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Happy Birthday, Robert Schumann!

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Robert Schumann, 1850; daguerreotype by Johann Anton Völlner

Of all the composers who have made a permanent contribution to the standard concert repertoire and who have radically altered the subsequent history of classical music, Robert Schumann, whose bicentenary we celebrate this year, has inspired the greatest misunderstanding. The misunderstanding began with his own conception of his genius and his place in history.

As a young man in Leipzig, by the age of twenty-nine he created a revolutionary new form of piano music, a collection of character pieces—portraits of friends, popular dances, landscape or mood pictures—that were not just heard as individual numbers but that formed a whole. Each set could be experienced as a single work and astonishingly each even had something like a narrative structure, starting with stability, increasing in dramatic tension, and ending with a resolution, sometimes triumphant and brilliant, sometimes movingly poetic. Among these works are Papillons, Carnaval, the Davidsbündlertänze, the Kinderszenen, and Kreisleriana. Schumann himself remained ill at ease with his achievement, claiming that we had enough composers who could write short character pieces and what we needed was truly serious work—sonatas, symphonies, and quartets. In other words, what the age called for was a successor to Beethoven.

When his great series of piano works came mostly to an end by 1840, Schumann began to write songs. This was a musical form he had previously considered unworthy of the consideration of a truly ambitious composer. Now he set poems by Heine, Eichendorff, Chamisso, and others, and in a year and a half he had produced 125 songs. Building on the work of Franz Schubert, he revolutionized the German lied with a new understanding of the relation of the sung melody to the accompaniment. He created song cycles like his great piano sets in which all the songs were understood as part of a single unified work, but in which the piano accompaniment played a role equal in importance to the vocal line.

Schubert had often set the scene of his songs with an opening phrase in the piano, but Schumann’s most striking innovation was the occasional long postlude in the piano, sometimes incorporating entirely new material, making an elaborate pure instrumental commentary on the matter of the song. He also expanded the range of musical representation far beyond any of his predecessors, with effects of irony and sarcasm, ecstasy and desperation.

After that he devoted himself largely to composing ambitious musical forms that were supposed to be important—symphonies, oratorios, quartets, etc. He occasionally wrote some songs later, but they are rarely as effective as those from the monumental production of his twenty-ninth and thirtieth years. Among the works in large classical forms such as his symphonies there are many fine things to be found, but they do not often compare in power, energy, and originality with the great piano sets and song cycles of the previous decade.

One pattern emerges in Schumann’s life: with each new form or medium, he tended to write himself out as if possessed. The wonderful piano concerto that came shortly after the song cycles was originally a single-movement work (like Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy) that really encompassed four movements—an allegro, a slow movement, a scherzo, and a return with final coda. His wife, Clara Wieck, a famous pianist, demanded two more movements, and he supplied them—and they are excellent, but much lighter and less passionate, with more of the brilliance and character of salon music. Two other works for piano and orchestra came later and have never won favor, and are far less interesting in almost every way.

The only one of his large works of chamber music to achieve real popularity is the first, the quintet for piano and strings. During the 1840s, he became briefly interested in a piano with a pedal keyboard like an organ and composed six exquisitely beautiful canons for it (Debussy arranged them for two pianos to make performance more convenient). Four later pieces for this instrument are sadly of little interest. The creative drive of the decade from the age of twenty-one to thirty-one largely dissipated, in spite of a few extraordinarily fine pieces like the slow movement of the C Major Symphony and the first of the Songs of Spring for piano, based on poems by Hölderlin.

A composer’s greatest achievements are often inspired as much by his deficiencies as by his natural talents. Beautiful melodies did not come as easily to Beethoven as to Mozart, nor did he have that easy facility for counterpoint that Mozart possessed, but he managed to come out with some of the most original melodic ideas when he needed them, and by sheer force of will he elaborated a new kind of counterpoint that rivaled J.S. Bach and Mozart—in fact, it seems to me that his difficulty in working it out is perceptible to listeners, and this gives his counterpoint a force that we find nowhere else, as if we experience the willpower necessary for its conception.

In the same way, it was Schumann’s weaknesses that inspired the most original conceptions that had the greatest influence on later composers. In his famous essay on Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony (Schumann was a great musical journalist), he characterizes the contemporary metric system of music as a prison. He was inspired in this by a passage from a novelist, Johann Ernst Wagner, a disciple of Jean Paul (Schumann’s favorite contemporary writer), who remarked that the nightingale pours out her song in free rhythm, unconstrained by the strictly and uniformly measured bars that afflict composers. Basically, almost all music of the time was measured out by two to four beats to a bar, with a clear strong downbeat at the beginning of each bar that defines the rhythmic shape. In addition, from about 1730, a slower beat was almost always superimposed, grouping all the bars by four or eight, the first of which had a heavier accent.

This convention has lasted until our time; it articulates the harmony clearly, and was certainly influenced by the conventions of dance steps. The four- or eight-bar grouping, largely regulating the harmony as well as the rhythm, made possible the great jazz improvisations of the twentieth century from Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson to Miles Davis (if one could take for granted the background harmonic structure, one could imaginatively overlay the improvisation without fear). The regularity of the four-bar phrase is also useful as it has an almost physical effect, nearly hypnotic in carrying the listener along with the music, a characteristic absolutely crucial from boogie-woogie to rock music.

Nevertheless, the rigid and banal grouping by four bars was very often felt as a burden that limited creation. Schumann suggested that perhaps Berlioz might become the composer to recapture the liberty of the nightingale with a more spontaneous rhythm. Quoting Johann Ernst Wagner, he writes that “he who is destined to conceal and render imperceptible the tyranny of the bar in music will, at least apparently, set this art free.” Schumann, indeed, affirms this aspiration as an ideal of his age, a return to the freedom of the state of Nature:

It seems that in the present instance music is trying to return to its origins,…and to achieve on its own a prose style or a higher poetic articulation [as in Greek choruses, or the language of the Bible, or Jean Paul’s prose].

It is true that composers after 1830 were attempting to find a more continuous and unified flow, free of the sharply defined separate phrases with short contrasting motifs found in eighteenth-century music. Unfortunately, however, no important composer was as constrained by the law of the downbeat and the four-bar phrase grouping as Schumann. Mozart, when he wanted, could compose five-bar and seven-bar phrases that sounded very natural. When Schumann on a rare occasion writes seven-bar phrases (as in the eighth piece of the Davidsbündlertänze), it is clear at once that a bar is missing, and the listener is jolted eccentrically.

Chopin in the ballades could create irregular phrase lengths that were always convincing; when he kept to rigid eight-bar phrase sets for harmonic organization, he generally achieved effects of great variety and suppleness by beginning the melodic phrase sometimes on the second or the eighth bar. Schumann, on the other hand, frequently betrays a difficulty in varying his rhythm without giving an impression of willful awkwardness (sometimes exploiting the awkwardness for dramatic effect in his finest works).

Critics have long complained of his relentless and unvaried use for successive pages or even for whole movements of one rhythmic figure, particularly dotted rhythms (i.e., tum-ti-tum-ti-tum). At times, the performer is saddled with the difficulty of trying to avoid monotony by changing tone color and dynamics. It is true that Schumann’s lack of ease in varying the basic rhythm often produces a powerful, impelling drive for the music, and it also accounts for the unparalleled frequency in his music of indications of very brief tempo changes. Schumann’s manifold indications of ritardando generally last only for a second or fraction thereof.

Nevertheless, it is from this weakness that in many experimental pages Schumann evolved a novel technique of attacking the downbeat and blurring the meter. No other composer so frequently made it impossible for a listener to perceive where the downbeat is for long sections without looking at the printed score. The standard technique is a simple one: if there are four notes to a beat, the accent will be ONE-two-three-four; but Schumann will suddenly shift to one-two-three-FOUR repeated many times. If this new emphasis is sustained long enough (as in the Toccata for piano and parts of the great Fantasy in C Major), the listener will think that the downbeat, indicated by the bar line, has shifted. In the Toccata, at the final climax, the shift is sustained for a very long section, and then with greater violence the left and right hands, playing fortissimo, suddenly closely alternate both downbeats on the fourth and first notes, as if two metric worlds astonishingly and confusingly coexisted.

At the opening of the important set Kreisleriana, for seven bars all the left-hand accents are on beats two and four, and then in bar eight there is a surprising fortissimo crash on three, muddling the listener’s rhythmic expectations, and when the theme returns at the end, all the accents are now on beats one and three. In the second scherzo to the Sonata in F minor, the downbeat is not made clear for several pages.

These experiments anticipate many of the developments of the twentieth century from Stravinsky and Schoenberg to Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter, and were supplemented by those pages of Schumann, like the last piece of Kreisleriana, where the left hand consistently comes in most often harmonically as well as rhythmically on the wrong beats, creating what may be called a rhythmic as well as a harmonic dissonance.

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Johann Anton Völlner
Clara and Robert Schumann, 1850

In these experimental pages, Schumann found small-scale, eccentric ways of undermining the conventional rhythmic system of his time. He was the most literary of all composers, modeling some of his pure instrumental works like Papillons and Kreisleriana on novels by Jean Paul and E.T.A. Hoffmann and on poems by Heine and Hölderlin. The puzzling and disturbing effects are musical parallels to the deliberate cultivation of irrational traits in Romantic poets from Blake and Coleridge to Hölderlin, Heine, Lenau, and many others.

In Schumann, the effect of destabilizing the expectations of his listeners is idiosyncratic and very personal. How deliberately personal his aesthetic outlook was may be seen in his double self-portrait in Carnaval, “Eusebius” and “Florestan,” respectively the names of the introvert and extrovert sides of his personality. Neither piece ends conventionally with the tonic key note in the bass. Indeed, “Florestan” does not properly end at all, but explodes in exasperation with a repeated and violently hammered dissonance, left hanging in the air, and after a pause we just go on to the next piece.

A controversy twenty years after Schumann’s death casts an extraordinary light on another of his innovations, one even more fundamental and influential that radically changed the history of music. In 1879, in a journal controlled by Richard Wagner in Bayreuth, a vicious attack on Schumann appeared, written by Joseph Rubinstein, a young Jewish idolater of Wagner, who had persuaded Wagner to engage him as an assistant and served faithfully until Wagner’s death (shortly after which he committed suicide). The article attacked Schumann’s great songs, characterizing them as cheap salon music.

The great Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, grateful to Schumann for the inspiration of so much of his music (the piano concerto, in particular), wrote an indignant answer to the article. He was shocked above all that the attack should come from the circle of Richard Wagner because, as he correctly pointed out:

In his treatment of the piano, Schumann was…the first who, in a modern spirit, utilized the relation between song and accompaniment, which Wagner has later developed to a degree that fully proves what importance he attached to it. I refer to the carrying of the melody by the piano, or the orchestra, while the voice is engaged in the recitative.

What Grieg means here by the contrast of melody and recitative is the appearance of the melody in both voice and piano or orchestra, with a regular rhythm in the instruments but a more idiosyncratic rhythm for the voice that reflects the rhythm of the words as they might be spoken. Playing the same melody simultaneously in differing rhythms is called heterophony. It is presumed to have existed in classical Greece, when voice and instrument would execute the same phrase with different rhythmic inflections. Grieg tactfully does not ascribe conscious plagiarism to Wagner, adding, “for all that, it is a fact that contemporaries influence each other whether they want to or not.”

One must go further, however. Related to this heterophonic aspect is the practice of Wagner, already found in the songs of Schumann, of leaving the vocal line fragmentary and unresolved, to be completed by the instruments. Or vice versa—to have an incomplete instrumental line finished by the voice, an essential Wagnerian technique already demonstrated to a sophisticated degree by Schumann. Essentially, they both often conceive a melody differently realized by both voice and accompaniment, sometimes one superimposed over the other, or incompletely by one to be finished by the other.1 In both, the melody is independent of its specific realization by voice or instrument, and comes into being only as a collaboration. In the second song of the Dichterliebe, for example, the singer never gets to finish the melody, ending three times with the penultimate note on a dissonant harmony, leaving the piano to resolve the phrase with an offhand and simple pianissimo.

It is wrong to see this as the result of Schumann’s songwriting alone. The technique was elaborated with his great piano works in the decade preceding the songs. Here the melody is often independent of whether the range is treble or bass, existing simultaneously in the right and left hands, with a regular rhythm in one hand and an expressive, almost speaking rhythm in the other. Above all, in hundreds of places, neither right nor left hand has the complete melody but requires a continuation in another part of the piano to be resolved. A dissonance unresolved in the register where it is found never gives the feeling of complete resolution when the resolution is in another instrument or in another part of musical space. No composer before Schumann ever made such expressive use of unresolved cadences, forecasting a fundamental change in the view of the musical language of tonality.

The contrast with Schumann’s immediate contemporaries—above all, Chopin—is very great. Almost every bar of Chopin can be analyzed as the realization of four-voice harmony that was academically correct. That came from his lifelong study of J.S. Bach, and one is always aware of the independence of the inner voices in his music. Not so the piano music of Schumann, who is in this respect the first truly modern composer for today’s piano with the sustaining pedal. For him the piano was not the medium for four separate contrapuntal lines but a vibrating instrument for the realization of a single line and its dependent harmonies.

At the opening of the Fantasy in C Major, the right-hand melody is fortissimo and the rapid accompanying notes in the left hand are very soft with the sustaining pedal held throughout, as if they were all echoes of the melody notes in a lower register like the accompanying chords from a string section tremolo. In a performance, if you can clearly hear all the left-hand notes separately, then you know that the pianist has understood nothing about Schumann’s conception. He wanted a powerful melodic line and an accompanying blur. Schumann’s use of the pedal was often a new aural experience, while Chopin’s use always clarified the individual inner voices and the relation to the bass line. It is from Schumann that not only Wagner and Brahms were to develop but also Debussy and Ravel (the latter with the important influence of Liszt).

This development is also a result of a weakness of Schumann. He did not have the natural gift for counterpoint and voice-leading that we find in Mozart and Chopin. Like Chopin, he studied Bach, but less intensely, and his fundamental lack of appreciation is revealed by his having composed unnecessary accompaniments for the solo violin sonatas of Bach. His condemnation of the great monophonic finale of Chopin’s B-flat minor Sonata is also indicative: “We cannot admire it, for it is not music,” he wrote. He could not admire Chopin’s ability to create four-voice harmony like Bach from a single line. In his own work, however, reconceiving the different voices of a piece as a single line over different registers required an extraordinary effort of originality. His heterophony was a magnificent substitute for academic counterpoint.

One important, also far-reaching innovation remains to be briefly mentioned: the employment of popular music—not folk music or picturesque ethnic style as his predecessors had used, but cheap urban music, like band music in the public garden and vulgar student songs. The great soprano Elisabeth Schumann always disliked singing the eleventh number of the Dichterliebe, a song cycle from Heinrich Heine’s collection of lyric poems, Lyrisches Intermezzo. It is a brutal poem, and an even nastier song:

A young man loved a maiden,
she loved another,
who preferred still another,
and she married the first man to come along.
It’s an old story,
and to whomever it happens,
it breaks his heart in twain.

Schumann’s setting is a shock, jolly, and vulgar. The melody is exceptionally ugly and makes the sarcasm of the music more powerful than the words. Along with the band music in Papillons and the Promenade in Carnaval, this is a forecast of the dramatic use of cheap urban music in Mahler, Berg, Ives, and Weill. Its insertion into a serious masterpiece is groundbreaking and may be said to anticipate the brief modernist use of the style of cheap fiction in a serious literary work like Joyce’s Ulysses.

In the Dichterliebe, the contrast of this coarse song with the most delicate and intensely poetic sentiment is breathtaking. Of all the Romantic composers, Schumann was the most eccentric and the most private. No one else could achieve both the comic grotesque and the expression of the most intimate pathos. He signed some of his most important early works pseudonymously with the names Florestan and Eusebius. His piano work of the greatest intensity is perhaps the Davidsbündlertänze (Carnaval was “masks,” he said, but this piece was “faces”). He was momentarily indignant when he learned that Liszt and Clara had played it in public.

All his life he feared insanity, and pruned his earliest works on reediting them of any evidence of irrational eccentricity, thereby removing some of the most original and impressive details. After an attempted suicide, he voluntarily consigned himself to an insane asylum, where he died two and a half years later in 1856.

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    In Isolde’s Liebestod, for example, the first phrase of the soprano is doubled by the clarinet and violin in even notes while the soprano sings a rhythm closer to the spoken word, and the most expressive motif is first played by the clarinet and then finished by the soprano. 

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