Welcome to
    Pianonoise!
     
      Home    Listen    Site Index    BLOG  

20B< >

One enduring idea that people often have about artists is that genius and insanity are closely linked. It seems like a pretty self-serving idea which may account for its popularity. After all, if people who are geniuses, and therefore far above the ordinary orbits of regular folk, are also more than a little crazy, which is something to which no one aspires, than at the very least things come out even. More likely, if a wish-granting genii could make you a genius but would also have to make you insane, you could be pardoned for saying ‘no thanks!” and preferring to remain just an ordinary, perfectly respectable, sane, societally-sanctioned human being.  Now don’t you feel better about not taking those piano lessons? No telling where they were going to lead.

On the other hand, the myth’s popularity might have a simpler explanation. People tend to remember the sensational, not the ordinary. There have been great gobs of great artists with perfectly ordinary lives, who at best seem a little eccentric to their contemporaries, but who do not attempt suicide by throwing themselves into rivers, wind up in insane asylums, and die there. And then there is Robert Schumann. Or was.

 

Because he lived in the 19th century, when medical diagnoses were often pretty vague, musicologists get to speculate on what exactly was going on in Schumann’s mind and body. But he exhibited the symptoms of a manic depressive, going through periods of wild exuberance involving great spurts of creativity—he sketched his first symphony in three days—and then periods of several melancholy and depression.

The fragmentation of Schumann’s mood is reflected in his own imaginative experience. A frequent writer on music, with opinions to spare on composers of performers of the day, Schumann founded a journal and poured forth review after review. In a famous review about Chopin, he introduced Florestan and Eusebius, two distinct sides of his personality. Eusebius, the poet, reflective and dreamy, and Florestan, the passionate, exuberant, easily enthusiastic self. Both of them received musical portraits in Schumann’s piano cycle “Carnaval” in which figures from Commedia dell'arte mingle with real persons from Schumann’s own inner circle.

Schumann’s liking for the edge is evident in several of his musical instructions. Some simply require really bizarre dynamics, where the accompaniment is intentionally much louder than the melody. Then there is the famous set of markings on his second piano sonata, “as fast as possible” followed a page later by “faster!”

Obviously the ordinary didn’t appeal to Schumann. He lived in an age when men were supposed to show strong emotion, and to weep was a sign of a sensitive and powerful soul. Dramatic dynamic contrasts abounded, and the climax was always hair-raising. Composers were often writers, and philosophers, and had strong ideas about the role of their art. Before them, the romantic poets had paved the way, and one of the best-selling books of the age involved a suicidal young poet.

Schumann’s life was dramatic enough. Shunted off to law school at his parent’s insistence, young Robert simply couldn’t apply himself, and quit. He took piano lessons with a virtuoso teacher who was training his daughter to light up the pianistic sky. Robert fell in love with her; the father-in-law refused his blessing on the union. Clara was too young anyway, but Robert sued to marry. It was a protracted battle that the young couple eventually won. Meanwhile, Robert has ruined his right hand using a device that was supposed to strengthen that recalcitrant 4th finger we all have. It was an age full of such efforts—failures, all.

The marriage produced eight children, and seemed very happy, when one of them wasn’t miserable. Clara did go on to tour Europe, and become easily the best female pianist of the age, and possibly the greatest period. Being of a more refined, Apollonian nature, she probably missed fewer notes than Liszt and Thalberg, her chief rivals, even if general audiences might have found her less thrilling.

But Robert was having troubles. He tried to conduct an orchestra, but the rehearsals were a disaster. For all of the extremely fast tempi that litter his early piano music, he wanted the men to play slower and slower. He began to hear the sound of an A in his head that wouldn’t stop. One note, the ghost of Mendelssohn dictated to him the theme for a violin concerto. The only problem is that Robert had already written the concerto years earlier.

And then there was the river, and the bridge, and the fisherman who fished him out, and the asylum where he spent his last three years. He had cast off his wedding ring and did not seem to recognize his wife anymore. A young protégé came to visit sometimes. His name was Brahms.

There is a saying that if you knew how the sausage was made you wouldn’t want any. Perhaps it is easier to enjoy the music if you don’t know how much suffering was involved in its production. Yet much of what Schumann wrote must have been written during periods of joy and contentment.

The end was not happy. Mere mortals can shudder if they like and thank their stars that they are not geniuses like that and are not condemned to suffer for it, for after all, shouldn’t a high price be exacted for the exalted privilege of making art like that? But whatever our lot, we have the music of Robert Schumann, and are richer for it.

 


comments powered by Disqus