Friday, September 13, 2019

CLARA AT 200

Clara Schumann. Portrait by Granger [who also painted Beethoven]

It's a source of surprise and delight that the single biggest anniversary being celebrated this year is that of Clara Schumann, whose 200th birthday falls today. At last Clara's full significance as a musical titan in her own right is being recognised - as composer of some excellent pieces, as the most important pianist of her time other than Liszt and Chopin, as professor, and as mentor and guide.

Besides, it's not only the strident middle-aged women of the business like me who are yelling about her. Some of the best young pianists and violinists around have taken up her cause and are championing her works, along with singers who are discovering her excellent output of Lieder. Over in Leipzig, the museum in the house where Robert and Clara lived when they were first married is reopening today after a refurbishment and Isata Kanneh-Mason is performing there. Leipzig is holding a year-long festival to celebrate its musical daughter's anniversary and there's a big Gewandhaus concert with Nelsons tonight and also tomorrow night to mark the occasion. And there is a lot more, far too much to list here, because there's something else I want to show you today.

This is a little musicological/narrative digression. First, listen to this: it's what happened when the Romanian pianist Alexandra Dariescu found a special way to introduce the Clara Schumann Piano Concerto to an unsuspecting audience just the other day, playing its slow movement as an encore at the George Enescu Festival in Bucharest - aided and abetted by the lead cellist of the Orchestre National de France.



Now... this work has its ups and downs and the slow movement is definitely an up. But it is much more significant than that. This work demonstrates that Clara's presence and influence are so inextricably embedded in our musical consciousness that most of us didn't even know it was there. Have a listen to this song by Robert Schumann, 'An Anna II'. Though it was published posthumously, it's an early work, written in 1828, at which point Clara would have been nine. She started writing her concerto when she was 13, i.e. 1832.



Sound a little bit familiar after the concerto slow movement? Next, try the Aria from Robert's Piano Sonata No.1 in F sharp minor.



This work dates from 1833-35 and is entitled: "Pianoforte Sonata, dedicated to Clara from Florestan and Eusebius" (as you know, those were Robert's joint pseudonyms of contrasting personalities).

So there is an exchange going on here. It seems very much as if Robert wrote the song; then the teenage prodigy Clara wrote the concerto; and by the time three more years had elapsed she had grown from famous little girl into starry young woman, she and Robert had fallen in love and now Robert returned to the song and turned it into the Aria from the sonata, dedicated to her. At least, this is how it looks. Could it be that Clara, who started composing as a child, had invented it for a piano piece already? Robert did not move to Leipzig until 1830 to take lessons with Clara's father Friedrich Wieck, but he had met and had lessons with him before doing so - he didn't arrive sight unseen. Who got there first? And does it matter? Perhaps it doesn't... but did the teenage Clara perhaps declare her love first - through taking the song for the Piano Concerto? And is this what set the pattern for Robert taking bits of Clara's piano pieces to embed within his own in an ideal of musical unity (the opening of Davidsbündlertänze being a case in point, but far from the only one)?

The first mention Clara makes of her feelings for Schumann in her diary refers to her sorrow and jealousy at seeing him with his then fiancée Ernestine von Fricken, and finding herself inevitably on the sidelines. She was about 11 or 12 then. Anyone who has ever had a first desperate crush, deemed unrequited at the time, would know exactly what the confused young girl was going through. Was her Piano Concerto her first musical message to him - and one that inadvertently opened the floodgates, not just emotionally but musically too?

And now, my friends, try this. Which other piano concerto from the Schumann circles features a cello solo in its slow movement? The melody is different, but the concept comes from guess where... For historical interest, here is Van Cliburn performing in Moscow with Kirill Kondrashin conducting the Moscow Philharmonic.



I leave you to make any further inferences yourself.

UPDATE – more musical trails, this time from Beethoven to the Schumanns, over at my IMMORTAL updates at Unbound: https://unbound.com/books/immortal/updates/beethoven-and-robert-and-clara-schumann (I do updates there every Friday. Progress on the book is good. Do come and have a peek.)


To support IMMORTAL, please click here.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Beethoven 250 kicks off in Bonn



It's never too early to start an anniversary celebration the size of Beethoven's 250th, and today at the Beethovenhaus in Bonn (which the best composer museum in the whole world, incidentally) the Universal Classics labels launched their plans for the occasion.

There's plenty to look forward to, including a new set of the symphonies performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Andris Nelsons, and a new Complete Edition involving 188 CDs, plus three Blu-ray Audio and two DVDs. A carnival of famous musical faces are on board, extending to some world premieres of works inspired by the Diabelli Variations are in the offing. Recordings old (Böhm, Kleiber, Bernstein etc) and new (Pollini, Ólafsson, Goerne) are all scrubbed up and ready to go.

The partnership with the Beethovenhaus looks inspiring, too. The museum has been closed for refurbishing - an enthusiastic plan of mine to go there a couple of weeks ago expired when I checked the website - but the newly anniversary-ready exhibition is to open on 14 September.

Meanwhile, I'm happy that for my Beethoven novel-in-the-works, Immortal, Universal has kindly donated two sets of four classic recordings each from the Decca and DG labels as pledge rewards for the crowdfunding campaign at Unbound. The first bundle has already been snapped up! One set still remains, though, and includes recordings by the Takács Quartet, Maurizio Pollini and the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Böhm and Carlos Kleiber. And of course you get a signed copy of the book too. Find more about it here (scroll down the pledge levels to find it).

One thing is certain in these uncertain days: we are going to be hearing a heck of a lot of Beethoven between now and the end of next year: his actual 250th anniversary falls in December 2020. I'm sure there will be the usual complaints and sighs and sniping about anniversary overkill, but this time I really don't care. Beethoven is the best of the lot and we need his indomitable strength more than ever. Bring him on!