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Robert Schumann knew exactly who was listening in secret to his Fantasie in C major (Op 17) when he inscribed this verse by the poet and philosopher Friedrich Schlegel at the head of the published score in 1839. When he composed the magisterial work in 1836 Schumann was in a state of utter despair: he wanted marry the brilliant young pianist Clara Wieck with whom he was secretly engaged but who was nine years his junior. Although he’d known her as a little girl—and even lived in the same house in Leipzig when studying with her possessive father Friedrich—an innocent friendship gradually developed by November 1835 into a deep and passionate love. Herr Wieck was furious that such a dangerous and—to him—impossible liaison had developed right under his nose and now did everything in his power to keep the two apart. The full story of his desperate campaign is harrowing and often degrading for Schumann; it wasn’t until September 1840, after surmounting all sorts of legal obstacles, that the couple finally could marry—on the eve of Clara’s 21st birthday. But an unintended consequence of their enforced separation was that Schumann poured out his deepest feelings—from anguish and despair to ecstasy and hope—in a torrent of piano works which are effectively a series of private letters to Clara. She was thus enabled to follow his emotions, yearnings and exhortations as if reading a series of coded letters—and we are the lucky eavesdroppers perched on her shoulders as she scans the pages with rapture and excitement, recognising—in the Fantasy—quotations from Beethoven’s iconic song-cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved) as well as other private musical messages. Schumann told her that it was ‘the most passionate thing I have ever written … a profound lament for you’.
Beethoven—as man and musician—was another pivotal presence in the Fantasy’s gestation. Schumann became aware in 1836 of efforts to raise funds for the creation of a major statue of Beethoven in his birthplace Bonn. Liszt was among the principal drivers behind the project and when it seemed to founder he encouraged others to contribute pieces for a proposed Album. Schumann wrote to his first publisher Friedrich Kistner by invoking the twin personalities he often used as a form of dual alter-ego: ‘Florestan and Eusebius would be very happy to do something for Beethoven’s memorial, and for this purpose have written something with the title of Ruins – Trophies – Palms: Grand Sonata for the Pianoforte for Beethoven’s memorial’. Between 1833 and 1836 Schumann had already written three piano sonatas and so it is significant that he initially thought of the Beethoven tribute as a sonata too. Kistner turned the work down, however, and when the more prestigious firm of Breitkopf & Hartel took the piece on by 1839 the designation was now Fantasie, with all mention of Beethoven gone but carrying a simple dedication to Liszt. Nevertheless, both Clara and Liszt would have recognised the quotations from Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte which remained in the score, surfacing in the first and third movements in particular, and they would have understood intuitively their deep significance from a knowledge of the original texts: ‘Then take these songs which I sang to you, beloved’.
The first of the three movements is instructed by Schumann ‘to be performed throughout with imagination and passion’ and is a remarkable and daringly innovative reconfiguration of what a ‘sonata-form’ movement might be in this new era and it often seems to flow with the spontaneity of improvisation. The Fantasie’s overall pattern of a three-movement arch—with a fast March in the middle and a slow Song to conclude—matches no conventional sonata in outline—but Schumann knew Beethoven’s complete canon of 32 piano sonatas in intimate detail and understood how a two-movement work like the very last, Op 111, was itself a radical departure from convention and that his example throughout the series was an exhortation to explore new horizons even if also building from within acknowledged traditions. This became Schumann’s avowed mantra for composition and and so his dramatic solution in creating the Fantasy is completely satisfying in a way which Beethoven would surely have recognised and approved. Liszt, in turn, worked on an iconoclastic Piano Sonata between 1842-53 and it was published in 1854 with a reciprocal dedication to Schumann. The mooted Beethoven Album came to nothing, however, and the Bonn statue wasn’t finally unveiled until 1845. But I jump ahead …
The set of Papillons (Op 2) takes us back to the earliest piano music Schumann actually composed—between 1829 and 1831. He was at the time determined to abandon his Law studies at Leipzig University and to devote himself exclusively to Music. This initially took the form of studying to be a virtuoso pianist under the powerful pedagogue Friedrich Wieck—a fateful decision in that this brought him into contact with the young Clara. But Schumann sabotaged his career at the keyboard by using a finger-strengthening device which paradoxically crippled his right hand. This meant that he suddenly had to turn to composition for his future prospects and by 1832 had put together a collection of scintillating and vividly contrasted miniatures—12 plus an Introduction—under the poetic French title Papillons (Butterflies). A particular source of inspiration was Flegeljahre (Fledgling Years) by the eccentric local writer Jean Paul (aka JPF Richter) and Papillons is in essence the recreation of a Masked Ball as described towards the end of the novel. Schumann once said that he often sat at the piano and under Jean Paul’s spell would improvise the dances he imagined as taking place at the Ball—he then, eventually, made a definitive selection for publication in which the fleeting images often whirl around and rub up against each other with bewildering contrasts and startling variety. At the end, the clock strikes midnight and the dancers fade away—a beautifully poetic close to Schumann’s first piano cycle and one which perfectly captures his uniquely imaginative compositional spirit.
This idea of linking together a series of dances and dancers went on to inspire the grander set entitled Carnaval in 1834/5—and here Clara makes a brief appearance as Chiarina alongside a vivid cast of characters real or imagined. The sequence ends with a March of the ‘Davidsbundler’ against the Philistines and by 1837 Schumann was presenting to Clara an even more ambitious collection of Davidsbündlertänze (Op 6) in which she is now centre-stage in an imagined cycle of dances from a Wedding party—Schumann even daring to tempt fate. But who were the ‘Davidsbundler’? In 1834, to support his fledgling career as a composer, Schumann launched an ambitious musical journal (Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik) which under his editorship was to become—at a time when musical journalism was in its infancy—an influential voice within the European musical world. He gathered his friends to contribute and made of these an imaginary ‘League of David’ modelled on the group of like-minded comrades collected by the Biblical David (heroic slayer of Goliath) in his fight against the Philistines. Images of Michelangelo’s great sculpture of David were popular in Germany at the time and he could well have provided a suitable talisman for Schumann’s musical ‘League of David’ in attempting to slay the Philistine tastes so prevalent at the time throughout Europe. Schumann’s writings were full of insight and he was an early champion in print of early works by Chopin, Berlioz and Mendelssohn, all of whom became his friends in life as on paper.
To kick-start the Davidsbündlertänze Schumann took a newly-published little Mazurka by Clara as the basis for 18 contrasted sections which build to create the magical effect of an indissoluble whole. Clara was a gifted composer herself and Schumann always respected her music and gave her the critical freedom to explore her muse—but his own genius was now aflame with his love for her and these dances shine with rapture and blissful anticipation of their eventual union. Florestan and Eusebius come into their own here and each movement is assigned to one or the other, their characters best summed up in a poem Schumann sent to Clara: ‘If Florestan storms, / Nestle close to Eusebius. Florestan the wild, Eusebius the mild, / Tears and flames, Take them together, / Both are within me, The pain and the joy!’ The seeds planted as a wildly diverse garden in Papillons are here gathered into a structure where diversity of emotion nevertheless forms a remarkable unity of expression. No other music by Schumann is quite as intimate or personal: he can almost be heard whispering into Clara’s ear of the love which would sustain their lives, both together and apart.
One method deployed by Friedrich Wieck to keep Clara and Schumann apart was to take her on extended concert trips all over Europe. Late in 1837 they arrived in Vienna for a six-month stay, Clara carrying the newly-presented Davidsbündlertänze in her luggage. By now she was an international star-in-the-making and the Viennese adored her, with Torte a la Wieck becoming a fashionable delicacy in the cafes and coffee-houses. Just before returning to Leipzig she wrote to Schumann with the scarcely believable news that Father Wieck had finally given in and agreed to their marriage—but on condition that they made their home in Vienna! Duped by this preposterous ploy but happy to do anything to hasten their union Schumann now uprooted himself and by October 1838 had set off to Vienna with the intention of preparing for a new life in the city of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert: Schumann’s musical gods. Still separated from Clara, his ‘distantly beloved’ muse continued to inspire his musical pen-letters and two of the more neglected would soon follow.
The Humoreske (Op 20) was started in Leipzig earlier in 1838 and represents a bold attempt to merge Schumann’s two characteristic types of structure—the collection of disparate miniatures and the extended unity of a sonata-inspired arch. In this instance the music seems to unfold from nowhere with a sense of quietly pensive improvisation. A faster idea follows which seems to catch its own tale as it runs ahead. There seems to be no literary or obvious extra-musical inspiration behind this exquisite musing—other, of course, than Clara herself. To her he wrote ‘All week I sat at the piano and composed, wrote, laughed and cried all together. You will find this all nicely evoked in my grand Humoresque’. Schumann was busily publishing his music now—partly to convince Clara’s father that he had credible prospects and that her unshakeable belief in his genius would soon be evident to the world at large. But Vienna was not ready to embrace him and he found the atmosphere there stifling and politically repressive. He summed up his contradictory feelings in one of his most curious yet infectious works—the Faschingsschwank aus Wien (Op 26) which is perhaps best expressed as a ‘Carnival-Jape from Vienna’. This, rather like the Fantasie, is a ‘sonata-in-disguise’ but one cast in a high-spirited rather than a profound vein. Schumann was a mercurial and often contradictory character: chameleon-like in his ability to affect different personalities and here he reveals an unbuttoned sense of joie de vivre quite at odds with his inward anguish. His sense of humour here comes vividly to life with a mischievous quotation of La Marseillaise towards the end of the first movement. This symbol of Revolutionary France was banned in Vienna and Schumann obviously realised that his nice new Viennese publisher Pietro Mechetti could get into trouble when he eventually published the work in 1841. But by then Schumann had long left Vienna and returned to Leipzig in April 1839 once he realised that Wieck had no intention of honouring his various pledges and was in fact intent on pursuing legal options to prevent Clara from marrying. As he travelled the news came that his beloved brother Eduard had died—he was his last surviving close relative and a final link with their birthplace of Zwickau. Schumann arrived too late for the funeral and something of his melancholy mood at this time suffused the next music he wrote once he settled back in Leipzig—the four Nachtstücke (Op 23)—which share a dark intensity and a haunting introspection. But Schumann was facing the darkest hour before dawn—within the year the clouds lifted and marriage to Clara became a joyful reality.
There is, however, a sadly poignant, tragic, footnote to this tale of Robert’s love for Clara. After less than 15 years as husband-and-wife he was taken to an asylum at Endenich in 1854 (reportedly at his own insistence) after jumping into the Rhine at Dusseldorf in an attempt to end his life, Schumann was not allowed any visit from Clara until the very day of his death two years later. But Endenich was very close to Bonn—and as soon as he was allowed out of the grounds for supervised walks, Schumann would insist, every time, on being taken to the grand Square by the Cathedral, where he would stand for an eternity in front of the great bronze statue of Beethoven—head bowed, heart in homage, lost in silent thought.
Geraint Lewis © 2024