Writings by Eric Himy
Homage to Schumann - CD Notes
Born June 8, 1810, in Zwickau, Germany
Died July 29, 1856 in Endenich (near Bonn), Germany
"The laws of morality are also those of art.”
Robert Schumann was a leading force in the young Romantic Movement in Germany. His music is full of self-expression, compelling lyricism and extra-musical references - both literary and personal - making him one of the most central Romantic composers. As the son of a bookseller, Schumann spent his youth reading the dramatic Romantic novels of Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Schiller and Goethe, as well as the Greek tragedies. As a young man, Schumann dreamt of becoming a poet. At the age of seven, with his father’s encouragement, he began to compose short pieces for the piano. In The Universal Journal of Music’s 1850 supplement, a biographical sketch of Schumann noted that "It has been related that Schumann, as a child, possessed rare taste and talent for portraying feelings and characteristic traits in melody,—ay, he could sketch the different dispositions of his intimate friends by certain figures and passages on the piano so exactly and comically that every one burst into loud laughter at the similitude of the portrait.”
He displayed such talent in both music and literature as a young boy that in 1826 his father sent him to study composition with Carl Maria von Weber. Unfortunately, both von Weber and Schumann’s father died in 1828. Wanting him to learn a more lucrative trade than music could provide, Robert's mother sent him to the University of Leipzig where he enrolled as a law student. While there Schumann spent his time in musical, social, and literary activities. He was especially enthusiastic about the writings of Jean Paul Friederich Richter. Eventually he began taking piano lessons from Friedrich Wieck. In an 1829 letter to his mother, 19-year-old Robert wrote, “I have arrived at the conviction that with work, patience, and a good teacher, I would be able, within six years, to surpass any pianist. Besides... I have an imagination and perhaps a skill for the individual work of creation.”
In a second letter he outlined his plan to resume musical studies with Friedrich Wieck before spending a year in Vienna under Moscheles. Distressed by her son's decision, Johanna Schumann wrote to Wieck to ask his opinion. Wieck replied in early August, promising to make Schumann into a greater artist than Moscheles or Hummel, but he insisted that he take daily piano lessons, study music theory with a teacher of Wieck's choice, and agree to a review of his progress after a six-month trial period. Schumann's mother gave her grudging approval. In 1830 Schumann went to live with the Wieck family in Leipzig where he cultivated his piano technique to a virtuoso level. However, Wieck’s interest in Robert's studies waned when his own daughter, Clara, began to show promise as a concert pianist and required closer attention.
Desperate to improve his execution and manual dexterity as rapidly as possible, Schumann is said to have turned to a machine designed to strengthen his fingers, though some have suggested the injury was due to the application of mercury treatments for a syphilitic sore while still others suggest he attempted a horribly unsuccessful surgical separation of the tendons between his middle and ring fingers. Regardless, his right hand was permanently damaged, and Robert Schumann turned his focus away from performing and instead spent his life concentrating on composing. As a result his view of himself shifted from composer-pianist to composer-critic. In a letter to his mother, Schumann wrote, “for my part, I'm completely resigned, and deem it incurable”. He then devoted his time to music journalism, and continued to compose.
Schumann was greatly intrigued by novelist Jean Paul Friedrich Richter's use of twins to express the duality of a man's personality in the book, Flegeljahre (Teens), which featured twins characters named Vult and Walt. On his own 21st birthday Schumann created the characters Florestan and Eusebius. Florestanrepresented Schumann's masculine, fiery impetuous side, and Eusebius his more feminine, lyrical, intimate characteristics. Schumann expanded the cast of characters, creating the Davidsbündler or League of David, after the biblical King David, who played and composed music, wrote poetry, and slew the Philistines.
The half-fictitious members of the Davidsbündler, who contributed articles and aphorisms to the journal, all had their counterparts in the real world, among those whom Schumann counted as his allies in the war against the latter-day Philistines: Chiarina represented the piano virtuosa Clara Wieck, and Felix Meritis was Mendelssohn. These characters also appear in Schumann's compositions, particularly the Carnavall,which concludes with the heroic March of the Davidsbündler against the Philistines.
Schumann's debut as a writer came in the form of an article praising the genius of Chopin's Variations on a theme from Don Juan. Published in 1831 in the Leipzig Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, the review begins with the line: "Hats off, gentlemen, a genius." Here the work is discussed by the imaginary characters Florestan and Eusebius. A third character, Meister Raro, is called upon for his opinion. Raro may represent either the composer himself, his former mentor Wieck, or perhaps a combination of ClaRA and RObert.
In 1834 Schumann created a music journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which became one of the most important music journals of the Nineteenth Century. Schumann's journal was born of a desire to organize musicians to fight in defense of music..He was a brilliant and perceptive critic and his writings embodied the most progressive aspects of musical thinking of his day, drawing attention to many promising young composers. It initiated a revolution in the taste of the time, when Mozart, Beethoven and Weber were being overlooked in favor other composers who are today considered minor figures. The popular taste at the time leaned toward flashy displays of technique, without much concern for content or ideas.
Schumann fought to revive interest in the great composers of the past, while also exposing young new composers who were attempting to create art with more substance. To lavish praise on Chopin and Berlioz in those days was to risk being called eccentric, yet their genius was openly proclaimed in the new journal. Schumann was its editor for ten years, and he clearly directed its focus by writing:
“The age of mutual compliments is gradually sinking into its grave. Frankly, we are not minded to assist its resurrection. He who does not attack the bad, defends the good but halfway. […] Our purpose... is to remind our readers emphatically of the distant past and its works. Then, to emphasize the fact that the contemporary artist can secure strength for the creation of new beauty only by drinking from such pure fountains. Then, to attack as inartistic the immediate past, which is concerned merely with encouraging superficial virtuosity. Lastly, to help prepare and hasten the coming of a new poetic era.”
Schumann used his journal as a weapon against the banal and empty theatrical and virtuoso-compositions which were then popular. It chafed him no end that so soon after the deaths of Beethoven and Schubert, the public taste had been won by such as of Rossini, whom Schumann once likened to pasta.
The various personalities Schumann created helped him to cope and complete his job effectively without fear of reprisal when he gave a bad review of a piece. He did sign his own name to many of the articles in the Neue Zeitschrift, but usually he counted on one of his fictional personalities for any negative reviews as a form of self-protection.
CARNAVAL OP. 9
Two very contrasting pieces, both completed early in 1835, Carnaval and the Symphonic Etudes result from Schumann's initial engagement to, and eventual rejection of, the young Ernestine von Fricken, and from his relationship with the writer Jean Paul. Affairs of the heart played a large part in Schumann's life.
Carnaval had its origins in 1834 with the arrival at the Wieck household of a young piano student, Ernestine von Fricken. He soon fell for the seventeen-year-old pianist, who came to Leipzig in April 1834 to live in at the Wiecks', and to study with Clara's father. She had grown up in the little town of Asch with her father, Baron von Fricken, and was the illegitimate daughter of Countess Zedtwitz. The young composer had just finished a romantic affair with Henriette Voigt, whom he had called his Eleonore after Florestan's A-flat major aria in Beethoven's Fidelio. But so variable were his affections that before the year was out he had given Ernestine a ring and was ready to announce their engagement. At the beginning of September 1835 Robert and Ernestine were secretly engaged. Within days, Baron von Fricken heard that something was afoot, arrived in Leipzig, and took Ernestine back to Asch. Schumann later visited her there, but by the following summer he seemed to have lost interest and declared an end to their relationship. Although he claimed that Ernestine had been less than honest about her illegitimacy, perhaps the fact that Schumann found her intellectually shallow or that he had now exchanged his romantic interests for the even younger Clara Wieck was closer to the truth. Even though she married another man soon afterward, Ernestine apparently "carried a torch" for Robert the remaining ten years of her brief life.
In any event, the affair had a catalytic effect on Robert's music. He had the idea of writing a series of piano pieces based on the letters A-S-C-H. ASCH was the name of Ernestine von Fricken’ s hometown and SCHA are letters common to his own last name. Originally titled Fasching: Schwänke auf vier Noten für Pianoforte von Florestan ("Carnival: Anecdotes on Four Notes for Piano after Florestan") and catalogued as his Opus 12, it was renamed Carnaval, with the subtitle meaning "Little Scenes on Four Notes," and published in 1837 as his Opus 9.
Carnaval is a landmark in nineteenth century romantic piano literature. This thirty-minute long piece consists of 21 miniatures with titles. Each piece has a different character which creates the impression of a festive masked ball in which all these characters are taking part. They are often based on dance rhythms, especially the waltz.
Various pieces included in Carnaval include Préambule, the musical introduction supposed being played by a band at the head of a masquerade procession. Pierrot and Arlequin are from the Commedia dell'Arte. In this section, Pierrot depicts the clown who led the procession in a mood of farcical gravity, and Arlequin describes a clown in animated mood. Eusebius and Florestan were creations of Schumann's imagination, the former a poetic, introspective dreamer and the latter a fiery contrasting and passionate outgoing personality. Valse noble, supposedly played by the band, is more subdued and graceful than the introduction. Coquette is a sketch of the eternal feminine. Réplique, Sphinxes is a brief pause. Papillons represents costumed guests dressed as butterflies..Lettres dansantes is a play on the four notes, A-S-C-H. Chiarina is a delicate tribute to Clara Wieck, as Chiarina was Schumann’s pet name for her. Chopin is a clever imitation of one of Chopin's nocturnes. Estrella was the name given by Schumann to Ernestine von Fricken. Reconnaissance depicts two of the masquerade guests as they recognize one another. Pantalon et Colombine are two of the characters in the procession, traditional figures at a carnival. Valse allemande is another number by the band, a graceful, slow and stately German waltz. Paganini imitates the most distinctive characteristics of the great virtuoso violinist's style. Aveu is a tender, pleading avowal of love. Promenade is another musical fragment for the band, with a reminiscent waltz toward the end. After another brief Pause the grand cycle finishes with a grand March of the "League of David" against the Philistines, in which the "League of David" is Schumann's imaginary society of artists against the Philistines of bad taste.
Although Schumann's Carnaval bears several lingering echoes traceable back to his early romance with Henriette Voigt - the source of the name "Florestan" in its (Beethoven’s) original title - it is not surprising that Ernestine's influence infuses its twenty-two pieces in the form of her personal acronyms, since it was composed at the height of their romance. It is amusing to note however that Carnaval must have evoked some poignant memories and possibly even conflicting emotions for Schumann. He refrained from dedicating the work to Ernestine, despite the fact that it was obviously "her piece." Yet in playing it over later, he surely could not escape the lingering references to her which are clearly embedded in the music, since its melodic fabric is literally overflowing with her two motives. Imagine him performing Clara's little piece Chiarina knowing that its theme was based not on her name but rather on Ernestine's!
Quite obviously with the impetuous nature of his amorous feelings toward her, he had rushed to immortalize Ernestine in his masterpiece at the height of their romance, without considering that in one short year his love would wither and the focus of his affections would be directed toward another young lady.
SYMPHONIC ETUDES OP.13
Though Schumann’s affair with Ernestine was short-lived, her presence is also implicit in the Symphonic Etudes in the Form of Variations, Op. 13, first published in 1837. Ernestine's father, Baron von Fricken, was himself a talented amateur flutist who wrote the theme on which the variations are based. When Schumann first considered this theme, he thought of it as a kind of funeral march, and set out to write a set of "pathétique" variations on it. But by the time it was published, it had taken on a different character. It became a series of twelve etudes, most of which are variations on the theme, conceived symphonically in a Beethovenian-inspired fashion with a determination to render orchestral colors on the piano.
This work never settled into a final, permanent form. Two printed editions were published during Schumann’s lifetime. The Symphonic Etudes existed in several forms called variously Etudes symphoniques, or Fantasies and Finale on a Theme by Baron de Fricken, or Etudes in the Form of Variations or Variations Pathétiques or even Etudes of an Orchestral Character from Florestan and Eusebius
The version recorded is the 1852 version, with the addition of five Posthumous Variations, edited and published by Brahms after the composer's death. It is now a performing practice, credited to the great pianist Alfred Cortot, for soloists to restore the Posthumous Variations into the fixed order of the published score in a sequence of their own choosing. I am following Cortot suggested order which I believe gives the work more depth and contrast so as to emphasize the alternation of more lyrical, melancholy and introvert pages (Eusebius) with those of a more excitable and dynamic nature (Florestan).
The extended Finale is a brilliant triumphant conclusion which begins with a melody quoted from Marschner's Opera based on Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Der Templer und die Jüden, (Ivanhoe, The Templar and the Jewess) which sets the words, "Du stolzes England, freue dich" ("Proud England, rejoice"). This was the composer's cryptic greeting to the dedicatee of the Symphonic Etudes, his friend the Englishman Sterndale Bennett.
ARABESKE, OP. 18
The Arabeske, Op. 18 was written in early 1839 during a troubled period in Schumann’s life. Clara was becoming famous around the world as a concert pianist at the same time that their passionate affair was growing into a serious relationship. Her father defiantly refused to give Clara’s hand in marriage to Robert. Schumann wrote, "The old man won’t let Clara leave him yet: he’s too fond of her. And he is really in the right; for he thinks we ought to earn more money first, so that we may live comfortably". In any case, the couple went to The Royal Court of Appeals at Leipzig and won the right to marry despite the objections of Clara’s father. They married in September, 1840 when she turned 21. An entry in Clara’s diary described their wedding as the most beautiful moment of her life.
An Arabeske (German) or arabesque (French) is an ornament or style of figural, floral, or animal outlines used to create intricate patterns, inspired by Arab architecture. It is also a dance term, a ballet position. A simple ambling tune makes three appearances, interrupted by two minor-key passages. The tune itself is unchanged in each occurrence, but Schumann forces us to reassess the music, as though our view changes when seen through the differing shadows cast by the intervening passages. Schumann amusingly declared that this was “written as a love letter to ladies of Vienna”. It seems that he surpassed his goal as the piece has endeared Schumann to music lovers all over the world.
SCHUMANN/ LISZT WIDMUNG (DEDICATION) & FRÜHLINGSNACHT ("SPRING NIGHT")
“Liszt must be heard - and also seen, for if he played behind the scenes a great deal of the poetry of his playing would be lost.” Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
“Liszt cannot be compared to any other player - he is absolutely unique. He arouses fear and astonishment and yet is a very kind artist. His appearance at the piano is indescribable - he is an original - totally involved with the piano...” Clara Schumann (1819-1896)
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was the veritable master transcriber. He would take simple folk songs, complex symphonic works, lengthy chamber pieces, operas, and art-songs as in the Schumann selections heard here and transform them magically into a piano work. More than half of his compositions are transcriptions, paraphrases, reminiscences, or fantasies on other composers' music. Liszt had an extraordinary imagination for poetic imagery and believed that purely musical images of poetic ideas could be projected to the listener’s imagination without the use of words.
Liszt transcribed almost 150 songs. Approximately 50 were songs by Schubert. The rest were Liszt's tributes to the genius of other songwriters, including Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Franz, Rubinstein, Lassen, Lessmann, Dessauer, von Bülow, and Clara and Robert Schumann.
In 1840, Schumann traveled to Leipzig to meet Liszt. While they had corresponded for many years, had exchanged scores, and had written complimentary articles on one another, this was their first meeting. Schumann, who was then suffering from hallucinations, found meeting Liszt in person to be a powerful but disquieting experience. He wrote: "How extraordinarily he plays, boldly and wildly, and then again tenderly and ethereally! I have heard all this. But this world - his world I mean - is no longer mine. Art, as you practice it, and as I do when I compose at the piano, this tender intimacy I would not give for all his splendor - and indeed there is too much tinsel about it."
Liszt, nevertheless, remained an arch supporter of Schumann's music and called him “a tone poet”. He performed many of the most important piano works and introduced Schumann's opera Genoveva in Weimar, in addition to Schumann's less accepted works for voice and orchestra, st, Manfred and Paradise and the PeriSonata in b minor to Schumann, who 15 years earlier had dedicated his own greatest masterpiece, Fantasy, Op. 17, to Liszt. What Schumann might have thought of this highly original, forward-looking musical visionary continues to tantalize us today. Unfortunately, Schumann, a profound critic as well as a composer, was by now in the final years of dementia and locked away in an asylum. One further detail serves to link these two composers: Liszt, ever the evangelist for new music, performed ten numbers from Carnaval in Leipzig in 1840, and may have been the first to perform the entire work in public.
In all, Liszt made transcriptions of twelve Schumann songs (Widmung appeared in two different versions). His most popular transcription of a Schumann song is Widmung ("Dedication"), Opus 25, No.1. The holograph of this transcription is at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The "concert version" of 1848 of Widmung (from Schumann's Myrthen cycle, Opus 25) was originally a gift from Robert to Clara. These are the loving lyrics poet Friedrich Rückert penned for Schumann’s music, originally written for voice and piano:
You are my soul, my heart, my ecstasy and pain;
you are my world in which I live,
my heaven into which I am suspended,
my grave into which I have laid forever my sorrow.
You are my repose and my peace,
you are bestowed to me from heaven;
that you love me makes me of worth,
your gaze transfigures me,
lovingly you raise me above myself, my good spirit, my better self.
You are my soul, my heart, my ecstasy and pain;
you are my world in which I live,
my heaven into which I am suspended, my good spirit, my better self.
The exquisite Frühlingsnacht ("Spring Night"), Opus 39, No.12 published by Liszt in 1872, is a joyful and dreamlike love song. The "breezes wandering through the woods" are translated musically into a repeated chordal accompaniment bringing us to the jubilant refrain when the nightingale declares "She is yours, all yours again!"
Kinderszenen ("Scenes from Childhood," Opus 15). Kinderszenen, composed in 1838, consists of thirteen pieces that musically depict various childhood scenes which Schumann described as "adult reminiscences for adults." Included among them is perhaps Schumann’s most famous piece, Träumerei ("Reverie" or "Dreaming"), which beautifully evokes a daydream.
Tragically, near the end of his life Schumann suffered severe bouts of depression as well as repeated hallucinations. On February 27, 1854 the artist attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine. He was rescued by some boaters on the river at the time, but it was determined that he was insane. Schumann was then taken to a private asylum in Endenich near Bonn, Germany, where he remained until his death on July 29, 1856.
Although early biographers concluded that Schumann's behavior was due to syphilis, later research has shown this to be unlikely. Schumann showed symptoms of mental illness as a young man well before syphilis was likely to have developed. Furthermore, many of his symptoms, including bouts of sustained manic activity alternating with periods of deep depression point to bipolar disorder (manic-depressive disease). Robert Schumann was buried in Bonn, and in 1880 a statue by A. Donndorf was erected on his tomb. According to studies by the musicologist Eric Sams (1926 - 2004), Schumann's symptoms during his terminal illness and death appear consistent with those of mercury poisoning. Mercury was at the time a common treatment for syphilis.
Clara Schumann bore and reared eight children with her husband, but never completely gave up touring. Despite some societal disapproval and perhaps in the face of her husband’s objections as well, Clara enjoyed touring on the concert stage throughout her life and frequently performed her husband’s works. By some accounts, her tours were also necessary to meet the family’s financial needs. It is therefore not surprising that Clara continued her travels following Robert’s death, making many visits to England in particular. In addition, she worked as an editor of her late husband’s compositions at the publisher Breitkopf und Härtel. She was also appointed a teacher at the Hoch Conservatorium, a post where she was credited with having a great deal of influence over the musical technique of students of the day. Clara Schumann passed away in 1896.
More than any other composer, Robert Schumann instilled the depths, contradictions, and tensions of the Romantic spirit in his music. This CD is the homage to his uniquely creative genius and spirit.