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The childhood and adolescence of Schumann coincided with the greatest explosion of travel writing the world had ever known. The explorers of this epoch were mostly journalists rather than trained scientists, valiant and often foolhardy, sometimes confidence tricksters who claimed to have seen and experienced more than they had. At the very least there was a great deal of embroidery in the telling of the travellers’ tales. In real life Schumann was a bad tourist (his one extended journey, to Russia in 1844 with Clara, caused him much discomfort and anguish) but from childhood he had roamed at will in his imagination. During the high noon of Romanticism every man who could read was able to book a place aboard the magic carpet. Schumann’s armchair travels, undertaken from the domestic safety of Zwickau and Leipzig, must have excited similar emotions to those of William Cowper reading about Captain Cook’s exploits:
He travels and I too tread his deck
By the middle of the nineteenth century Captain Cook was to be less famous than Thomas Cook and his brochures. It is the latter which would have appealed to Schumann: throughout his life there was a side of him which longed to ‘run the great circuit’ but only while ‘still at home’. Even at the end of his life in the asylum at Endenich he remained fascinated by atlases; he used to plan travel itineraries based on alphabetical sequences – starting at a town beginning in ‘Aa’, and thence to one beginning in ‘Ab’, ‘Ac’ and so on. In earlier days this fascination had been more practical and fruitful: Kinderszenen opens with the haunting little prelude Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (‘Of strange lands and people’); the Heine setting Abends am Strand travels to India and Lapland in a trice and, at the end of the song, one senses that it is the composer himself who is left on the moonlit beach open-mouthed at the narrators’ extravagant yarns.
Apart from some early polonaises and the ‘Fandango’ movement of the Grosse Sonata, Op 11 (of which more later), the Myrthen song-cycle of 1840 is perhaps the first significant sign that Schumann was interested in a concept of ‘world music’. In that collection of twenty-six songs the composer interpolates settings of Scottish, English, Persian, Indian, Hebrew and Italian inspiration (albeit in German translation) into an otherwise home-grown poetic sequence of his own devising. The result is an anthology, woven as a wedding present for Clara, German at its heart but deeply aware of those fremden Ländern und Menschen. Lovers in literature of the past and present, from east and west, north and south, gather together in fellow-feeling – as if responding to cries for moral support from that already famous star-crossed pair, Robert and his new bride. Of course all the songs are genuinely Schumannian but they are cleverly differentiated by various changes of colour and shape: the lilt of the Burns settings can seduce us into hearing the contours of genuine folksong; Goethe’s (and Marianne von Willemer’s) Suleika, languid yet passionate, can be pictured in the gardens of the seraglio, and the harmonic depths of Heine’s lotus flower seem rooted in transcendental meditation; the grief-stricken setting from Byron’s Hebrew Melodies employs a cantorial declamation which rends the garment and wrings the withers; and romantic intrigue in Venice (albeit planned by an Irishman) prompts echoes of bel canto across the lagoon, and a Neapolitan song in San Marco’s piazza. (The inexact nature of the geography of far-flung places is absolutely typical of this kind of evocation; even Schubert pointedly employed a Neapolitan sixth in his Venetian evocation Gondelfahrer).
Such extensive, one may say systematic, use of stylisation is something new in Lieder, notwithstanding scattered examples in Schubert: the early Don Gayseros trilogy, Gondelfahrer, echoes of Scottish folksong in the Ellen songs and Lied der Anne Lyle, and his various Rossini-like Italian characterisations. Schubert allowed himself to armchair-travel from time to time and, as his imagination is without peer, the journeys are almost always successful. These explorations are, however, not on the same scale as Schumann’s. As a consequence of the burgeoning Romantic movement the composer felt himself part of a new world where literature from all over the globe was a theme worthy of celebration in its own right (Johann Gottfried Herder had translated international folk poetry with his Stimmen der Völker, and Friedrich von Schlegel wrote of a ‘Universalpoesie’); it was as if authors in many languages were united by membership of a new meritocracy, an international branch of the Davidsbund. Schumann had a good idea of the membership list; he had grown up in Zwickau not so much in a bookshop as in a distinguished publishing firm. During the composer’s adolescence his father – the imprint ‘Gebrüder Schumann’ is proudly displayed on the books’ title pages – was in the business of commissioning translations of foreign literature as well as publishing German works. The firm in Zwickau was among the first to advertise the classics in small pocket editions (Tasso, Calderon, Cervantes) as well as new works which were all the rage (Walter Scott, Bulwer-Lytton and Byron.) In the multi-volume Byron edition issued in Zwickau Schumann’s father August himself undertook the translation of Beppo and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
The existence of Spanish poetry and theatre in the list above is significant. The literary links between Spain and Germany go back to the middle ages. There are numerous seventeenth-century translations of Spanish novels and treatises and by the end of the eighteenth century Spanish scenarios had become something of a fashion. Mozart’s Figaro is a Spaniard at one remove (Rossini later used the same Beaumarchais source) and Schiller’s Don Karlos (1787) is a product of the French Enlightenment’s view of the barbarities of the Inquisition. A more sympathetic (and authentic) view of Spanish life and art was promulgated by Gottfried Lessing who praised Lope de Vega, by Johann Gottfried Herder who translated the Spanish romances anthologized by Juan de Escobar, by Ludwig Tieck who translated Don Quixote (1799-1801), by August Wilhelm Schlegel who translated Calderon (1802), by Goethe who staged Calderon in Weimar (1811), and by Schubert’s friend Grillparzer who translated the same poet in 1818.
By the time Schumann was an adolescent, the idea of Spain had more than caught up with Italy as a distant beacon to set alight the romantic imagination. Since Winckelmann and Goethe the Germans had journeyed over the mountains and discovered Italy with relative ease; Italy was now almost too accessible. Goethe had discovered erotic love in Rome in the 1780s and had penned deliciously obscene epigrams in Venice, but by the 1840s the world had become a smaller place: Italy was no longer the far-off land of mystery that it had once seemed to the travellers of the eighteenth century. It was, certainly, the home of opera, the Roman Church, Renaissance painting, Roman ruins, Palladian architecture and so on, but German cultural historians were ensuring that every nook and cranny of this cradle of the classics were being thoroughly examined; a large tranche of it (Venice and the Veneto) was under the unglamorous control of Austria. Visitors arrived in force – no longer simply the rich undertaking the ‘grand tour’, but the nouveau riche middle classes. When the nineteen-year-old Schumann visited Italy (September – October 1829) he lost his heart in Milan (temporarily) not to a Milanese beauty but to a fellow visitor, a woman from England who admired his playing more than anything else. And he found Venice noisy and over-priced – already a tourist trap.
In comparison Spain, a large and distant land, remained comparatively unexplored and exotic. In the first quarter of the century there had been numerous travel books about the Iberian peninsula as there had been about almost every corner of the globe, but these had served further to glamorize Spain, its legends and diversities, without rendering it an everyday destination. The expulsion of the Moors in medieval times gave poets and composers the opportunity to depict the struggles between east and west (extreme Catholicism and militant Islam was the background to Schubert’s ill-fated but remarkable opera Fierabras) as well as relishing the depiction of southern atmosphere. Italy, for all its political troubles, seem positively tame in comparison. It had become less and less possible to generalise about the Italy of dreams (as in Goethe’s ‘Kennst du das Land’) without specific knowledge; but Spain suited those who wanted to depict national stereotype without painstaking accuracy. Words like bolero and fandango produced rather different musical responses in composers like Berlioz, Chopin, Glinka, and Schumann himself, but the differing Spanish flavours which emerged were not yet subject to musicological analysis. This vagueness concerning what actually constitutes Spanish music was the cover for much pastiche hispaniolatry stretching late into the nineteenth century.
And then there was the hidden agenda (although never far beneath the surface for a highly sexed young man) – the sheer erotic force of Spain and its reputation for alluring women. In reading Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage the suggestible young Schumann would have encountered lines like these:
Yet are Spain’s maids no race of Amazons,
When the young composer read his own father’s translation of these words Byron was the man of the moment. And the sentiment expressed by the great English poet surely lies at the heart of many a northerner’s fascination with Spain which is supposedly the land of passionate females, sunburned women of moody temperament, women who were somehow able to sidestep the strict mores of a Catholic society while enjoying sexual relationships without shame (as expressed in the poem Geh’, Geliebter, geh jetzt! later set by Wolf as the crowning glory of his Spanisches Liederbuch). Even if this was simply a northern fantasy it was crucial to the foreigner’s dream of Spanish licence – something that became easily confused with the life of the gypsy. (A fascination with the southern temperament lies at the heart of Brahms’s Zigeunerlieder, a work which the Carmen-admiring composer was ashamed, as late as the 1880s, to show to the prudish Clara Schumann). In Germany it was conventional to acknowledge that Spanish women were ‘different’ by their very nature; this enabled poets and composers to celebrate the free-and-easy ways of the Spanish without undermining the myth of pure German womanhood. We encounter Schumann’s first excursion into the Spanish style in the extended ‘Allegro vivace’ section which follows the Introduzione of the First Piano Sonata, the Grosse Sonate in F sharp minor, Op 11 (1834). This strutting movement was originally titled as an independent ‘fandango’.
But it is notable that Spanish women are nowhere to be found in the international line-up of Schumann’s Myrthen; their loose-limbed presence in a sequence centred around the love-struck, and sometimes submissive, bride-to-be might have seemed inappropriate. Or maybe their absence can be explained by the fact that Schumann had not yet found the right poems – bleeding chunks of Lope de Vega, Calderon and Cervantes were not appropriate for that cycle. Eichendorff’s Gedichte included a section entitled Aus dem Spanischen (‘from the Spanish’) – but only in the second edition of 1843. And there was no Spanish section, alas, in Ferdinand Freiligrath’s Gedichte (1838) in which Schumann had found Thomas Moore’s Venetian poems. A slim volume of Spanish poetry in translation published in 1843, dedicated to Freiligrath as it happens, was to be the key which opened Robert Schumann’s real Spanish phase – but only in 1849. The translator was Emanuel Geibel.
Graham Johnson © 2002
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