If we join Robert Schumann at the beginning of 1827 we encounter a young man, not yet seventeen, who had recently lost his father (in August 1826). His sister Emilie had committed suicide at the age of eighteen in 1825. These family tragedies are counterpointed by the liveliness of his adolescent musings in a diary (self-consciously entitled Tage des Jüngling-Lebens – ‘Days of a Young Man’s Life’) which was begun on New Year’s Day. In these pages we read the agonized confessions of a passionate dreamer – already a combination of Florestan and Eusebius – who is awkwardly preoccupied with the opposite sex, and who seems guilty about his romantic obsessions in the light of his recent bereavements. ‘Is it not horrid enough to be robbed of a father’ he writes ‘why should one not try to forget pain through joy? Why not be merry in merry company?’. Schumann was one of the few great composers whose gift with words enabled him to make his living as a writer. This is hardly a surprise considering his literary background (his father had been a publisher and translator): the conjuring of verbal images and the composition of music seemed to come from the same impulse in his creative personality. In his earlier teens, following his father’s footsteps, he was making translations from the classics. In December 1825 he had founded a Literary Society at school which was devoted to contemporary literature – including his own efforts which were sometimes written specifically for presentation at these gatherings. More than thirty meetings took place before the Society was dissolved in February 1828. At the age of seventeen he was almost sure that he had the makings of a poet; indeed he seemed more easily moved to verse (and drama – he penned whole acts of plays) than the writing of music.
In his diary Schumann is similarly torn between two loves: his present paramour Liddy Hempel, and her predecessor Nanni Petsch. Both were highly attractive to him in different ways. Sex had reared its head in a way that shows that our hero could easily be a slave to desire: ‘If only she loved me! I ask myself this the whole day… such days shorten one’s life; when sensual pleasure prevails, man becomes an animal, as did I. Enough of this. I should be ashamed of myself!’ Such descriptions do not refer of course to sessions of unbuttoned debauchery with either Liddy or Nanni; these guilt-ridden hours betoken the lone ‘sensual pleasure’ of an overheated imagination which has not yet learned to put theory into practice. In Schumann’s self-critical tirades we glimpse for the first time the would-be hedonist who abased himself as unworthy of the purity of Clara’s love, Schumann the well brought-up Saxon whose burning sensuality was soon to lead him into unwise amorous adventures in the red-light districts of the big city (the same had been the case with his idol Franz Schubert of course).
On 16 January 1827 Schumann attended a ball where he twice dared to press the hand of Liddy Hempel. He wrote a poem about the occasion which ran to 128 lines. On February 28 (according to Ernst Berger in his Robert Schumann) he composed the song Sehnsucht (track 1) to his own words. In April the marriage of his brother Carl occasioned a poem rather than a piece of music. In May he first encountered the writing of Jean Paul (the pseudonym of Jean Paul Friedrich Richter, 1763- 1825) whose unique blend of breathtaking fantasy and scurrilous whimsy was to be central to Schumann’s early creative life. The composer was later to call Jean Paul’s Flegeljahre an ‘art bible’, but he also read Titan, Hesperus, Die unsichtbare Loge and Siebenkäs; he continued to study these works and others throughout his life, often reading them aloud to his wife in later years. The young Schumann modelled himself as a writer on Jean Paul and, perhaps more importantly, allowed the literary techniques of this master of fragments to influence him as a composer: fragments of speaking melody are joined together to constitute the typically Schumannian musical mosaic. In March 1828 he would write to a friend that he placed Jean Paul’s work above that of everyone, Schiller not excepted. As if to excuse himself from further heresy he observed (in brackets) that he did not yet understand Goethe. And yet the Scottish biographer of that great poet, Thomas Carlyle, maintained that Jean Paul was far more difficult to understand than the sage of Weimar: ‘Jean Paul groans with indescribable metaphors … flowing onward not like a river, but an inundation, circling in complex eddies, chafing and gurgling, now this way now that, until the proper current sinks out of view amid the boundless uproar’. Schumann’s discovery of Jean Paul in 1827 was like stumbling on James Joyce’s Ulysses in the 1920s leading to a voyage through new and perilous territories of language and self-expression.
Schumann’s beloved Liddy and Nanni were more or less his contemporaries. In July 1827 he encountered the powerful phenomenon of the older woman. The name of this twenty-five year-old paragon was Agnes Carus, the wife of Dr ErnstAugust Carus from Colditz, the nephew of Karl Erdmann Carus who regularly entertained the young Schumann in Leipzig. Agnes was moreover a singer who performed lieder by Schubert (who was then still a living composer), and this further endeared her to Schumann, for Schubert (though not yet dead) stood next to Jean Paul in his personal pantheon. ‘When I play Schubert, it is as if I were reading a novel of Jean Paul’ Schumann wrote. He justified the pairing of such artists who seem at first sight or hearing to be so dissimilar in the following manner: ‘Apart from Schubert’s, no music exists that is so psychologically unusual in the course and connection of its ideas, and in the ostensible logic of its discontinuities … What for others was a diary in which to set down momentary feelings was for Schubert a sheet of music paper to which he entrusted his every mood, so that his thoroughly musical soul wrote notes when others wrote words’. His passion for Schubert’s music and his ceaselessly active hormones conspired to make of Agnes a new personal deity. He now admitted that ‘three goddesses now stand in my dream – Agnes in the foreground, Nanni in the middle and Liddy in the background.’
The advent of Agnes Carus into Schumann’s life in the summer of 1827 coincided with a new song-composing impetus; it may be that meeting her encouraged Robert firmly to decide on a musical career, despite his mother’s objections. Four songs were written in 1827; whether they were all composed after the meeting with Agnes depends on conflicting ideas about dates: Sehnsucht and Die Weinende are to be heard on this disc. Verwandlung (with a text by Ernst Schulze, a poet known to Schubert enthusiasts through songs like Im Frühling and Auf der Bruck) remains unpublished. Lied für XXX (to Schumann’s own text addressed no doubt to Agnes) suffers from lack of experience in working with performers – some of the early Schubert songs had been marred by the same thing. The vocal line with its excruciating high As and Bs – completely impractical for a singer – might have been written for a violin. In the first and last of the songs listed above Schumann himself is the poet, and it seemed completely natural to him that ‘poet and composer should appear in one person’. In the summer of the following year, 1828, Agnes and her husband were to move to Leipzig; by then Robert, too, had moved there to study with Friedrich Wieck. Here we discover perhaps the most important inspiration behind the next period of lieder productivity – the eight songs written in July and August 1828. Despite the advent of Agnes, Robert was not to forget his other ‘goddesses’. The summer of 1827 included increasingly desperate attempts to stay in touch with Nanni in Dresden, and with Liddy in Teptlitz. It was in Teptlitz that the ‘affair’ with Liddy came to a rueful end on the Rosenburg. Between these two visits Schumann became acquainted with Prague and was mightily enthused by its beauties. It is notable that in 1827 the only other work mentioned in the composer’s book of projects (‘Projektenbuch’) is a piano concerto in E minor that has never been discovered – perhaps it was only talked about and never actually written, a common enough occurrence in this composer’s frequent pipe-dreams (and literally so, for Schumann was already a terrific smoker).
At the beginning of 1828 Schumann had not yet left the Zwickau Gymnasium from which he was to graduate in March. On January 28 he took part in an evening’s entertainment at the institution where he recited a passage from Goethe’s Faust as well as playing a movement of Kalkbrenner’s First Piano Concerto. He still seems to have been hedging his bets between music and literature. At first it seemed that neither art was to triumph; it was the wish of his mother that he should devote himself to studying law, and he pretended to comply as long as he could sustain the subterfuge. According to the terms of his father’s will he would come into his inheritance only if he agreed to complete a three-year course of study in some unspecified subject. He duly registered himself at Leipzig University for the legal course which began in mid-May of the same year. On March 31 he met Clara Wieck (then aged nine) in Leipzig for the first time; this was at the home of her father, Friedrich Wieck, whom Schumann was no doubt sizing up as a future piano teacher – Clara’s burgeoning career was a compelling advertisement for Wieck’s skills in this regard.
At this stage of his life he was very sociable, even outgoing. He had a few weeks of freedom before he was due to begin his legal studies and decided on a holiday of sorts. Between 24 April and 14 May he set off on a grand excursion with his friend Gisbert Rosen; this was a journey into Bavaria, the main aim of which was to meet the poet Heinrich Heine who was then resident in Munich. The story of this extraordinary escapade is told at greater length in the booklet accompanying Volume 5 in this series. Schumann met Heine under happy circumstances (with infinitely fruitful consequences for the lieder repertoire) and also visited the grave of Jean Paul in Bayreuth, calling on his widow on the return journey, and receiving from her hands as a memento a tiny portrait of the writer which he treated as a holy relic for the rest of his life. Back in Leipzig he re-encountered Agnes Carus on 2 and 4 June, and his passion for her was renewed. He wrote in his diary ‘I want to go to bed and dream of her, of her, Goodnight Agnes’. The composer’s setting of the Goethe poem Der Fischer dates from this time. A glance at this text may explain its erotic appeal under these circumstances. There followed an intense fortnight during which three further songs were composed: Kurzes Erwachen, the first and more important of the An Anna settings, and Gesanges Erwachen. Sometime in July Im Herbste was composed, and right at the end of the month An Anna II. All these songs were to the recently published poetry of Justinus Kerner who was to be the poet of Schumann’s great Op 35 Liederreihe composed in 1840.
In July 1828 Schumann summoned up the courage to send these songs to Gottlieb Wiedebein (1779-1854) who was Kapellmeister in Brunswick, asking for his opinion (the young composer might have sent the songs to Schubert himself at this stage and hoped for a reply – although it is very doubtful as to whether he would have received one; the parcel would probably have arrived only after Schubert’s death. Wiedebein had a reputation for being a man of culture, and had himself recently published a collection of songs (there is a reminiscence of Wiedebein’s Gretchens Klage in the second of Schumann’s Intermezzi Op 4 for piano.) The older composer was also a Jean Paul enthusiast. His letter of encouragement was to be a turning point in Schumann’s life. If there were musical flaws in the lieder that were sent to him, Wiedebein referred to them as ‘the natural sins of youth’ rather than ‘sins of the spirit’. He recognised the ‘genuine poetic feeling’ of the settings but wished for greater calm and understanding, greater technical control perhaps. It is true that these songs allow the words to dictate the shape of the music to an almost arbitrary extent that someone of Wiedebein’s generation would have found alarming. Even if Schumann was grateful for this letter, the effect of it was to make him put the lied form to one side for a long period. The Jacobi setting Erinnerung and the tiny Hirtenknabe were composed in August 1828 … and then silence until 1840. It is a strange coincidence that two songs from the early 1830s, perhaps by Clara Wieck (or perhaps by her father), were also settings of Kerner. These lieder – Der Wanderer (track 9) and Der Wanderer in der Sägemühle (track 10) are presented after Schumann’s own Kerner settings. This sequence briefly interrupts the chronology of Schumann’s own songs on this disc, but it unites the settings of this poet by the future married couple.
Schumann’s passion for Agnes Carus was one-sided of course; there is no indication that she was anything other than happy with her husband, and there is no evidence she encouraged the young man to hope for anything more than he received from her. By mid- August disillusionment had set in: he was able to see that his songs, which had been composed as if they were intimate diary entries, were nevertheless at the mercy of their interpreters. On 14 August 1828 he writes ‘My songs were meant to be a reflection of my inner self; but no human being can present something exactly as it is created; even she sang the most beautiful passages badly and didn’t understand me.’ Here is another clue to the abandonment of lieder as a viable form: Schumann had not yet found his ideal interpreter, and Agnes’s feet of clay were no match for the fingers of Clara Wieck – although the ardent advocacy of these for Schumann’s music lay some time in the future. On 5 December 1828 we find Schumann accompanying Agnes Carus in songs by Schubert and Marschner (whose personal acquaintance Schumann made at the soirée) but there is no longer any question of his writing new songs for her to perform.
Since his arrival in Leipzig, and no longer under his mother’s control in Zwickau, Schumann was free to enjoy life to the full. He missed the countryside of his home town and found the lack of valley, mountain or forest dispiriting. But Leipzig’s intellectual life, (it was above all a city of books, literature and publishing) was a compensation. From time to time he assured his mother that he was attending law lectures, but the composer’s friend Fleschig assured posterity that Schumann ‘never entered a lecture hall’. It seems unlikely that Schumann seriously entertained the idea of becoming a lawyer. But there is plenty of evidence that in the eighteen-month period before he decided to concentrate on his piano-playing once and for all, he seriously contemplated life as a man of letters. On 2 May 1828 he had begun a second diary which he was to continue until April 1830 – this boasted the title of Hottentottiana, much less a reference to the South African tribe than to his own pleasure in being a wild young man able to follow his own ‘savage’ impulses. It is partly an autobiographical commentary on his everyday activities (which are seldom described in an everyday way); letters, drafts, poems, epigrams and observations of every kind are scattered between diary entries. This is the training ground of an emerging writer, and a writer of talent at that.
There were also more serious, or at least more sustained, literary excursions. Juniusabende und Julytage (June nights and July days), subtitled ‘Idylle’, was regarded by the composer as his Opus 1 of sorts; at one point he dubbed it his most beautiful and truest creation. These twenty-four pages are in the manner of Jean Paul, and they draw from autobiographical details, as Jean Paul himself often did. The two pairs of characters are Julius and Ammali, and Gustav and Inna. Julius is the narrator in a work where Schumann’s own experiences with Liddy and Nanni, and perhaps Agnes, inspire a work which is partly framed as a diary – this again is a Jean Paul trademark. Schumann then began an epistolary novel entitled Bernard von Nontelliers. Most interesting of all is an incomplete Bildungsroman entitled Selene written at the end of 1828, in which Schumann intended to introduce Jean Paul himself as a character. The main characters’ names are taken from that writer’s novels where the dramatis personae have a Balzacian tendency to roam between books as if all part of the same rich comédie humaine. (It was Schumann’s destiny to create a musical equivalent of this rich field of shared allusion and self-quotation in his own music.) In Selene the night scene in the cathedral (with statues and portraits of the saints which come to life) shows influences other than that of Jean Paul – Novalis, Wackenroder, and Friedrich Schlegel, the last verse of whose Die Gebüsche was to provide the motto for the Fantasie for piano Op 17.
In reading Selene we are reminded that the young Schumann was striving to synthesize a vast amount of literature that was emerging at this crucial time in the history of romanticism – but to what end? In terms of literary achievement he was not truly original, rather an infinitely receptive enthusiast who was one of the few to be able to respond to various writers of the movement, both old and new, and make some sense of their diversity. As a poet he was perhaps like the English graduate of today who can write convincing pastiches of Thom Gunn or Seamus Heaney, but nothing in his own discernible voice. Music was where Schumann’s real genius lay and it is rather touching that it took him some time to realize the fact.
The young composer had been deeply immersed in literature from his childhood; between 1828 and 1840 he struggled to free himself from words by translating them into absolute music, invoking thereby a Jean Paulian alchemy. If he could not quite achieve literary originality he was able to do something that had never been done before – to translate the characteristics of a new kind of literature into equally innovative music. This shows us that Schumann had all the qualities of a great translator: a reverence, and love for, the original text; a fluency and experience in both languages involved in the transformation; and an element of originality and daring whereby the new rendering becomes a work of art in its own right. In any case, it is clear that music for Schumann was, and remained, a branch of literature: despite the wordlessness of the great piano music, almost all of it has a verbal background.
For those who have wondered why Schumann retreated from word-setting for so long (between 1828 and 1840) the following passage from Hottentottiana seems significant: ‘Music is poetry raised to a higher power; spirits speak the language of poetry, but the angels communicate in tones’. It was at about this time that Schumann began talking of the concept of a Tonroman – a novel in sounds; he was convinced that Schubert’s music (in this case the Eight Variations on a theme from Hérold’s Marie for piano duet D908) was the ‘perfect novel in tones’, that it represented ‘the novel that Goethe has yet to write’. He had been disappointed with Agnes’s performance of his songs; the words of Kerner, however admired in their own right, had muddied meanings, his own meanings, which he had expected her to understand. He was in search of clarity, purity, and the higher power – the tongue of the angels. One can understand that in order to survive as a musician at this early stage he had to put the setting of poetry behind him, for a time at least. Once he had safely established his own musical language derived from words, and wordlessly enriched by literary meaning, he could allow the increasingly elaborate palimpsest of his art to be enriched by further layers of literature – an openness encouraged by the realisation in 1840 that the love of his life was soon to be his bride. By that stage in Schumann’s maturity the setting of poetry to music had become akin to the laying of words (the vocal line) on further words embedded even deeper into the fabric of the whole – the accompaniment. This, like the solo piano music, is in itself a transfiguration of words raised to the higher power of tones. This is surely why Schumann seems to be so uncannily prescient in his lieder, why everything in his greatest songs seems to be speaking to us, not only in the singing but also in the playing.
Graham Johnson © 2003