Showing posts with label Robert Schumann. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert Schumann. Show all posts

Friday, March 13, 2015

My Dream Interviewee No.1...

Yesterday I interviewed a wonderful composer. I love interviewing composers. You can't get closer to the source of the art we love than you can by talking to the people who create it. Let's not forget, music is a human creation. Every note, squeak and silence is a choice made by a person with a pen - OK, these days it's someone with a Sibelius computer, but a choice nevertheless. We are fortunate to go and talk to John Adams, Judith Weir, Philip Glass and the rest - but certain others are no longer with us....so I've availed myself of a new-fangled invention to solve the problem. Here is my Dream Interviewee No.1.

He is ROBERT SCHUMANN. I visited him in my new Parsifal 3000 Travellation, in which time becomes space.



Dear Herr Dr Professor Schumann, it's a great pleasure to meet you.

Mrs Duchen, likewise, likewise. Welcome to Düsseldorf. I trust your extraordinary time machine gave you a smooth journey?

It was, let's say, an interesting experience...but I'm very happy to be here, in the Schumann family living room!

Excellent, dear lady - please have a seat, and Marie will bring in the coffee.

You are very lucky to have such a helpful daughter.

Especially for my wife, Clara, Marie, our eldest, is an angel from heaven. For the little ones, so is our friend Hannes!

I hear he comes round and entertains them by doing gymnastics on the banisters?

Haha, and more, and more... He's a young lion, you know, a veritable eagle whose music will soar into the future. Do you know him where you live, in the 21st century?

Do we know Johannes Brahms? Er, we do...

And how is he regarded?

Well, he is one of the all-time greats - we talk about the Three Bs, and they are Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

I knew it! I knew I was right. I enjoyed being a critic, unlike many others... I edited a magazine too, you remember? That was enormous fun, but hard work, always having to turn away people who thought they could write well, but never actually read anything.

You have always been very literary, haven't you?

There is always music in good words. Without it, they will never rise from the page. Remember that, my writer friend! And there must be meaning in good music. It goes beyond the capability of words, but it must be there. Otherwise we will turn away from it and play music that does have meaning. After Beethoven our question is: what next? How can we possibly follow him?

So, tell me what was it like the first time you met Brahms?

Well, he turned up on our doorstep, unannounced. It was a few months ago, October 1853, and we weren't home, but Marie was, so there is a knock on the door, she trots along to see who's there and on the step is this boy of 20, blond hair, blue eyes, cheekbones and the rest of it, and she is quite impressed. He has a letter of introduction to us from Joseph Joachim, which he leaves with Marie. We read it and it sounds quite positive. Joachim, you know, is the leader of Liszt's orchestra in Weimar and a powerhouse, in his own cantankerous way, even though he isn't much older than Brahms himself. He played under Mendelssohn's direction when he was only Marie's age. We have known him for years, through Mendelssohn, and he sends Brahms to us and the young man just arrives.

I think it was a happier experience for him to come to us than his visit to Liszt. You know what happened? Haha! He goes to Weimar and finds Liszt holding court, playing the piano to all his adoring acolytes. Brahms has been travelling all day and he is tired out. He sits at the back of the room, and Liszt plays the whole of his rather long Sonata in B minor - which, you know, is dedicated to me! - and Brahms does his very best, but despite himself he nods off. Not a good move.

So, he arrived on your doorstep and...

And I gave him some coffee and wondered what it was that was so special about this rather shy, squeaky-voiced lad. He takes out of his bag an enormous sheaf of manuscript paper covered in thick black scrawls, places it on the coffee table in front of me, then goes to the piano and begins a sonata and I nearly fall out of my chair.

I waited until a quiet moment - it's a noisy opening, the C major Sonata, because he is trying to write Beethoven's 'Hammerklavier' - then I stopped him. He looked most distressed. He must have thought I didn't like his music. No, no! I wanted to call Clara, who was attending to her correspondence upstairs, and I told her: you have to come into the music room, right now, this minute. You have to hear this. She did so, curious, and there, in front of me, she gazed across that room and her eyes and Brahms's met for the first time.

Something about him shone. He sat at our piano and he just - shone. He lit the room as if we had raised a hundred candles above him and his clothes and skin were made of mirrors. Clara sat beside me and he began his sonata again. What a voice emerged from it - a giant personality, springing from its parent creator's head fully formed like Pallas Athene! Some would-be composers never find their voice. Others are imbued with it as if in the womb. After about half a minute Clara gave me one sideways glance. You know, I think, when you meet someone who is going to change your life.

Herr Doktor Professor Schumann, it is generous of you to speak about Brahms like this. I would like to ask you about your music, too, of course. Why the alter egos? Why did you introduce Florestan and Eusebius?

Why? That is an interesting question - they have been with me for so long that I can scarcely remember. I nearly became a writer. I used to write, in my youth - I wrote a few novels, but eventually I found music could take out more of myself, if that makes sense to you?

It does indeed...

I have, you know, a remarkably vivid dream world. As a boy I lived in dreams much of the time, and it became a habit. I don't draw much distinction between reality and what I know to be my dreams - because they become reality. That is how you create the world, through dreaming, through imagining.

Do you know Richard Wagner?

I do - a bumptious gentleman, isn't he? He has stolen a lot from my music, I understand, but what he does with it is supposed to be quite good.

Well, he once said - though I don't know if he's already said it - that imagination creates reality.

There you go. Nothing is new under the sun, no? So, to my friends, the poets. I was very young, of course, my father was a publisher and a writer, and the house was full of books. It was, too, full of pain. My sister died, you know. This boy I was could scarcely bear the loss - the weight of the world, of all adult grief, wrapped me closer and closer, like an instrument of torture. And I discovered the worlds of Goethe, Jean Paul and ETA Hoffmann. I would take their books and dive in, as if into a great blue mountain lake with whole universes beneath the azure surface, and there I would swim, free at last, with those worlds of discovery before me, my inner self becoming first one character, then another. I found Florestan and Eusebius in Jean Paul, and each was like me, though totally different. Therefore in them I saw two sides of one person. Human beings have many facets, every writer knows this - today I don't think it is so extraordinary.

But why create music based around them?

Not based around them so much as informed by them, I'd say. Why? Because it is enjoyable to do so. I said earlier that music must have meaning. But that meaning does not have to be weighty and frown-ridden. It might be, on occasion. Yet think of my Clara. She doesn't like it if I experiment too much. She says always: think of the people who play your music, think of the people who buy it. If you are too peculiar, too obscure, they'll choose something else instead. Where does that leave you? I am their puppet-master in the music, sometimes - Maester Raro, mediating between them. I might be playing at my piano - you play music, but you also play at music! - and I improvise, and I invent. The music might be tender, quiet, reflective, so a Eusbius creation; or my thoughts might be turbulent and impassioned, in the guise of Florestan. I am glad if people find this interesting, and it is a way of bringing literary allusion to one's work without having to set about the laborious process of actually telling somebody else's story in your own sounds.

We make quite a lot of this, you know...

Haha! Please feel free to make of my music what you will. I am merely glad to know that it has lasted so well.

Who did you know? Who were your favourite people?

My dear lady, I have to tell you, I have never had a friend, or missed a friend, like Felix Mendelssohn. What a man. What an artist. Nobody could resist his charm - not even my Clara! She used to flirt with him like never with anybody else, and in front of me! There was just...nothing she could do about it. Despite him being, you know, from another race. He was an Israelite. She was of a very sheltered background, my Clara, and she found this distinctly strange, even though he had apparently converted as a child and was indeed more a devout Christian than we ourselves. But perhaps it added to the fascination. Like the Gypsies. Nobody can resist them either. Brahms is transfixed by their musicians.

So, er, yes...so Mendelssohn was close to you? 

His death was terrible. So young. Not even forty. I think he worked himself to death - though others say it was the demise of his sister that made him fall to pieces, others gossip that there was perhaps another woman, and still more say that there was a weakness in the family inheritance that caused them to have strokes too young. For us, left behind, the shock has been fearful. I dream of him often and I wake sweating, convinced I shall see him again, convinced that his fate presages something of my own. Clara tells me not to be silly, but the idea haunts me like the ghost of Felix himself...come along, my dear, let's have some more coffee, shall we?

A good idea, thank you.

And how long will you stay in Düsseldorf?

I must go back to London today - but now that I know my Parsifal 3000 Travellation is so effective, please may I come and see you again?

Of course you may. You play my music yourself?

On the piano. Badly. I've played Kinderszenen, Kreisleriana, Papillons, some of the Fantasiestücke, I've bashed through the first and last movements of the Fantasie, though I can't play the March, and at the moment I'm learning Waldszenen. It makes me cry every time.

Ahh. Then you know me better than you think.

Friday, January 09, 2015

At the feet of guess who...

I'm officially on holiday - a long way off, somewhere hot and sunny that involves hammocks, trees and the sound of the sea. But there's WiFi, so I can still offer you, belatedly, some impressions of the two gentlemen above, whom I was fortunate to hear at Wigmore Hall last Sunday, at an extremely welcome last minute.

Yes, Der Jonas was back in our top Lieder hall, and there are few finer places in which to appreciate his remarkable qualities at close quarters, within a warm acoustic magnifying glass. Here, even from the back row, the ambience and sound quality are intimate enough to let us hear a degree of nuance that might not come over to the same extent in a larger, more impersonal space.

An all-Schumann first half from two highly sophisticated German musicians could scarcely be bettered. First of all, the partnership between Kaufmann and Deutsch - Jonas's Lieder Svengali - is something quite exceptional. The voice and the piano are so attuned to one another as to fuse into an indivisible sound, just as an orchestra at its best becomes a single entity. To call Deutsch an accompanist would be not just invidious, but unthinkable. They opened with five of the too-rarely heard Kerner Lieder, topped by 'Stille Tränen' - one of Schumann's most devastating songs, laden with the burdens of depression and intense longing, to say nothing of the glories of its melody. Kaufmann built up to this song as the climax it needs to be - and can hardly help being, given its quality - and unleashed the full power of his exceptional dynamic control.

Some musicians' sounds, whether they are singers, violinists, pianists or anything else, strike us at what certain New Age types would call the Chakra points. The vibrations might strike us primarily at the top of the head, between the eyebrows, around the solar plexus, clean in the stomach or guts, and probably one or two other spots as well - but whichever is the case, it becomes irresistible, setting off goose-bumps in some cases, tears in others, or simply the sense of rising far from everyday predictability into something rare, more sensitive, more extraordinary, that carries us with it to some measure of the beyond. Suffice it to say that this song did that.

Dichterliebe - the ultimate Schumann cycle, to many - is a work much maligned and misinterpreted, despite its phenomenal beauty and the perfectionism of its writing. This is not Schubert; far from the innocence and tragedy of Die schöne Müllerin and the desperation of Winterreise, this is Schumann's take on a love story - won, then lost - as portrayed by the poet Heinrich Heine, master of double-edged irony. Some suggest, oddly, that Schumann ignored Heine's detachment and cynicism. Yet the composer was a highly literary individual, one as adept (or nearly) with words as he was with music, constantly inspired by the poetry and novels of German romanticism at its peak. Kaufmann and Deutsch's Dichterliebe was as much Heine as it was Schumann; Kaufmann's gifts as storyteller were to the fore, backed by the refulgent tones of Deutsch's pianism; this was delicate, close-sketched life-drawing, leaving an emotional impact as subtle as the poet deserves - not head-butting indulgence, but something far more nuanced and colourful.

After the interval came the Wagner Wesendonck Lieder, Kaufmann bringing to the world of solo song the composer with whom he is perhaps most strongly associated. Studies for Tristan? If the third and fifth songs are indeed, Kaufmann will (hopefully) be a Tristan to be reckoned with if/when he gets round to singing the role. For the time being, this was a Wagner incarnation as rare and insightful as the Dichterliebe was to Schumann: a fresh, convincing and unexpected take that made complete musical and poetic sense. These songs, usually larger than life with a mezzo and an orchestra, became intimate and transparent, but in a world of their own, distinct from the Schumann; Kaufmann's perfect Siegmund tone shone at its steel-and-caramel best.

For Liszt's three Petrarch Sonnet settings - oddly, better known in their solo piano versions -  Kaufmann turned Italian. Like a religious convert who becomes more zealous than those born into a faith, he can sometimes seem more Italian than the Italians. The sound of the words becomes not only the inspiration for the music - instead, the words are the music, the latter simply a manifestation of a soundworld that is already there in Petrarch's dazzling love poems. If Dichterliebe was a set of keenly observed charcoal sketches, the Sonnets were as gigantic and perfectly wrought as Michelangelo sculptures. Petrarch gives his all in these poems, Liszt follows suit and Kaufmann and Deutsch delivered in kind. One encore - Schumann's 'Mondnacht' - quietened down to an exquisitely controlled, half-lit cantilena in which - as often through the evening - you couldn't help wondering when he manages to breathe.

Most Jonas concerts involve a substantial quantity of encores, but this one didn't. Whether that was because it was a huge programme and he is saving himself for the small matter of Andrea Chénier rehearsals at the ROH, or because the audience mostly didn't stand up, then started to make its way out while he was taking curtain calls, is hard to say. The Wigmore is the finest concert hall in London by a long chalk, but it is a notoriously difficult place in which to get up and yell and cheer, which is what we'd have liked to do and which is what this performance deserved. Not wishing to embarrass my colleagues in Critics' Corner, I resisted the temptation. What a pity one feels one has to. I've seen a place as staid as Vienna's Musikverein go totally, utterly bananas over a Jonas-and-Helmut recital and the fact that that didn't happen in London says more about us than it does about them.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Beethovenfest Bonn 1: The Death of Schumann


Yesterday I stood in the room where Schumann died. 

It's a little room on the top floor, at the end of a long, old building in Endenich - a rather out-of-the-way and very leafy suburb of Bonn. This house was, in its time, a mental hospital; here Schumann spent the last two-and-a-half years of his life. He had one of the better chambers, with windows on two sides. Today only two rooms of the building form the Schumannhaus museum; downstairs is home to the town's music library and much of the upper floor, before you reach the Schumann space, is taken up by a largish area, bookshelf-lined, that hosts concerts.

In Schumann's room now stands a small piano that was once played by Liszt. Schumann was not allowed a piano there; one feels this instrument's presence is perhaps a rectification of rather an injustice. Atop it is a coverlet that belonged to Schumann's friend Joseph Joachim, the great violinist, embroidered by a number of Berlin ladies with his initials JJ and some musical motifs from his compositions. Photos of Schumann, Clara, Joachim and Brahms adorn the walls, while some of their letters and a copy of the manuscript of the Geistervariationen are on display in glass cases. Among them is Schumann's last (?) letter to Clara, dated about a year before he died. He saw Clara again - and for the last time - only when he was on his deathbed.

Schumann's last illness was pneumonia, brought on by starvation. The info in the museum says that he refused to eat, believing that (as a number of inmates apparently thought) the food was poisoned. I have read opinions elsewhere that suggested he may have been deliberately starving himself - a slow suicide over the fact that there was no way out. The writer Bettina von Arnim, who visited him earlier, had apparently found him in good health and longing to go home. Mental illness at that time was a terrible stigma. Perhaps, effectively, he was being "buried alive".

Here is an extract from the museum's information sheet:
Q: What type of therapy was administered at that time?
A: In those days, medications such as mood brighteners or drugs able to alter or enhance one's mental state did not exist. Dr Richarz advocated a treatment of non-restraint in opposition to coercive torture-like methods practiced in the public "crazy houses" of that time. Some of the therapies which patients were subjected to in good fait, and today seem nonsensical, were the dousing of patients with cold water and the boring of holes in the skull to allow the escape of "bad fluids" - similar to blood-letting. Richarz could not completely do without some of the extreme methods when dealing with severely ill patients (eg strapping patients to their beds). Alcohol was administered as a medication.

Brahms, with Clara and Joachim, hurried to Schumann's bedside when news came to Düsseldorf from the doctors that they must hurry if they wished to see him again. He wrote:


"At first he lay for a long time with eyes closed, and she knelt before him, more calmly than one would believe possible. But after a while he recognised her. Once he plainly desired to embrace her, flung one arm wide around her. Of course he had been unable to speak for some time already. One could understand (or perhaps imagine one did) only some disconnected words. Even that must have made her happy. He often refused the wine that was offered him, but from her finger he sometimes sucked it up eagerly, at such length and so passionately that one knew with certainty that he recognised the finger...

Tuesday noon, we came half an hour after his passing. He had passed away very gently, so that it was scarcely noticed. His body looked peaceful then; how comforting it all was. A wife could not have stood it any longer..."


The room is light and peaceful; the chestnut tree beyond the window may or may not have been there then. The scene is almost unimaginable, but we imagine it anyway, as best we can.

I've just been to Bonn for the Beethovenfest. Packed an extraordinary number of amazing experiences into barely two days. Stand by for Beethovenfest post 2 - which might even be about Beethoven...

Friday, June 08, 2012

It's Schumann's birthday

It's Schumann's birthday, so for a Friday Historical I'd like to play one of the most exquisite and heartbreaking recordings I know. This is Menuhin in the slow movement of the Violin Concerto. A much-maligned work that might have lain forgotten in a Berlin library forever, had Clara and Joachim had their way, it's a piece that can baffle on first hearing; but the better you know it, the more there is to discover, especially in the cyclic nature of its themes - for instance, a pattern that sounds like a curving, linking melody in this movement is derived from the second subject of the first movement and forms the main theme of the third. That's just a taster idea; listen and go deeper. Much deeper.

Recorded in 1937 with Barbirolli conducting  the New York Philharmonic. (It cuts off rather abruptly at the end - this movement, of course, leads straight into the finale.)




Monday, May 07, 2012

Happy Birthday, Brahms. What did you do to that B major Trio?

It's Brahms's birthday. Today, before twigging the date, I heard something I've not encountered before that nearly made me choke on my Cornflakes. It's the original version, dating from 1854, of his B major Trio, Op.8. The revised version, from 1890, is the one generally performed now, acknowledged the world over as a masterpiece. This is very different.

In 1854, Brahms was 21. That year, in February - just five months after Brahms met him and Clara for the first time - Schumann suffered a mental breakdown and attempted suicide; he then went, at his own request, into a mental asylum at Endenich. Brahms spent the next two years being supporter-in-chief to the grieving Clara and the large brood of Schumann children. Schumann died in the asylum two years later.

Guess what Brahms excised from the last movement of that trio? Its first version is replete with a rather familiar theme. It is "Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder", from Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte - used by Schumann, in his youthful days when he and Clara were trying to communicate against her father's instructions, as a coded message - most of all in the Fantasie in C major, Op.17.

Here is what Brahms did with it. What it - and its absence from the 1890 version - tells us about the turbulence of that last movement, and the tragic climax to which he brings it, can only make us wonder what else he hid, revised or burned later in life. It's played here by the Trio Jean Paul - named after the writer who so influenced Schumann.