Robert Schumann
Robert Schumann; drawing by David Levine


Does each art have its proper sphere, some aspect of reality that it may reflect or imitate that is closed to the other arts? The eighteenth century thought so and attempted to define the nature and the limits of each of the arts, and to fix the opposition between art and reality that seemed indispensable to the autonomous existence of art in general.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the writers and painters—to be followed shortly by the musicians—broke through these limits. “Does not pure instrumental music appear to create its own text?” wrote Friedrich Schlegel in 1798, thinking of the extraordinary development of symphonic music in the late eighteenth century. The ability of music to create meaning and significance out of its own elements, independent of any attempt to mirror the world outside, became the model for the other arts.

In his novel Franz Sternbald’s Travels, Ludwig Tieck predicted an abstract art of pure colors, with neither subject matter nor represented form. The poet-philosopher Novalis proposed tales and poems “without sense and without continuity…made up of associations like dreams…acting indirectly like music.” The painter Philipp Otto Runge wrote that “music must exist in a poem through the words, as music must also be present in a beautiful picture or building or in any ideas whatsoever which are expressed through lines.” When Schiller spoke of the musical effect of poetry, he meant not the sound but the order and arrangement of the images and the modulation of the whole poem. A generation later, Schumann and Berlioz were to integrate specifically literary techniques into their music.

Not only the barriers between the arts. but the autonomy of art itself was destroyed. This breakdown of the distinction between art and reality began playfully when, in one of Tieck’s plays, the audience climbs onto the stage while the actors complain of their parts. Novalis, protesting the romantic justification of Shakespeare as a pure artist, is more in earnest: “Art belongs to Nature and is, so to speak, self-reflecting, self-imitating, self-shaping Nature. [Shakespeare’s works] are emblematic, ambiguous simple and inexhaustible, and nothing could be more nonsensical than to call them works of art in the limited mechanical sense of that word.” In forms as different as Wordsworth’s prclude and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. the work of art presents itself as autobiography, as fact, as part of Nature. Byron, with an international reputation as a Don Juan. wrote a poem called Don Juan, an open-ended work to which he continued to add as long as he lived. The characters in Brentano’s novel Godwi speak about “the author of Godwi,” and, at the end of the book, describe his death and write poems about him.

The elements of these works have a double status, fact and art, real and fictive at once. Two recent books, Robert Schumann: The Man and His Music, edited by Alan Walker, and Caspar David Friedrich, the catalogue of the recent exhibition at the Tate in London of the greatest of German landscape painters, show the difficulty that this ambiguity has made in interpreting Romantic art.


The artistic revolution of the early nineteenth century was the replacement of history painting (large formal depictions of historical or religious scenes) by landscape. It is not only that painters turned their attention to landscape and away from the largescale painting—frescoes or oils—of scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints or from ancient or modern history. Their ambitions were much greater and more astonishing. They wished to make pure landscape without figures carry the weight, attain to the heroic and epic significance, of historical painting. Landscape was to be the vehicle of the Sublime.

In the seventeenth century, the landscapes of Poussin and Claude reached their full dignity only as depictions of classical Nature. with figures in antique dress. and often a mythological subject discreetly integrated into an ideally “Arcadian” countryside. The Romantics wished to make the elements of Nature alone carry the full symbolic meaning. Their project was, in fact, identical with the contemporary attempt of Wordsworth to give pure landscape poetry the force and gravity of Milton’s epic style.

That the replacement of history painting by landscape had an ideological purpose directly related to the destruction of traditional religious and political values at the end of the eighteenth century cannot be doubted. The artists were themselves acutely conscious of this. In 1802, the most brilliant and articulate of the young German painters, Philipp Otto Runge, wrote:

How can we even think of trying for the return of the art of the past? The Greeks brought the beauty of their forms and shapes to its height when their gods perished. The modern Romans brought historical representation to its farthest point when the Catholic religion was ruined.1 With us again something is perishing, we stand at the brink of all the religions which sprang up out of the Catholic one, the abstractions perish, everything is lighter and more unsubstantial than before, everything presses toward landscape art, looks for something certain in this uncertainty and does not know how to begin. They grasp mistakenly at historical painting (Historie), and they are bewildered. Is there not surely in this new art—landscapery. if you like—a higher point to be reached? Which will be even more beautiful than before?

In one sense, the Romantic landscape was a return to the serious tradition of the seventeenth century and a revulsion from the largely picturesque styles of the eighteenth. A famous essay by Schiller (on the landscape poetry of a very minor versifier, Matthisson) appeared in 1794 and prepared the way. Landscape painting and poetry for Schiller could only be raised to the dignity of major arts by the awakening of sentiment and by the representation of ideas. We demand, he wrote, that the art of landscape should work upon us like music. Sentiment is created by the analogy of sounds and colors with the movements of the emotions. Ideas are stimulated in the imagination of the reader or spectator by the form of the work of art, and this form controls the imaginative response. For Schiller as later for Freud, the symbolic function of the imagination follows certain laws and can be both interpreted and predicted.


In 1808, the thirty-four-year-old Caspar David Friedrich painted a landscape as an altarpiece. The picture created a scandal, was fiercely attacked and as fiercely defended. The frame, with its angels that look down on the scene and with the ear of wheat and the wine branch below as symbols of bread and wine, body and blood of Christ, firmly defines the work as an altarpiece. Yet the crucifix in the landscape, which is the only piece of traditional religious symbolism in the picture itself, is clearly not a representation of a historical event, but almost a part of Nature, a crucifix upon a mountain such as one may still see today in the German countryside. Moreover, the figure of Christ is turned away from the spectator toward the setting sun, and ivy grows around the stem of the crucifix.

The firm rock upon which the crucifix stands and the evergreen trees that grow round it are symbols only too easy to read. This was Friedrich’s first important oil painting: until then he had done only sepia wash, pen drawings, and designs for woodcuts. In later works the symbolism was far less intrusive, more nuanced and more dependent on the structure of the work—although even in this altarpiece an essential part of the effect comes from the perspective which seems to place the spectator in mid-air before the scene, a sensation about which early critics complained harshly.

“Here is a man who has discovered the tragedy of landscape,” said the French sculptor David D’Angers after visiting Friedrich in his studio, and indeed Friedrich was one of the first European artists to restore landscape to the status of a major genre. The contemporary development in England with Constable and Turner as the major figures took place in a more empirical atmosphere, and gave landscape painting an explicitly scientific dignity as a means of investigating the visual aspect of Nature. The moral gravity is the same, however, and the explicit symbolism of Turner’s work is comparable to Friedrich’s. In return, Friedrich’s later work moves toward a genuinely realistic study of cloud shapes and light.

Few paintings by Friedrich are to be seen outside Germany; the Louvre, for example has none. The Tate exhibition last year was astonishingly the first large-scale showing of his work outside his native land. The catalogue contains an excellent introduction by William Vaughan, but the entries by Helmut Börsch-Supan on each picture impose a doctrinaire reading that does the paintings disservice, and distorts the tradition of Romantic symbolism.

Börsch-Supan claims that “if one is to decipher Friedrich’s pictorial symbolism, one has to look at his entire oeuvre,” but we need not wait for his forthcoming book to protest. A study of the entire oeuvre may bring a deeper comprehension of Friedrich’s art, but his symbols are to be read (not deciphered) within the individual works. That is, the meaning of the elements of Friedrich’s style are revealed in each picture, and are not an esoteric, private code accessible only to the initiate.

Perhaps the masterpiece of Friedrich’s last years is the Large Enclosure Near Dresden, the inundated meadows where the Elbe overflows its banks. In the foreground is the water with a very small ship that drifts near the edge of the mainland. The point of view of the observer is from far above so that the body of water seems to have a gentle curve as if it were the curvature of the earth, and small plots of land stand out from the inundating water like continents on a globe. To the gentle curve of the foreground responds symmetrically the inverse curve of the horizon: the land between appears only as a few clumps of trees on a thin strip between the water and the immense sky. The broken agitated forms of the water are unified by the evening colors of the sky reflected inversely so that the cool, distancing blue is in the foreground. The painting is a religious meditation, an image of the relation of heaven to earth.


The picture has a significance, but no message: the concentration is visual, and the meaning is general and inexhaustible, diffused through the forms, which force a reading upon us by the strange symmetry and the unusual perspective. The catalogue entry, however, is egregiously specific. I give it complete:

Painted in 1832, this picture marked a high point in Friedrich’s development as a colourist. It recreates with great vividness the atmosphere of the time of day just after the sun has set. The striking perspective of the foreground may well be the result of the view being taken from a bridge. Both the ship drifting over the shallow water where it is in danger of being stranded, and the abruptness with which the avenue of trees comes to an end in the open country, are images of approaching death. [No. 100, P. 89]

In similar fashion Börsch-Supan goes through the other works: every distant view represents paradise; every blade of grass, the transience of life; every birch tree, resurrection; every river, death.

There is no evidence that Friedrich thought a break in an avenue of trees or a boat in shallow water to be images of death. Even if we discover—improbably—that he actually believed this, then he was wrong: these symbols do not function that way within the total form of the Large Enclosure, whatever they may do in other paintings.2 The speculation about the view being taken from a bridge is gratuitous. We know that many of Friedrich’s pictures were not drawn from life but constructed in his mind; he closed his eyes before he began to paint. The suggestion of a bridge serves only to obscure one of the characteristic effects of Romantic painting and poetry: the sense of being suspended in space, detached and poised over emptiness so that what is seen takes on the quality of a vision.

The ambition of the Romantic artist was to create a symbolic language independent of tradition.3 It was no longer enough to initiate a new tradition which would in turn harden into an arbitrary system: what was needed was a natural symbolism which would remain eternally new. It is possible that the ambition was hopelessly impossible, its achievement a delusion; but to substitute a private esoteric code for the traditional iconographical one would have been absurdly self-defeating. What the artists and poets did was to attempt to disengage the latent meaning of the natural elements, the significance hidden in Nature herself.

When traditional iconography was rejected, then the symbols of Nature themselves had to be made to speak, and this they could only do when reflected through an individual consciousness. Nature was seen at once diffused with feeling and at a distance—the distance freed the senses from the distortions of a particular moment and made the significance of the work general and even universal in range. Wordsworth writes of the crag on which he waited anxiously, trying to sight the carriage which would take him home after the holidays. Ten days later his father died…

And afterwards, the wind and sleety rain
And all the business of the ele- ments,
The single sheep, and the one blasted tree,
And the bleak music of that old stone wall,
The noise of wood and water, and the mist
Which on the line of each of those two Roads
Advanced in such indisputable shapes,
All these were spectacles and sounds to which
I often would repair and thence would drink,
As at a fountain….

All the traditional paraphernalia of Nature poetry have disappeared; the rhetoric is hidden. In their place are a stone wall, a single sheep, one tree, and the music of Nature.

Wordsworth gives each of these elements an extraordinary significance merely by naming them in a certain order. They are barely described; by juxtaposing them, Wordsworth allows the associations to build. The narrative of his anxiety to return home followed by the death of his father acts like a frame around a landscape; it enriches the meanings but is not indispensable. The meanings come directly from the order and gravity of the list. Nor do the elements of Nature have an autobiographical significance for Wordsworth: he does not value them for their power to recall the past. On the contrary, that single moment in his life served to release the powers of speech in Nature. The ambition (and the achievement) of Friedrich and Constable are similar to Wordsworth’s: the forms of nature speak directly, their power released by their ordering within the work of art.

The fundamental principle of Romantic symbolism is that the meaning can never be entirely separated from its symbolic representation: the image can never be reduced to a word. Börsch-Supan treats Friedrich as an enemy whose code must be cracked so that we may discover his strategy. But there is no code, no “idiolect,” no totally private language to be deciphered and translated. Friedrich’s art—like any art—resists translation: it can only be interpreted, and not even that without constantly returning to the specific images as they figure in each painting.

To read into Friedrich’s painting an esoteric code is to falsify not only the art but even its religious meaning. It makes the works appear to convey a systematic doctrine, where they clearly reject religion as dogma. It is significant, as Vaughan remarks in his introduction, that churches never appear in Friedrich’s work except in the distance, as unreal visions, or as ruins. The visible Church is dead, only the invisible Church, in the heart or revealed through Nature, is alive. This is part of Friedrich’s Pietist heritage, a personal religion that refuses all outward forms, all doctrine. To put a landscape on an altar is an aggressive act, as destructive of the old forms as it is creative of a new sensibility.

His contemporaries, even when they disliked his works, sometimes seem to have understood him better than we do today. A simple painting of leafless bushes in the snow inspires Börsch-Supan to thoughts of death and resurrection. A reviewer of 1828 was more down-to-earth.4

…the greatest truth to Nature, but the selection of such a limited appearance from the whole of Nature can hold our attention as little as the aspect of the trifling detail in Nature generally does.

In his unsympathetic way, the reviewer had grasped the profound realism which links Friedrich to Constable: there was, for him, no phenomenon in Nature too insignificant for art. If this painting has a message that could be put into words, it was just that.


Schumann’s music, too, forces one out of pure art, Strange initials appear after each piece of the Davidsbündlertänze, opus 6, along with directions like, “Quite superfluously Eusebius imagined what follows, and much happiness spoke from his eyes.” In Carnaval, opus 9, musical anagrams are found, in old-fashioned notation with no indication of how they are to be played. In other works there are quotations of old dance tunes or of themes from Beethoven. There are pieces which appear to begin in the middle, others which seem to have no proper end, circular pieces which go round to the beginning and just break off. His opus 1 is a set of variations on the notes ABEGG, dedicated to a Countess Abegg. There are literary titles, poetic mottoes—in short, a highly developed technique for making us ask for nonmusical interpretations and explanations of at least certain aspects of the works which cannot be ignored.

It is to the biographical sphere that we are immediately led. One of the anagrams of Carnaval is made up of the letters of Schumann’s name which correspond to German musical notation; another anagram spells out the native city of a girl, Ernestine von Fricken, to whom Schumann was briefly engaged.5 These anagrams provide the motivic basis for a kaleidoscopic series of pieces, some of which appear to be portraits: there is even a parody of Chopin which includes an example of typical Chopin fingering. Schumann seems to create, like Byron with Don Juan, a shadowy region somewhere between art and life.

His work at times takes the form of a private joke; at others it appears to be an expression so personal as to be incommunicable. These are essential characteristics of Schumann’s style, and they have naturally stimulated critics to hunt for the personal or literary inspiration behind each work, in spite of Schumann’s warning that the titles to his pieces were conceived after the music was written. Much of the research is weakened by the failure to recognize the extent to which Schumann’s attempts to find literary analogues for his music are not personal but based on commonplace Romantic theory about the relations among the arts. Just as the Romantic painters were to attempt to make landscape become the vehicle for the expression of feelings and ideas without taking on the character of an emblematic language and losing its existence as pure landscape, so Schumann was to create a musical technique that allowed music to assume the functions of literature without taking on a literary meaning—that is, without losing its status as music.

The new collection of essays on Schumann, edited by Alan Walker, contains an important discussion by Leon Plantinga of Schumann’s work as editor of the most significant musical journal of its time, and there is an entertaining and very readable biographical sketch of Schumann by Walker. Many of the other contributors attempt a reassessment of Schumann’s later years when he largely abandoned the piano music and the songs which remain his greatest achievements.

In his preface, Walker claims that the case for a new major study of Schumann rests largely on the information about him which has recently come to light. He gives only three examples: the diagnosis of Schumann’s fatal disease as syphilis, not hereditary insanity; the evidence that there was nothing wrong with his metronome; and the recent understanding that Schumann’s music springs from the source of “Schumann’s special interest in symbols, codes, crosswords, chess, and even acrostics.” Only the third example seriously affects our understanding of the music, and in recent years a specialized musicological industry has arisen, devoted to the deciphering of Schumann’s “code.”

Chief of the new Schumann cryptographers is Eric Sams, who contributes two essays to the symposium, one on the songs and another on the literary and biographical references of Schumann’s short motifs. For Sams, Schumann’s style is notable above all for its reliance upon tiny four- and five-note themes, “its structure of music qua mosaic, an aggregation of small-scale motifs.” Sams is not interested in how these mosaics are put together, although what is most original in Schumann is his ability to make apparently fragmentary pieces hang together as a whole. Every composer since Bach has used short motifs as the essential element in creating any musical texture; and these motifs are as apparent in Beethoven as in Schumann, and even as obsessive. Schumann, nevertheless, found a new way of using them.

What Sams wants to know, however, is what these motifs mean. Unfortunately, that is the wrong question: what we should ask is how these motifs convey a meaning, how they function within the work so that their latent power is released. Sams claims that thanks to Susanne Langer it has only in modern times become “intellectually respectable” to imagine “musical sounds as semantic symbols.” This was, however, the conviction of most of the Romantic philosophers. In the essay on landscape quoted above, Schiller writes that “every continuity with which lines in space or sounds in time follow each other is a natural symbol of the inner consistency of the mind (Gemüt) and of the moral connection between action and emotion.” Schiller was followed in this Novalis, Schelling, and others, but they all held that the symbolic meaning is only comprehended within the framework of a larger form—within a specific context from which the individual motif draws its meaning: that is why they are at least as respectable as Susanne Langer. Schumann could not, in spite of Sams’s contention, have been bewildered by his own belief that musical sounds were symbols: everybody agreed with him.6

Symbols are not simple associations; a madeleine in a spoonful of tea may signify Combray to Marcel, but it does not automatically work for anyone else. Schumann gallantly wrote many times to Clara that his latest piece was about her. It was a handsome sentiment, but are we to take it on trust? Music is not like mathematics where definitions (let x equal Clara) are accepted in advance.

Does the opening of the eleventh piece of the Davidsbündlertänze signify Clara? Sams, following Roger Fiske, claims it does. He points out that it is the retrograde, transposed form of a five-note theme in which the first, third, and fifth notes are C, A, and A. But why is Clara played backward?

In the Davidsbündlertänze, she is not only always played backward (except when heavily disguised with musical ornaments), she is always transposed, generally up a whole tone. In Carnaval, she is named Chiarina, but she gets played backward again, hung with grace notes, and, worse yet, her first three notes spell out the home town of Ernestine von Fricken.

After Schumann married Clara, she was at last played forward at her right pitch in the Piano Concerto and in the Fourth Symphony.7 He told her (as so often) that the symphony would be about her. Her theme dominates the work, indeed, and is played at the right pitches (C,b,A,g#,A) in the slow movement, although she is transposed throughout the first movement until near the end (unless one counts a hidden appearance in an inner voice, with the third note repeated so she would come out Claara).

In a brilliant and very astute observation about Schumann’s ABEGG variations, opus l, Sams has dynamited his own method of analysis. He asserts, and he has very good evidence, that there was no Countess Abegg—she was an invention of Schumann based on his reading of the novelist Jean Paul.

In other words, the ABEGG theme was a purely musical inspiration, to which Schumann later attached a literary association, even inventing a character and dedicating the piece to her. We may now believe that Schumann told the literal truth when he claimed to think up his titles after writing the music. To see the extent to which he may, in turn, have been inspired by these extramusical connotations, we would need to study Schumann’s manuscripts. These are questions, however, that concern only the psychology of composition, and we must reject the naïve identification of this with the significance of music. Books and anagrams stimulated Schumann to creation: with Schiller it was the smell of rotten apples, with Wagner a velvet dressing gown, but no one has yet seriously pretended to read these into their works. (None of this reckons with Schumann’s humor, his sense of fun, what must have been his delight at discovering anagrams, cross references, and affinities in works of music originally created without any of the elaborate hocus-pocus he enjoyed adding to them.)

All this cryptographic research is sad above all because it obscures the fact that Schumann’s music does go beyond the limits of what was thought possible for music until his time, and it prevents us from understanding how.

Schumann’s originality is perhaps most easily seen with his musical quotations. As a motto to the C major Fantasie, opus 17 (written as a memorial to Beethoven), he put some verses of Friedrich Schlegel which speak of one soft note that sounds through all else for the secret listener. Then he wrote to Clara: “Are you not the note in the motto? I almost think you are.” The “almost” goes disregarded by the commentators. But the themes of the first movement seem to be derived from a common source. At the very end of the movement, we find out what the source is: Schumann quotes the opening of the last song of Beethoven’s cycle: “To a distant beloved.”

This quotation is relevant since Schumann has found a way of making it sound like a quotation; he invented musical quotation marks. The phrase of Beethoven is set off in several ways. First, it occurs at the first moment of complete stability and of full largescale resolution in the entire movement. In this C major piece, Schumann withholds the central chord of C major in its fundamental position until this last moment.8 This is the first work in history to postpone a stable tonic until the end of a long movement; the harmonic conception is a revolutionary act. In addition, this quotation sounds like a memory: it recalls most of the principal themes, and it at last presents the material that went into these different themes in its simplest form.

These qualities of recollection, simplicity, and long-awaited stability set the quotation from Beethoven in relief.9 It appears as a new theme introduced at the very end of the movement and yet it sums up melodically everything that has gone before. It was also a tune recognized by every cultivated musician.10 The first movement of the Fantasie in this way carries us from the literary conception of Schlegel’s motto, which is itself about music, to an almost purely musical significance.

Schumann quoted from himself in much the same way. A theme from the Papillons, opus 2, appears in Carnaval, with the same effect of quotation marks, here achieved by a brutal change of tempo as a fragment of the theme is played: then the original tempo returns, again changes without warning, and the whole theme is now given. The effect of quotation does not depend upon the listener’s having heard it before. The structure is designed to make the phrase sound like an intruder from outside the work. These are not private allusions, comprehensible only to the composer and a few of the elect, but public, an essential part of the structure of the music, and of the effect the music makes upon us. Recognizing the source of the “quotations,” in fact, adds very little to what the music itself tells us: they work from within. (For this reason, the interest of the resemblance Alan Walker finds between a children’s piece by Schumann and a Beethoven violin sonata is minimal. If Schumann really had Beethoven’s theme in mind here, he was not quoting but plagiarizing.)

Is Schumann’s music what is called “program music”? Does it continually depict, illustrate, or evoke extramusical scenes or ideas? In one important respect, the most clearly programmatic elements in Schumann differ radically from those in composers before and after him. The creation of light and of the different animals in Haydn’s Creation, the nightingale, the flowing brook, the thunderstorm of Beethoven’s Pastoral are all imitative effects whose program is completely intelligible outside their respective works: when they are pulled out of context we can still recognize what they portray, as we recognize the sheep and the windmills of Strauss’s Don Quixote without listening to the rest of the work.

But Schumann’s programs—if that is what to call them—are not comprehensible outside their works. The quotation from Beethoven in the C major Fantasie makes sense only if the whole first movement is taken into account: otherwise it would be a meaningless plagiarism. The title “Kreisleriana” Schumann gave to a set of piano pieces derives from a work by E.T.A. Hoffmann; it applies to no one piece but to the violent, satirical contrasts of passion and humor of the set as a whole.

The melancholy opening song of the Dichterliebe begins as if in the middle and ends, as if unfinished, on an unresolved dissonance with its opening phrase. Do we need Heine’s words about the return of spring with desire and longing to understand this? The words make an already clear meaning only a little more explicit. By attacking the traditional concept of the beginning and end of a song, Schumann appears to step outside of music; but the dissolution of traditional limits which gives the work its extramusical significance becomes a formal device which transforms and reincorporates this significance into the music.

An attempt to describe these “extramusical” meanings of Schumann’s in other than purely musical terms always breaks down. His direction “As if from a distance” in the Davidsbündlertänze is a musical direction: the effect of spatial distance comes from the resonance in the wide spacing of the chords, the wash of pedal that slightly blurs the sound, and the soft echoes. The concept of space is integrated here directly into music, an element outside of the art brought within. We cannot therefore treat the music as form and the spatial effect as content or meaning, as we could with traditional examples of program music. The idea of space has been turned into an aspect of musical form.

The programmatic effects of Haydn, Beethoven, Strauss, and others are musical expressions of things that are as easily rendered by words or images. Schumann wanted an immediacy of expression, in which there is no possibility of verbal intrusion between the music and its meaning. We may interpret Schumann’s music but we cannot translate it: His literary titles are not extramusical significances: they are merely poetic resonances added after the fact or, most often, directions to the performer to guide the interpretation.

Even in the songs where the music directly illustrates the poetry, Schumann reaches out in a purely musical way. His song, Im Rhein, about the painting of the Virgin in Cologne cathedral, begins with an image of the cathedral mirrored in the river. Sams believes that the rhythm in the right hand of the piano accompaniment imitates the waves of the Rhine. If the Rhine ever flowed with that jagged rhythm, the authorities of Cologne would do well to evacuate the city. The right hand is indeed imitative, however: it is intended to recall the dotted rhythm of early eighteenth-century music. For the nineteenth century, Bach was like Gothic architecture (an idea no longer acceptable to cultural historians with more rigid ideas of chronology, but widespread between 1780 and 1850), and Schumann is portraying Cologne Cathedral by quoting a style.11

Most radical is Schumann’s treatment of the relation of voice and piano. It is the piano that generally carries the full melody, while the voice, sometimes out of phase, picks up some of the notes, appearing to respond with words. For the Romantic writers, above all J.W. Ritter and E.T.A. Hoffmann (the latter one of Schumann’s best-loved authors), music is the primary, generalized form of speech. Languages are only individualized versions of music. Schumann’s songs carry out this philosophy, turning it into a radically different conception of the Lied.

A small detail in the Humoreske of 1839 for piano anticipates Schumann’s triumph in 1840 in combining words and music. Sams writes that one section of the Humoreske is written on three staves instead of two in order to set off the melody on a separate staff of its own. But Sams never mentions that the third staff is not intended to be played at all. There is one staff for the right hand, one for the left, and a third between them for an inaudible music: in her edition, Clara Schumann firmly marked this staff “not to be performed.” The melody (marked “Inner voice”) is only to be imagined. What the listener hears is an accompaniment which is clearly nothing more than that, but which appears to echo and respond to an absent melody.

There are larger forms by Schumann that appear to step outside music, but in no other detail does he so clearly indicate his ambition to create music that is beyond the limits of the merely audible. Yet his method is itself immediately absorbed back into the art it has transgressed: this shadowy evocation of the immaterial can only be conceived and understood in specifically musical terms.


There are, indeed, in both Friedrich and Schumann a few works in which a verbal message or a private reference is implied. A pair of pictures by Friedrich may be mentioned here. In one, a man on crutches stands in a winter landscape with dead oaks and tree stumps; in the companion piece, the man has thrown away his crutches, the oaks are replaced by evergreens, and the shape of a visionary church in the distance clearly resembles an evergreen tree. The allegory is all too painfully clear. But there are not many of Friedrich’s pictures, and none at all after 1815, in which the symbolism operates so crassly, and there is no justification for trying to reduce the greater works to this level. Similarly, the appearance of the words of Gretchen’s Song from Faust over some notes in Schumann’s Intermezzi for piano suggests a reference to a private world that the music does nothing to explain. But this kind of detail is rare in Schumann, and the heroic successes are not to be elucidated by an appeal to Schumann’s biography.

The criticism of art which claims to break a private code and to provide a dictionary of the meaning of the encoded elements embodies two misconceptions about art and language which are generally benign and sometimes even useful, but which are particularly harmful when dealing with the early nineteenth century. The first is that art is in all respects a language. The analogies of art and language are many and suggestive, they are indispensable to any serious view, but art lacks exactly that characteristic of language that enables one to compile a dictionary: translatability, or the possibility of substituting one sign or set of signs for another.

Translation in the arts creates an immediate sense of discomfort, a decided uneasiness. We are not sure what proper translation would be. Does an engraved illustration of a poem translate even part of it? Can one be substituted for the other as we can substitute a definition for a work or a French expression for an English one, and still keep approximately the same meaning? Can Schumann be translated into Mozart? Can a picture by da Vinci be translated into one by Rubens—to take the famous example of Ruben’s transformation of da Vinci’s Anghiari cartoon? Is one a proper substitute for the other?

The last question moves toward nonsense, as if it were not already clear that the place of substitution in art is indeed very dubious. But the possibilities of substituting one set of signs for another is necessary to the functioning of language, and fundamental to the concept of a dictionary. The idea of compiling a glossary of meanings for art seems to challenge one essential aspect of art which insists on the uniqueness of each use of a symbol.

The second misconception is about language: the conviction that meanings can be isolated outside of any situation or context. A dictionary is only a convenient fiction. “What royal decree,” wrote Lichtenberg, “ordained that a word must have a fixed meaning?” Meanings fluctuate, although not absurdly or unpredictably: they redefine themselves in new situations. The dynamics of this fluctuation may be studied and controlled, but we cannot maintain that a sign or word is always used with only one of the senses of the dictionary at a time. All the more reason to see that the signs in Friedrich and Schumann, pictorial and musical, cannot be given single, simple meanings in isolation: they take their meaning from a great variety of forces, few of them as direct and as easily definable as we might like to imagine.

This flexibility (or instability) of meaning is as essential to language as the possibility of substituting one word for another, which helps to stabilize meaning. But each use of a word may, if we choose, be considered as unique—related to all other previous and possible uses, but individual and irreplaceable, as untranslatable as a work of art.

In this sense, the possibility of art is always present in language. No one was more conscious of this than the poets and artists of the early nineteenth century for whom it had become dogma. Everything for them was potentially language, and therefore potentially art. “Anything can be a symbol,” wrote Novalis, and added that the relation of a symbol to its meaning could always be reversed: the meaning could always be reversed: the meaning could become the symbol, the content could become symbolic form. The freedom of the symbolizing power of the imagination implied a radically new vision of language.

Above all, the symbolic language they wanted for art was to be a natural one—that is, not derived from the arbitrary conventions that were handed down by tradition. If the elements of Nature—sounds, shapes, forms—had an inherent meaning, as they believed, then the traditional accretion of ascribed meanings had to be abandoned as far as possible. The painters threw overboard much of the traditional religious iconography, with its rich complexity and its resources of meaning. The poets ignored, or tried to ignore, the whole traditional baggage of rhetoric that had been taught over the centuries.

What they tried to destroy, in fact, were those aspects of the “language” of art which could be codified, which were susceptible to lexicography. Useful dictionaries of traditional religious iconography have been published; but so far as a dictionary of Romantic iconography could be compiled—at least for the years 1800 to 1835—it would be chiefly a measure of the artists’ failure. This early nineteenth-century philosophy of art may appear today like an aesthetic of crisis, a measure of desperation when traditional forms had broken down. We may doubt that forms have a meaning independent of culture, that language is immanent in Nature. But there is no question of the achievement: Wordsworth, Hölderlin, Constable, and Friedrich contrived to let the elements of Nature appear to speak directly and without intermediary; Schumann and Berlioz caused elements of abstract musical form to bear meanings that are analogous to verbal meanings (if rarely coincidental with them).

Perhaps the most radical of these artists are Friedrich and Schumann. Each one expanded the limits of his art, triumphed over his medium by playing the conceptions of art and language against each other. For this reason, when dealing with their achievement, we must be doubly conscious of the limitations of both art and language: it was with these limitations that they worked. They counted on our sense of their art’s going beyond what was possible, only to find it once more reintegrated in a purely pictorial or musical form. The interpretation of each work can never be imposed from outside, even by means of a generalization about the artist’s total style; it must begin again each time from within.

This Issue

November 1, 1973