’t been a fan of Schumann’s violin music, you’d found his tendency to stay in the lower register unattractive and his writing somehow lacking. And then Ingrid played you on the piano the violin part of his violin concerto, and you found it marvellous. As you worked on the sonatas during your previous visit, you found her depth of understanding, her affinity with the music’s psychological underpinning, so impressive that you had no choice but to raise your game. And so, challenging your preconceptions, you found the fingerings and bowings that rendered the right nuance for every note, the right inflexion for every bar, and thereby revealed the astounding expressiveness of the music. Now as I listen to you I cannot separate melody from accompaniment, and so I cue my heart to the rhythmic pattern and consider the duo constituted by the two of you.
When she fell for you, opening herself to intimacy, was she rebelling against the personality she had built? And you, when you met her, were you craving distance? Was your sense of self no longer feminine and affiliative, were you now in a masculine mode, emphasizing difference? Was that where you were at when Ingrid fell in love with you?
Restless, life pours forth from your violin; always on the edge of passion or introspection, it sings. With it, Ingrid’s piano sustains a fluent conversation. The blended texture of the music does not give opportunity for solo display: It is as one that the two of you play. Again I am struck by Ingrid’s face, her aura of vulnerability, of disinterested sovereignty.
The music, sombre and unsettled, comes to an end. Ingrid stands up, you put your violin down; approaching one another, you fall into each other’s arms. I am moved, moved by Ingrid’s emotion as the hounds of love assail her heart.
– You’re really immersed in Schumann these days, Marietta tells me.
– Yes. Chopin is perfection, Schumann is flawed. But I engage more with Schumann, I can bring out more. I love the tensions in his music, the emotional extremes.
Spontaneously Ingrid began playing ‘Of Foreign Lands and People’, the first of Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood. You stretched out on the sofa and lay your head in my lap. As the limpid tenderness of the melody drew me back into my interiority, I knew that if anyone can meet me there, it is you. In the fire of your soul you forged yourself when your world fell apart; to a beat away from your last breath you starved yourself to be free. And when your lover, your one and only, was thrown to his death from a motorcycle, you faced down the Furies and wailed yourself well. When the structures of competition offered you a way into the world, with pencil and paper, with violin and bow, you played to win and won. And I, born into emptiness, had but a flame in my heart, a gentle flame in the last redoubt. And with me, always, the chill chafing of a hand, the hand of madness awaiting me should the flame go out. Listen! Nostalgia makes distance intimate: Ingrid is conjuring grace from sadness. Resonant interiority, a slow cadence of chords: Silence, and a deeper silence.