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

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.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Tribute to Tasmin Little

Tasmin Little
Photo: Paul Mitchell

Last week Tasmin Little, one of the UK's top violin soloists, announced that she has decided to 'hang up her concert gown' in 2020. Plenty to do, she says, but no more concerts. Here's the story from The Strad.

A flood of tributes has been pouring in and I'm adding to that. But I can't deny that here the news initially came as a shock. It so happens that Tasmin is one of my oldest and dearest friends. We're the same age and got to know each other when we were 17 - long before I had any notion I'd become a journalist. She is the first of our circle - possibly the first of any of my immediate 'peer group' - to hint at the word 'retire'. Not that she's said 'retire' as such - her website says that she will be 'ending her concert career' - but effectively this means retiring from the stage. It pulls one up short: whaddaya mean, 'retire'? We're only 17...aren't we? Heavens. Does time really go this fast?

Oh, yes. It does. And for any international classical soloist it goes faster still. A glance at a random selection of appropriate Twitter feeds will be enough to prove that musicians probably spend more time in airports than they do on the concert platform, that the matter of playing an instrument is highly physical, that the continual round of jet-lag, adrenaline and performance pressure demands great resilience in addition to evident talent.

I decided at the age of 23 to face the fact that I wasn't cut out for a piano career, and though I missed it at first, I've never doubted that stopping then was the right thing to do. Years on, I don't know how anyone does it at all.

I don't blame Tasmin one bit for wanting a change and I have the utmost respect for her decision, which can't have been easy. She is making the choice in a manner that is objective, in control and powered by self-knowledge. And I know she will excel at whatever she turns her hand to next - she has so much to give.

She is also in good company. My second-ever interviewee, when I was 21, was the great Italian violinist Gioconda de Vito. She was turning 80 and I went to talk to her for The Strad. She lived in Rickmansworth in a house surrounded by a beautiful garden full of birds and animals, and her husband translated for her since she had never learned to speak fluent English. She had retired in her fifties at the peak of her career. She played to the Pope. Then decided things couldn't get any better than that. She'd heard a late recital by the elderly Alfred Cortot, a car-crash full of wrong notes, and did not want to follow his example. So she stopped. I was intrigued: didn't she miss it? She didn't. At 21 I was incredulous. Several decades later, I understand it a lot better.

Tasmin has weathered everything magnificently, her zest for life and fun and music sparkling out of that Guadagnini, lighting up with joy and positivity every hall and every room she enters. She is one of the most extraordinarily consistent individuals I've been lucky enough to know: pure gold all the way through.

A lively interview from The Violin Channel


Tasmin and I met for the first time at a private recital by a mutual pianist friend at my (and the friend's) piano teacher's house. It was December 1983. I'd just done A levels, was having what was then called a 'year out' (the term 'gap yaar' was yet to be devised) and was learning to drive. Tasmin had reached the final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year the previous year; now she was fresh out of the Menuhin School, going to the Guildhall, and wanted driving lessons too. It turned out we lived near each other, so she called me the next day to ask for my driving teacher's number and to invite me round for supper.

I was enchanted by the Littles. Tasmin is from a gloriously theatrical family. Her father is the actor George Little, whose splendid performances I enjoyed very much - in particular the one-man show he wrote, Paradise Garden, about growing up during the war in Bradford, culminating with the revelation of local boy Frederick Delius's music on the radio... Charismatic, funny and warm, he was an irresistible presence and Tasmin learned much about public presentation from him, as well as how to turn pre-performance adrenaline to advantage. Jilly, her mother, is just as sunny, extrovert and full of good humour. They could scarcely have been more different from my own parents, who were quiet, academic and somewhat shy, tending to keep themselves to themselves, whether by accident or design.

Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending at the Proms in 1995, conducted by Andrew Davis



Living a longish tube ride from my school, I'd been friendly with a circle of girls from another part of the suburbs altogether and did too little socialising out of hours. But to find a friend down the road - well, that was a first. Even today, one of my favourite memories of Tasmin is the time, one afternoon not long after that, she invited me along to a masterclass at the Purcell Room in which she was playing to Michel Schwalbé, the leader of the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan. I was on the edge of my seat, soaking up all that was going on (he was quite a personality - that's another story). Afterwards we sloped off to unwind. We hopped on the Bakerloo Line to Piccadilly Circus, wandered through Chinatown and feasted royally on red bean buns. Afterwards we went back to my house, where my mum tried to give us a nice healthy supper, but could we eat? Er...

Over the years, friends sometimes vanish. New study environments, moves of house, demanding jobs, marriages, children and so forth, or simply growing apart - everything conspires against keeping in touch. But Tasmin never vanished. She went to study in Canada with Lorand Fenyves, but she always took the trouble to write letters. While I was away at university, she wrote letters (and anyway I wasn't too happy there and used to zip home whenever I could). If one has no kids (I haven't) it can be tricky keeping up with friends who do have them because often their other friends with children are prioritised, quite understandably so. That was never the case here. We followed each others' ups and downs over the years - and we both had plenty - even though life took us in very different directions. I basically sit at home with my husband and cats, writing. She travels the world with her violin, while also bringing up her two wonderful kids. I named the baby who arrives at the end of my first novel Rites of Spring after Tasmin's daughter.

Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata with Andrey Gugnin at the Sydney International Piano Competition. Andrey went on to win first prize.



I could fill this blog with memories of Tasmin. One that particularly stands out is the time I invited her to go busking at Waterloo as an experiment for The Independent, following Joshua Bell's example in Washington DC. That was an eye-opener for us both and sparked her idea to create the Naked Violin project - free access to a solo recording and plenty of information about it on the internet, which back then was groundbreaking, accompanied by a high quotient of outreach work in schools, shopping malls, oil rigs, homeless shelters and more.

Well before that, there was the time she played the Korngold Concerto in Manchester, about eight months pregnant. Later, Carnegie Hall with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic - Tom and I flew there to hear and cheer her and we all went for cocktails at the Rainbow Room. The Proms - lots of them, but especially the Ligeti Concerto with Rattle. I think that was the evening a mobile phone went off a few bars into The Rite of Spring and Rattle stopped and gave the audience a bit of a tirade about it. It's thanks to Tasmin that I got to know Roxanna Panufnik, Piers Lane and a whole galaxy of other marvellous people. And I'll always cherish the countless times we and our little group of friends who meet for lunch every few months have found ourselves falling off our chairs with laughter together, sometimes in rather nice restaurants, to everyone else's amusement.

Those memories will continue to build, but the sound of her playing, at least publicly, will soon have to rely on her recordings for preservation. Fortunately there are plenty of them, and the newest is coming out in February - recorded with the pianist John Lenehan, it's of music by fantastic composers who happen to have been women: Clara Schumann, Dame Ethel Smyth and Amy Beach (more info here from the Chandos website).

Here's a promotional video for it from Chandos: https://www.facebook.com/chandosrecords/videos/2495919247146924/?t=39

In the meantime, we still have a year and a half to enjoy the remaining concerts.

Brava bravissima, Tasmin - and more power to your elbow!




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...

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.