Building a Schumann Collection
Robert Schumann (1810-56)
It seems to me that Robert Schumann’s music, more than any other composer’s, benefits from a bit of biographical explanation. This is not to say his music is dull without knowing information about him; it is to say his music is so extraordinary and unique that by understanding a little about its author, we can begin to realize just why it is the way it is. Robert Schumann was an incredibly gifted pianist who, while born within the same year as Franz Liszt and Fryderyk Chopin, was never able to become the touring virtuoso of either of his colleagues. The reason for this is very sad in fact. While in his late teens, Schumann became interested in a machine meant to strengthen hands as an exercise for fast piano playing. Well, he made his own machine of this nature and landed up damaging one of his hands permanently! Rather than sinking into despair (which he did for quite a while) Schumann saw this as his opportunity to give up the dream of being a touring virtuoso and donate much of his time to composition. In addition, Schumann had a tremendous gift for recognizing talent in others and became a music critic for a local German periodical. He endorsed his contemporary Chopin as a genius and late in his life he discovered the very young Johannes Brahms. The interest in Schubert’s music during this time was also largely due to Schumann’s rediscovery and promotion of this recently deceased composer. Even though he possessed numerous gifts, Schumann did not live a desirable life and died at the age of 46 in 1856. For years he struggled with a combination of depression and schizophrenia. He even tried to drown himself! In the end he landed up starving himself to death, tortured by mental illness and syphilis in an insane asylum. Why is this worth knowing? I think it is important to keep this in mind when listening to Schumann’s music because no other composer before or since was as capable of unveiling their flawed, but unique psyche in their music. Much of Schumann’s music has a feeling of schizophrenia, where lots of little thoughts are disconnected but when put together make complete sense. When I listen to Schumann’s piano music I feel similarly to the way I feel when I see sketches by Rembrandt: I feel an honesty and purity which exudes itself as a natural fiber in the work. Don’t feel sad for Schumann as his life wasn’t all bad. He had one of the greatest marriages in the history of music. His wife Clara was often his muse, and much of the virtuosic piano works he composed for her to play as she was one of the world’s most gifted pianists.
Schumann’s only Piano Concerto is a fine starting point for a brand new listener. It is arguably his finest work. The composer’s melodic gifts really come out in this piece. It was written at the midpoint of his career as a composer, but he was fairly new to orchestration. Schumann was not a natural orchestrator so it has been said, but that is really subjective. Maybe Schumann’s thicker approach to orchestration is different, but it is equally enticing. Either way, the orchestration of the Piano Concerto has not often been criticized (his symphonies are another story). There are many fine recordings of this work and many of them are paired with Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in the same key of A Minor. They are both fine works, and my favorite recording of this twosome is Radu Lupu’s with Andre Previn on Decca. The sonics are extremely good for the 1970s as well.
Schumann’s greatest music was written for the piano. He seemed to understand its potential as a communicator of and for the soul. Very often his music could be inward and private, but sometimes he created what may be called a showpiece. The term showpiece has a negative connotation attached to it as it appears to mean a virtuosic piece with not much thought behind it. Schumann’s showpieces do not fit that description. They are still very thoughtful pieces and are quite inviting. Carnaval is Schumann’s most talked about piano piece. It is extremely gratifying to listen to this piece which 21 very short “caricatures” and “portraits” of different places, people, and events. It even pays homage to Chopin and Paganini (two composers which Schumann had tremendous respect for) by attempting to imitate their styles in two different sections of the work. Chances are you will adore this piece right away. There are so many good recordings of this work. The one I listen to most is a rather recent recording by a young pianist name Freddy Kempf. If one word can describe Schumann it is idiosyncratic, and Kempf pulls the idiosyncrasies off with ease. This CD has other excellent piano works by the composer, all of which are from his early period.
Like his friend Felix Mendelssohn, history has learned to judge Schumann as a composer who peaked at a young age. This is fair to say because Schumann’s mental illness would corrupt much of his artistic gifts as the condition worsened. His first two dozen published works consisted of mostly solo piano music. If you purchased the aforementioned CD then you already have a few of these works. My favorite piano works Schumann ever composed are the Davidsbundlertanze and the Fantasiestucke. Again, like carnaval they are short pieces strung together by the composer’s own vision. Somehow they hold together well. Murray Perahia did a classic recording of these two works for Sony very early on in his career. Before he became known as one of the great Mozart interpreters, Perahia made his name with Schumann!
Schumann wrote a lot chamber music, some of which is considered great and some of which is hardly ever heard. The Piano Quintet and Piano Quartet are two of the great ones. They both share the same key of E-flat; they both are for piano and string ensemble; they both are in four movements; and they were both written approximately at the same time. The Piano Quintet has managed to become a standard in the repertoire alongside the Quintets of Brahms, Schubert and Dvorak. The Quartet has still not managed to become a standard in the same way, but it is often recorded and sometimes preferred to its Quintet counterpart. The Emerson String Quartet and Menahem Pressler recorded an excellent disc for Deutsche Gramophone which features these two gems.
Here’s a question that’s been debated for over a century: Was Schumann a great symphonist? Good Symphonist? Average? Poor? In the later part of the 19th Century people began to re-orchestrate Schumann’s Symphonies. Gustav Mahler was one of these people! The fact that people took the time and energy to modify the orchestration of these works means to me that the musical content within them must be substantial. Schumann’s most beloved symphony is his 3rd which was later subtitled “Rhenish”. It is an extremely exciting work, filled with Romantic fervor. George Szell recorded an excellent cycle of Schumann’s symphonies (with his own minor revisions) in the early 1960s at a time when the Mahler orchestrations were still often performed. The conductor considered Schumann’s symphonies to be on the same plane with Tchaikovsky’s and Brahms’. Based on the way he conducts them here, there is no question as to why he had this point of view. This double CD also includes the composer’s very much adored Manfred Overture.
Schumann is considered the greatest composer of Lieder after Schubert. However, I prefer his lieder even to Schubert’s because of the way in which Schumann was able to give equal weight to the piano writing as he did the vocal writing. His greatest song cycle is known as Dichterliebe (The Poet’s Life). It was written at an extremely happy period in Schumann’s life, shortly after his marriage to Clara Wieck. Christian Gerhaher is brilliant with this piece and the CD includes other lieder by Schumann.
Schumann wrote three string quartets simultaneously and published them together. They are little known, but fantastic works and deserve a place not far behind the Quartets of Schubert. The Eroica Quartet offers an excellent recording of all three on single CD!
Lastly I will mention two of Schumann’s finest works: Kreisleriana and the Fantasie in C Major. Both these works were written at the same time and contain some of the most virtuosic keyboard writing of all time. But the virtuosity to be found in Schumann’s music is never grandiose or bombastic; it is liquid and natural. Kreisleriana is again a series of piano pieces strung together by an imaginative thread. The Fantasie is in three movements and resembles a piano sonata, but is a bit looser in form. For Kreisleriana there is no more exciting recording than Murray Perahia’s for Sony. It also includes Schumann's Piano Sonata No. 1, a work which is sometimes overlooked, but very interesting. My preferred recording for the Fantasie is Maurizio Pollini’s for Deutsche Gramophone. This edition of Pollini's recording includes a fantastic version of Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy for piano.
What would the world be like without Schumann?
Well for one you wouldn’t get confused between Schubert and Schumann! But seriously, Schumann is very important to the history of music. He was the first composer to truly break away from structure altogether and let his imagination be the glue that held music together. He can be viewed as the archetype Romantic composer. He did not conform to the sonata because his mind couldn’t. At least it doesn’t appear that his strongest work involves sonata form. But music does not need a form such as this to be valid. And Schumann is really one of the first composers to demonstrate this. For that we should all be very grateful.
Enjoy the music
Edited by DavidMahler - 8/6/11 at 10:10am