Celebrating Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Kinderszenen (Scenes of childhood), Op. 15
  1. Vom fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of foreign Lands and Peoples)
  2. Kuriose Geschichte (A Curious Story)
  3. Bittendes Kind (Pleading Child)
  4. Wichtige Begebenheit (An Important Event)
  5. Der Dichter spricht (The Poet speaks)
Waldszenen (Forest scenes), Op.82
  1. Vogel als Prophet (Prophet Bird)
Frauenliebe und-Leben (Woman’s life and love), Op. 42

This year we celebrate the bicentenary of Schumann’s birth (8 June, 1810). He was born in schumannSaxony and had begun to compose before he was seven years old, however his childhood and teenage years also saw him steeped in literature and writing. In 1828 he began studying law at Leipzig and the following year continued those studies at Heidelberg. He studied piano with Friedrich Wieck whose daughter Clara he would eventually marry. Apart from composition he was also involved in musical critical writing and founded Die Neue Seitschrift für Musik (New Journal in Music) in 1834. Sadly, Schumann suffered from mental illness and breakdown which led to a suicide attempt and, for the last two years of his life, confinement in a mental institution at his own request. Apart from the sheer beauty of his music and the way in which he breaks free of existing musical forms and structures, perhaps one of the most important aspects of his work is his fusion of literary and musical ideas.

Kinderszenen was written in 1838 and provides the listener with musical reminiscences of childhood. It is said that Schumann described the titles as “nothing more than delicate hints for execution and interpretation”. Indeed, they should be seen as hints regarding the mood to be conjured rather than literal descriptions of places, people, things, or events. Also, there is a note of satire which is evident in the almost mock pomposity of Wichtige Begebenheit. Perhaps the most significant of the pieces, in terms of its title, is the final one, Der Dichter Spricht, because, referring to the composer of piano music as a poet, it may signal a new understanding of the musician’s art which was just dawning in those early years of the nineteenth century and of the Romantic era.

Vogel als Prophet is one of a set of pieces, Waldszenen, written between 1848 and 1849. In mythic lore, the forest is a place of enchantment, of spiritual awakening and enlightenment, of discovery, and of danger. It is a place through which the hero must pass on his quest. Birds also figure in mythology as bearers of prophetic or mystical messages. One wonders whether the piece may have a sense of foreboding but the hymn-like middle section conveys a sense of spiritual awakening.

Adelbert von Chamisso (1781-1838) was a German botanist and poet born in France of a noble family which had to flee the French Revolution. His botanical work was of great importance and took him to California and Mexico where he identified numerous species hitherto unknown. But it is his belles lettres which concern us today and in particular his cycle of nine poems Frauenliebe und Leben which was set to music by Schumann, Loewe, and Lachner.

The poems deal with a woman’s life and love. In the first song we hear her recall the moment when she first saw the man she loves. Subsequently, we hear her excitement as she extols his virtues and later as she realises that he has chosen her as his life partner. The excitement continues through the day of her wedding and the birth of her child. We then become privy to her pain when he dies and she is condemned to live out the remainder of her life in loneliness. “Die Welt ist leer,” she exclaims – “the world is empty” – because he has left her, and he is “her world” as the final words of the cycle make clear – “Du meine Welt!” Earlier she has said that she finds herself transfigured in his radiance – “und finden Verklärt mich in seinem Glanz.”

Nine poems by Chamisso but Schumann used only eight of them. The ninth poem is the woman’s blessing for her child in which she reflects on her life and love – and loss. However, such reflection is not absent from Schumann’s cycle because, without a break, the piano alone reprises the very first song, or at least its accompaniment, as the final words of the eighth poem fade away. One of the loneliest experiences in performance is the solo song recital – the (sometimes large) concert platform containing just a singer, a piano, and a pianist and to it the closing moments of Frauenliebe und Leben add poetic and musical loneliness.

Scholars and critics debate the propriety of men writing poetry and music to illustrate a woman’s feelings. Some question the nature of the relationship revealed in the poems, suggesting that the woman is cast in too subservient a role. Others try to see it more as an image of the strange (and not necessarily wholesome) relationship between Mary and God, Mary and Jesus. In the end, though, men and women share a common humanity. All who have loved, male or female, know the exhilaration of discovering that they are loved as they themselves love. We all know what it is to feel transfigured by the radiance of our beloved; we all know or dread the pain of loss. Indeed, the love of Robert and Clara Schumann is a famous facet of musical history. So there is no need to apologise for this beautiful music, and there is no need to try to sanitize it with a false and unnecessary religiosity.