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Graham Johnson’s monumental and triumphant complete Schumann Songs edition comes to an end with an eleventh disc of rarities and delights. The first issue in the Hyperion edition of Schuman’s songs, with the soprano Christine Schäfer, included a number of the composer’s later lieder, and with this last issue we come full circle in returning to some of the least known songs—music seldom heard on the concert platform. Hanno Müller-Brachmann appears in his debut recording for Hyperion. As well as a devoted lieder singer who has performed with some of the greatest pianists, he is also a considerable presence on the world’s opera stages and an acclaimed interpreter of Bach’s Passions. He brings all these qualities to this fascinating disc.
Various duets and ensemble pieces are included on this disc and feature familiar and well-loved singers from elsewhere in this series, as well as the winner of the 2008 Kathleen Ferrier Prize: Katherine Broderick. The release is complemented by Graham Johnson’s renowned booklet notes, which make these discs things of such inestimable value.
The programme of this final disc leads off with five songs to poems by Wilfried von der Neun. These, and settings by the enigmatic and unidentified ‘J. B.’ (Resignation), Moritz von Strachwitz (Mein altes Roß), Ludwig Uhland (two songs from Des Sängers Fluch) and Friedrich von Schiller’s ballad Der Handschuh were all composed in 1850 or later. At the centre of the disc is a performance of the cycle Minnespiel Op 101 for four voices—an 1849 work to poems by Friedrich Rückert. And there is also the last of the 1840 cycles recorded for the series—the Robert Reinick cycle Sechs Gedichte aus dem Liederbuch eines Malers (‘Six Poems from the Songbook of a Painter’). Of all the cycles from this year by poets like Heine, Eichendorff, Chamisso and Kerner, this is perhaps the least known and least often performed. This is the only work on this disc that was composed in Leipzig; thus the main focus of this programme is on the songs composed in the later Dresden period and in the Düsseldorf years—the period when Robert Schumann came face-to-face with the drastic (and uncomfortable for him) changes that were sweeping through German music, and when he attempted to keep up with these musical developments in his own way. At the same time he was coping with deteriorating health; another factor was that although his marriage was already legendary in historical terms it was stressful for both partners in day-to-day reality.
There are those who argue that there was a sharp nose-dive in the quality of Schumann’s compositions at this time. Eric Sams put it thus: ‘It is as if Schumann’s hand had acquired a new cunning and his mind had lost an old one.’ Nearly forty years after Sams penned this observation a great deal more of the music of Schumann’s final period is performed on a regular basis and it is increasingly appreciated in its own right; Sams’s remark now seems unfair—or at least a sweeping generalization. Works such as the Cello Concerto and the Third (‘Rhenish’) Symphony are contemporary with the von der Neun songs and prove that the composer was anything but a busted flush in 1850.
Schumann was acutely aware that time could not stand still in the making of music and he was surrounded by evidence to this effect on every side, particularly concerning the rising stars of Wagner and Liszt. Wagner had been music director in Dresden (he had been scathing regarding the libretto to Schumann’s ill-starred opera Genoveva) and had taken an active part in the abortive revolution of May 1849; unlike the more timid Schumann who hedged his bets and was not to be seen manning the barricades, Wagner had to flee the city. He had already composed Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser and Schumann had heard both these works and composed his own Genoveva as a kind of disorganized riposte. Lohengrin was to be performed in Weimar later in 1850. The Wagner opera was a triumph, the Schumann (performed in Leipzig in June 1850) a critical disaster.
There is no doubt that Wagner, and his chance proximity in Dresden, were enormously influential on Schumann’s development—for better or for worse. But it would surely have been greater evidence of a diseased mind if Schumann had attempted to ignore the new developments in the outside world and continued writing in his old style (as his fans, including many of his modern ones, might have wished). Schumann had always been an avant-garde experimenter—we tend to forget this about the works of 1840; he seems to have gone on believing in change, and that a new kind of music was necessary for a new age. His final period is largely a struggle to find and perfect that new language. In retrospect any attempt to challenge Wagner’s vision and offer an alternative might seem comically doomed, but Schumann seems to have believed that this was both possible and necessary. The answer was not to dig in one’s heels in a reactionary manner and insist that the old ways were best; it seemed necessary to find an alternative to Wagner’s style that could match and outdo him. The search was on for a style that clearly incorporated some of Wagner’s discoveries whilst preserving aspects of the classical tradition that was far too important to be swept away with an arrogant wave of the hand. (This is surely to define the later lifelong role of Johannes Brahms.) That the success of Schumann’s search was undermined by various factors, including his health, is certainly a matter for serious discussion—but the abandonment of the old ways of writing songs is clearly the result of a conscious choice rather than a straightforward failure or waning of inspiration.
An exact parallel with this phase of Schumann’s life is the third period of Gabriel Fauré (from 1906), where the French composer found a way of his own to enter the twentieth century without becoming either a Debussyist or a Stravinskian. There are many admirers of Fauré’s earlier songs who find the late phase of La chanson d’Ève and Le jardin clos a disappointing musical development, a pitiful diminuendo of achievement; however enthusiasts have long believed that these late cycles contain the deepest and most remarkable of the composer’s achievements in the genre. Fauré was suffering from tinnitus and increasing deafness; it was once acceptable to ascribe the perplexing change of his style to his illness. The comparisons with Schumann are obvious, if far from exact. No one has claimed as yet, so far as I know, that the music of Schumann’s later years is superior to the earlier.
One way of looking at the late songs (at the von der Neun lieder, for example) might identify the composer as inept and musically exhausted; another is to see him as honourably ambitious (even if somewhat misguided), no longer content with the old way of doing things and prepared to break the mould of anything he had achieved earlier in the interests of finding a new and viable musical language. The weight of new research and analysis now gives greater credence to the latter of these viewpoints. And yet mention must be made of one of the more insidious aspects of Wagner’s influence—the Wagner for whom no living poet (apart from Mathilde Wesendonck perhaps) was a sufficiently interesting and gifted collaborator. It would not have been lost on Schumann that all of Wagner’s libretti were his own work.
The concept of a collaboration between the composer and someone else of genius (a poet such as Eichendorff, Heine or Goethe) had been thoroughly downgraded by Wagner’s example and probably no longer seemed desirable; in fact such partnership might no longer have seemed to be a sine qua non of song composition. On the other hand it seems impossible to believe that Schumann failed to understand how important it had been in his earlier career that the quality of the poems he had chosen (with great literary acumen) had contributed greatly to his songs’ success. The whole downward trend in the composer’s choices of text in his later songs (with obscure poets such as Wilfried von der Neun, Elisabeth Kulmann, Gustav Pfarrius, Ferdinand Braun, Julius Buddeus, Oskar Wolff) is such as to make us believe that Schumann was, perhaps unconsciously, searching for understated mediocrity rather than the stronger flavour of an artistic equal. Schumann perhaps began to look for more anodyne texts that would not get in the way of something far more important—his newly developing musical experiments, such as they were. If the subject matter of a poem was interesting it mattered less to him that the technical accomplishment of the poetry was inferior. The lesser known the poet, the more it would appear that the composer had written the song on his own initiative. Without realizing it Schumann was beginning to adopt Wagnerian attitudes; one is also reminded that a composer like Mahler (also influenced by Wagner, of course) was deliberately uninterested in his ‘great’ contemporaries for his songs (Rilke, for example), preferring the folk poetry of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the (by then) outmoded Rückert, and the frankly inferior Richard Leander. In the case of the Wunderhorn poems Mahler took it as his right to adapt and change the texts as necessary.
The idea of a composer actually serving the poet (as opposed to finding a poet who would serve his needs) was to re-emerge with a vengeance only in the lieder of Hugo Wolf. Although this observation may seem unfair to Johannes Brahms (some of whose songs serve the poet with consummate care), the fact remains that Brahms regarded many of his songs as entries in a confessional diary and often selected his texts according to how their content chimed with his own emotional circumstances. In Wolf we find a composer prepared to set a poem not because of its subjective resonances but rather because it is a fine piece of literature. Robert Schumann was also capable of this kind of objective judgement in 1840, but in truth he was always probably at his song-writing best when his music was related to life, and to his love for Clara Wieck in particular. The change of direction in his song-writing may be attributable partly to the mundane circumstances of stressful married life, a phase infinitely less romantic than those last bachelor years when he believed himself to be standing on the borders of nuptial bliss, a bliss imagined and prefigured in song. After this indescribable ‘high’, the advent of reality and everyday life must have seemed comparatively bleak and disappointing.
Graham Johnson © 2009