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Three of Schumann's most glorious song cycles are here wonderfully re-clothed in Jeremy Sams's new English translations and performances to match.
There were signs of his fragile mental health from an early age, as he struggled to reconcile two contradictory sides to his own personality, which he named Florestan (‘the wild’) and Eusebius (‘the mild’). As a young man, he was undisciplined, hard-drinking and often depressed, even as he began to have patchy success as a composer of piano music, much of it evoking the imaginary characters that populated his own mind.
He took lessons with the distinguished piano teacher Friedrich Wieck, who welcomed Robert into his home as a musical apprentice, thinking he had the makings of a virtuoso. It was a hothouse of music and ambition—and the star pupil was Wieck’s 11-year-old daughter Clara, a child prodigy pianist who bore comparisons with Mozart, having recently made a sensational debut in Leipzig.
Robert and Clara were instantly drawn to each other, bonding over a love of music, literature, long walks, spooky stories, and a mutual need for companionship in the pressurised atmosphere of the Wieck household. For a while, Robert pursued an intensely sexual and guilt-inducing relationship with Wieck’s servant Christiane (‘Christel’) Apitzsch, but over time it was his feelings for Clara that won out, and when she was 16 we find her writing to her diary to record their first kiss.
But Friedrich Wieck’s priority was Clara’s career, a fulfilment of all the brilliance he had planned for her. He wrote to Robert to sever all connections and whisked his daughter off on tour, aiming to extend her fame across Europe. For almost two years, Robert and Clara did not see each other: he concentrated on trying to publish his latest piano compositions, as well as sowing some more wild oats; and she was busy being a star. Their feelings, though, were unchanged, and it was agreed that Clara’s 18th birthday was the moment when Robert would write to her father to ask for her hand in marriage.
Wieck reacted with rage, threatening to shoot Robert and banning all contact with his daughter. Music must come first! Schumann was a lazy drunkard, a mediocre composer and a treacherous pupil; he was owed a return on all he had invested in his brilliant daughter; and there was no way he would allow her to use her concert fees as a dowry.
After years of turmoil and secrecy, it ended in court, in a case that dragged on for nearly a year. Robert and Clara behaved with dignity, diplomacy and steady determination. Wieck behaved like a lunatic. But the final hearing was in favour of the star-crossed lovers and after a decade of despair they were finally married in September 1840, one day before Clara’s 21st birthday.
The flipside of Robert’s happiness—the long years of anxiety and estrangement, his continued mental health struggles, a fear he could still lose Clara—found expression, and perhaps also a measure of exorcism, in three song cycles that are the supreme achievements of his miraculous ‘year of song’ in 1840. They are all, in their way, portraits of the artist as a young man.
The first was a Liederkreis (literally ‘a circle of songs’) composed in May 1840. It brings together twelve poems by Joseph von Eichendorff, a devout Catholic from an aristocratic family who became the great poet of the German landscape. They do not tell a story, but instead piece together a kind of mosaic from poems evoking Eichendorff’s favourite themes—solitude, memory, homesickness, night, dreams, forests, antiquity and (above all) the mysterious beauty of nature. Nearly all the songs contain the image of a wanderer, and Schumann arranged them to give his Liederkreis the emotional arc of a coming-of-age narrative, beginning in exile and ending on the brink of a new life, with the triumphant declaration ‘She is mine!’
The ink was barely dry on the Eichendorff songs when Schumann started on another cycle, which he called A poet’s love (Dichterliebe). Its theme is unhappy love and the poems are by Heinrich Heine, one of the most paradoxical of all writers: an arch-romantic with a cynical streak; capable of incomparable tenderness but inclined to lace his verses with biting sarcasm; a passionate champion of German culture and folklore who always felt himself a Jewish outsider in his home country.
The story is told in fragments—it has famously been said that Dichterliebe begins in the middle and does not end—and continually mixes up past, present and future. But the basics are clear and as old as the hills: a poet fell in love in the springtime, but his beloved upped and married someone else. Beyond that, there are all sorts of puzzling gaps in the narrative—but they seem not to matter: this is a poet’s love, more concerned with feelings than facts, and with the higher purpose of using art to reverse time and turn grief back into beauty.
A poet’s love is essentially a self-encounter—the unreciprocating girl is never really in focus. But as if to redress the balance, Schumann followed it with a song cycle in which the female character is not only in focus but the entire focus—because it is written from her viewpoint. A woman’s life, a woman’s love (Frauenliebe und -leben) was composed in just two days in July 1840, to poems by Adelbert von Chamisso, who Robert recognised as a kindred progressive spirit who wished to ‘portray neglected segments of society’, in this case by giving voice to ‘an underrepresented, passionate woman’s perspective’. His poems chart the course of a woman’s life—from a teenage crush, through engagement, marriage, childbirth and family life, and then, finally, grief and widowhood.
From a modern standpoint, it can seem impossibly patronising: two men joining forces to portray a woman’s feelings of hero-worship and unworthiness towards her husband. On the other hand, Robert’s ability to stand outside himself and see the world from another perspective, to wear disguises and explore alter egos, was always one of his strongest suits as a composer. Sometimes, it seems, he had to put on a mask to discover the truth about himself—and part of that truth was just how much Clara had given up for him and his career. ‘Too often’ he once admitted, ‘my songs have been bought at the cost of forcing her to remain silent’. And as for feelings of unworthiness, life was to imitate art, fourteen years later, when Robert told his wife ‘Ah Clara I am not worthy of your love’ the day before he attempted suicide and was admitted to the insane asylum where he later died, leaving her a widow with seven children.
Happiness may indeed ‘write white’ but the poet Andrew Motion has an interesting observation on that phrase. ‘White writing’ he notes, ‘is only invisible on a white background; against any colour darker that itself it’s plain for all to read’ because ‘true happiness (as opposed to mere escapism) can only exist within hailing distance of its opposite’. It rings true of the way despair, loss and loneliness haunt the three great song cycles Schumann composed in 1840, just as his life was finally getting on track. As he said, ‘Everything in the world affects me … I think it over in my own way, and then it has to find a way out through music.’
Christopher Glynn © 2024