Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Case of Robert Schumann

Last night I attended the last concert in our chamber music festival, the Henschel Quartet playing Beethoven and Schumann. The Beethoven was, as always, extraordinary. As my companion commented, full of drama and real intensity. I would add, with a rhythmic inventiveness so coordinated with the harmonic structure that it is really unmatched by anyone. The second half was Schumann's Quartet in A major, op 41, no 3. I confess that sometimes I leave a concert after the first half if the second half has music I am less interested in. Romantic chamber music usually falls into that category because it has been my experience that chamber music was not where Romanticism in music had much success. But, because I haven't heard much Schumann chamber music live, and because I had invited a friend to the concert, we stayed till the end. The Henschel Quartet were very fine, by the way. The first violin did not always make the best sound and they had some moments of ragged ensemble in the Beethoven. But they played with real understanding of the music which is much more important than mere technical perfection.

Robert Schumann is one of the key figures in the development of Romanticism in music. We can't talk about him, or about many of the artists of the early 19th century, without talking about madness. As Charles Rosen says in his remarkable book on the period (The Romantic Generation):
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, madness--for writers, painters and musicians--was not simply a withdrawal from the distress of everyday life, a protest against intolerable social conditions or against a debilitating philosophy. It had gained a new ideological charge: madness was a source of creative energy.
 As Charles Lamb wrote to his young friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Dream not Coleridge, of having tasted all the grandeur and wildness of Fancy, till you have gone mad." Schumann was both drawn to and terrified by  madness. It was for him an immense creative resource. A lot of what Schumann accomplished, in extraordinary music like the third song from his cycle Liederkreis on poems by Heine, is by subverting or suspending traditional musical logic:
This works extremely well in the context of small forms like lieder or sets of short piano pieces like the Davidsbündlertänze:
But as Rosen points out, Schumann's great weakness was transitions: in his longer works he either obsessively keeps harping on the same rhythm for page after page, or is always interrupting the music to begin a new section. In his later life, he attempted to revise the brilliant quirkiness of the early music, but the result was usually merely pedestrian. Schumann's reputation is because of those striking and revolutionary shorter works, the lieder, the piano pieces, that come mostly from his earlier life. The ability to write in the longer forms developed in the Classical Era, such as string quartet or symphony, had largely disappeared in the early decades of the 19th century. This is not to say that composers didn't attempt these forms, just that they were not very successful, overwhelmed as they were by the new creative--and yes, slightly mad--energy of Romanticism. Later on in the century Brahms would make a very serious effort to reclaim the ground lost.

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