Monday, October 01, 2012

And Schumann at the Close

In 2006, they rang bells for Mozart in January on the 250th Anniversary of his birth. Between that and the 100th Anniversary of Shostakovich’s birth in September, there had been a fair-to-great amount of concert programming in their honor. There was one anniversary that year generally overlooked, not the kind we’re inclined to ring bells about and it’s not exactly a cause for celebration: July 29th, 2006, had been the 150th Anniversary of the Death of Robert Schumann.

Nor are insanity and suicide comfortable topics for public entertainment.

Among the many “What If” Games one can play – what if Mozart had lived to be 75, not just 35; what if Beethoven hadn’t gone deaf? – you wonder what Schumann could have done if what we now think of as “manic depression” or “bi-polar disorder” had been treatable during his lifetime? What might his music have sounded like in these last years if he had not tried to commit suicide when he was 43, dying 2½ years later in an institution not far from the River Rhine?

First of all, the idea of “manic-depression” is usually over-simplified: it’s a lot more than just sudden changes between elation and depression, high energy and exhaustion. Those are certainly aspects of the disorder that affected Schumann throughout much of his life.

But there are aspects of this that are simply a part of what we call “Romantic Music” which was full of dramatic mood swings that would never have been allowed in most of the “Classical Music” period – well, except for that period beginning in the 1760s when a lot of authors and composers, including Goethe and Haydn, wrote pieces in a “Sturm und Drang” style – storm and stress, though “Drang” could be better understood as “emotional urges” but just doesn’t scan as well – which were, by comparison, wildly violent from the norm and generally regarded as monstrous yowlings, but I digress...

Much has been made of his “alter-egos” – his “imaginary friends” – Florestan and Eusebius, not to mention Master Raro. These are names he created for the different aspects of his own personality. The first two became members of the David’s Club (fighting the Goliaths of the old-fashioned Philistine musical society of Germany then), and also appear as guests in “Carnaval.” It would appear they were also on the staff of the magazine he edited. Florestan came first – ‘born’ on Schumann’s 21st birthday – a man of action, perhaps someone Schumann aspired to be. He was inspired by the great writer Jean Paul Richter who’d created a pair of twins opposite in character to describe the various aspects of a man’s personality. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that he created Eusebius, the dreamer who you could say (in today’s terms) represented his inner feminine side, constantly pondering the meaning of life. Raro was originally his fictitious embodiment of his teacher and unwilling future father-in-law Friedrich Wieck but later Raro became the combination of Florestan’s and Eusebius’ personality in one rational thinker.

Schumann, as founder of the musical magazine, “Neue Zeitschrift für Musik” (New Journal for Music, essentially a magazine for new music) wrote reviews and articles signed by these various creations of his, examining a work from one particular viewpoint, sometimes even having what we might consider a panel discussion between them on a certain topic. As if no one else could figure it out, it seemed to save Schumann some professional grief as well (he had enough issues with libel suits: in 1842 he'd been sentenced to jail time that was then commuted to a fine): people couldn’t very well attack him since he hadn’t signed it! Eusebius appears to have quit the paper in 1836 and Florestan was finally laid to rest in 1842. It was certainly a very creative way to handle criticism in an age that was pretty old-fashioned and probably more an imaginative mind trying to find ways to ‘grab’ his readers than a symptom of a future illness.

If you look at the list of works Schumann composed, you realize many of them came about in bursts of creative activity: the year he and Clara were finally able to marry, he composed about 120 songs, but the next year, after the wedding, he began to write symphonies, which Clara felt was his true calling. That calendar year he composed his 1st Symphony, the “Spring Symphony;” then a three- movement piece that eventually became known as the “Overture, Scherzo and Finale,” a symphony in all but name minus a slow movement; next, a symphony in D Minor that didn’t please him or the audience at its December premiere so he withdrew it and 10 years later reworked it (which is how it became his Symphony No. 4); and finally he sketched much of another symphony in C Minor which apparently disappeared into the wastebasket; and in the midst of this wrote a Fantasie for Piano & Orchestra in A Minor which Clara premiered 19 days before the birth of their first child, the Fantasie that later became the first movement of the Piano Concerto.

The next year began with him finding himself unable to compose and dealing with Clara’s absences during her concert tours. At this point, he had only a few pieces to his name and at the age of 32 was regarded more as a writer about music than a writer of music, realizing he was considered Mr. Clara Schumann since she was clearly the better-known talent. But 1842 became a year of chamber music. In the first three weeks of June he composed his three string quartets, then in late September wrote the Piano Quintet and a month later the Piano Quartet plus a piano trio written a month after that along with some other less-well-known pieces before the year was out. An opera project that had been occupying his mind for 18 months became an oratorio (“not for the oratory”) called Paradise and the Peri which he completed in June of 1843. Then he was exhausted and unable to compose for months.

Clara (with the help of their friend Mendelssohn) talked Robert into going along on her Russian tour, something he dreaded: worse, perhaps, would have been staying home alone while she was gone for five months. During the tour, however, Schumann suffered “fits of melancholy,” though how much of that was physical and how much of it stemmed from his inability to compose (even if he could, would he have been able to concentrate on it during the tour) and then playing second fiddle to his wife created all kinds of issues (usually it was the other way around, wasn’t it: the talented wife forced to play second fiddle to her more famous husband, even giving up her chance at a career to be wife and mother). Plans for various opera projects came to nothing after their return to Leipzig and in August, Schumann had a very serious nervous breakdown. He couldn’t even listen to music which he wrote “cut into my nerves as if with knives.” Yet he felt slighted when his friend Mendelssohn stepped down at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig to be replaced by someone else. Yet who could blame them: he was an inexperienced conductor and, frankly, he was a mess.

A trip to Dresden didn’t help: it only got worse. Each morning, Clara would find him “swimming in tears.” But eventually they moved there – by comparison to Leipzig (a hotbed for new music then), Dresden was more old-fashioned and, well… dull which she thought might soothe his nerves. After the new year, he began studying Bach fugues (he called it “cure by counterpoint”). That summer, he wrote a Rondo for piano and orchestra for Clara, then added a slow movement which were in turn added to that earlier Fantasie to create a complete Piano Concerto – who would know, listening to this piece, what torment existed in between the first and second movements!?

Except for the upheavals of the 1849 revolution that affected Dresden – you can read about their escape from the street-fighting as part of an earlier post, “The Extraordinary Life of Clara Schumann” – for the most part it seemed a good time, aside from a period of depression around his 39th birthday (hey, been there/done that!). By that September, he had written a series of piano duets “for small and large children,” including a Birthday March which he and their eldest daughter Marie performed as a surprise for Clara on the morning of her 30th birthday.

But things were going nowhere in Dresden, so when a friend told him about a job in Düsseldorf, he checked it out: it was a beautiful small town on the banks of the Rhine but the fact the town had a lunatic asylum (as they were called then) bothered him – it reminded him of his father who suffered from a “nervous disorder” and any talk of insanity bothered him. But since nothing better seemed to be coming along, he reluctantly accepted the position when it was offered to him, though he put off his arrival there all summer. He would be the town’s “music director,” primarily conducting the orchestra and various choruses in town, a composer-in-residence for the city.

He and Clara were warmly received there, but Schumann did not care for their lodgings, complained of the noise and then of not feeling well, exhausted by the move and all the changes. A month later, he attended a ceremony in the Cologne cathedral when the Archbishop was enthroned as a Cardinal – an experience he would soon reflect in his next symphony. In six days he composed his cello concerto, then finished orchestrating the score in another eight days, completing it on the same day he conducted his first concert with the town’s orchestra. His debut went well enough and everybody seemed pleased. Clara had been the soloist and the major ruffle in the new conductor’s feathers was that she was toasted at the reception more enthusiastically than he was. A week later, he began writing his “Rhenish” Symphony (we know it as No. 3) and it was a big success when it was premiered that winter.

But the honeymoon was short-lived: there were misunderstandings – it seems Schumann, always a loner, had trouble dealing with the affable locals: he found them too talkative and not serious enough for his liking. One can only imagine how the good citizens of Dusseldorf regarded this big-city/celebrity attitude. His limitations as a conductor quickly became apparent and any thought of his staying there much longer seemed fairly mutual.

In the midst of all this, through 1851 and 1852, he revised his earlier D Minor Symphony (written shortly after the 1st but now published as No. 4), composed a great deal of new music, mostly choral pieces, songs and chamber music, even while angry with the people he had to deal with on a daily basis as part of his job. He was fighting an up-hill battle with the choir, partly because of his poor conducting and his championing of Bach’s music which they couldn’t understand. Soon, the stress began to affect him, and in April of 1852, he suffered a “rheumatic attack,” as Clara called it in her dairy, suffering from sleeplessness and depression. Later that month, he sketched his Requiem in 12 days, then spent 8 days orchestrating it.

He began inquiring about other jobs that might be available – mostly composing positions, not conducting – but now his speech was being affected and he moved more slowly. A summer holiday at the beach seemed to help but when he returned to the town by the Rhine, his doctor advised him to avoid all exertion, like conducting. In October he had an attack of “giddiness” and a month later complained of “aural symptoms” which would appear to be what today is called tinnitus but until recently was just called “ringing in the ears.”

But still, that summer began a very productive period: while there were some mechanical arrangements of pieces made for the amateur market (piano adaptations of his string quartets), he wrote a collection of short pieces for clarinet, viola and piano in October, shortly after Brahms first visited the Schumanns, called “Fairy Tales,” a title he generically applied to many short pieces that created the mood of such tales, not necessarily telling actually stories in the music. Schumann, the son of a book dealer and publisher, originally was torn between becoming a writer and novelist or a musician. This interest in “spinning a story” in his music combines these two early dreams of his. There was also the Fantasy in C for Violin & Orchestra which he wrote for the 21-year-old violinist sensation, Joseph Joachim, which pleased him very much.

For Clara’s 34th birthday and their 13th wedding anniversary, Schumann gave her a brand-new grand piano piled high with new music for her. She wrote in her diary “am I not the happiest wife on earth?” But later that month she discovered she was again pregnant and a long-awaited English tour would have to be called off. On the day that month she wrote she was “more discouraged than ever,” the Schumann’s had a visitor, a friend of Joachim's: a 20-year-old composer named Johannes Brahms.

As a result of these new friendships, Schumann invited Brahms and Albert Dietrich, one of his students, to write a violin sonata for Joachim, a work by committee which became known as the more-famous-than-played “F-A-E Sonata,” the nickname representing Joachim’s favorite quote, “Free but Lonely,” turned here into a musical motive. Just to make sure his own effort didn’t go to waste, Schumann took the two movements he wrote for this work and added two more of his own to produce a completely original violin sonata which is usually not included even in recordings called “the complete works” for violin and piano.

And Schumann also wrote what you would think would be a major work for Joachim at this time, a violin concerto. He began it a few days before Brahms' first visit, finishing it in 12 days. Unfortunately, the concerto didn’t please Joachim: even Clara thought it weak. The general consensus was Schumann’s illness was affecting his work. (See below for more on the Concerto.)

There were problems, meanwhile, with his day job: the choir refused to have him conduct anything except his own pieces. A delegation from the orchestra essentially requested the same thing. Instead of dealing with this, Clara took Robert with her on a tour of Holland where they were both received enthusiastically. The good burghers of Düsseldorf complained of a breach of contract but the mayor insisted that Schumann’s salary still be paid (he even assured it would be payed during his ensuing treatment). Not long after they returned, on February 10th the “final breakdown” began.

One of the things that bothered Clara was Schumann's new interest in "table-tapping" – not, as I first thought, that annoying drumming on the table with the fingers: in this case, it was a way of communicating with the dead, a form of spiritualism. In addition to the tinnitus – hearing the sustained pitch ‘A’ almost constantly at various levels of volume – he also began having other “auditory hallucinations.” He told a friend that the ghost of Franz Schubert had sent him a wonderful melody that sounded as if it had been sung by angels, and he began to compose a set of variations on it, not realizing it was actually based on the slow movement’s theme from his recent Violin Concerto. At times, he was tormented by the theme now being sung to him by devils and in his confusion he became erratic – on February 26th, he told Clara he would need to go to the asylum for treatment, not knowing what he might do during the night. The next morning, when the doctors were summoned to the house, Schumann awoke in deep melancholy. The oldest daughter, Marie, who was 12 then, was told to keep an eye on him while Clara met with the doctors in another room.

Later, Marie described it: the bedroom door opened suddenly and he stood there “in his long, green-flowered dressing gown. His face was quite white. As he looked at me, he thrust both hands in front of his face and said, ‘Oh, God.’ And then he disappeared again.” Dazed for a moment, she then went into the room only to find he’d escaped through another doorway and had run out of the house. As Clara and the doctors ran about and alerted the neighbors, Marie discovered “a noisy crowd of people coming toward me and as they came closer I recognized my father supported by two men under his arms, his hands in front of his face.” Clara was urged to stay with a neighbor, her presence too emotional for Schumann to bear – and perhaps vice versa. The doctors procured an attendant for Schumann and five days later, the children watched from an upstairs window as their father was placed in a carriage and driven away. They would never see him again.

Schumann had run down to the Rhine and thrown his wedding ring into the river. He had only moments before told Clara, who tried to comfort him, that he was unworthy of her love. Perhaps he had gone to throw in the ring and only dove into the river – the great German river whose life he had celebrated in his 3rd Symphony – to retrieve the ring, not to commit suicide. There is no way of knowing for sure. It all happened so fast.

Schumann spent the rest of his life at the asylum in Endenich outside Bonn. Clara was not permitted to visit him. Occasionally, on good days, he received visits from Joachim or Brahms who would report to her, but the doctors felt his seeing her would be more than his system could bear.

Not much was known about Schumann’s treatment or his life for the next 2½ years. It was only in 1991 that a diary kept by Schumann’s doctor was made public, having passed down through generations of relatives until it had reached a nephew who was also a composer, Aribert Reimann (most famous for his opera based on Shakespeare’s “Lear”, premiered in 1978). He received it in 1973 and kept it private as requested – patient/doctor confidentiality – but finally he felt it had to be made public (the original link is no longer working and I haven't been able to find any re-posting of the document).

Clara, like many care-givers, had long been criticized for turning her husband over to the asylum, but if Dr. Richarz’s observations are accurate, there would be no reason to expect her, pregnant with a child due in three months and raising their family of six young children, to take the risk: Schumann “physically attacked the doctor,”“hit the orderly,” “complained that everything was poisoned,” and “spilled wine...into the stove because he believed it was urine.” According to Richarz’ diary, Schumann was often “restless, violent, loud,”...”also during the night [he was] constantly excited, roaring, raging.” But there were also good days when he'd play the piano or write letters (some of which, understandably, said things like “get me away from here”) and he even composed, working on some simple accompaniments to some of the Paganini caprices for solo violin. On September 15th, 1855, shortly after Clara’s 36th birthday, Richarz found Schumann “calculating his financial circumstances and very calm.” He details a progressive paralysis, difficulties with speech and the disintegration of his personality, including the differing dilation of his pupils (which the artist in the portrait above had noted earlier in 1853 at the time of the sitting). He adds, “recently [he] has been writing down all kinds of brief jottings and reflections of melancholy content, e.g. ‘In 1831 I was syphilitic and treated with arsenic.’”

As his health deteriorated in the summer of 1856, Clara was summoned twice to Endenich – on July 14th and 23rd – but neither time was she allowed to see her husband. On the 27th, she was summoned once again and this time allowed to see him, as she wrote in her diary: “For weeks he had eaten nothing but wine and [jelly] – today I gave it to him – and he took it with the happiest expression and in haste, licking the wine from my fingers – ah, he knew that it was I.” On the afternoon of the 29th, she went to the train station to meet Joachim and Brahms but when they arrived back at the hospital, they found that Schumann had died quietly and alone in his room.

“His head was beautiful in death,” she wrote in her diary, “the forehead so transparent and gently rounded. I stood at the body of my dearly loved husband and was calm; all my feelings were of thankfulness to God that he was finally free, and as I knelt at his bed I had such a holy feeling. It was as if his magnificent spirit hovered above me – if only he had taken me with him! I saw him today for the last time – I placed some flowers on his brow – he had taken my love with him!”

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As for the Violin Concerto, both Joachim and Brahms agreed with Clara’s misgivings about the work, citing “dreadful passages” which she hoped Joachim could rewrite. He tried it two years after Schumann’s death and found it a disaster. Daughter Eugenie Schumann related later how she remembered Clara coming into the room one night and announcing sadly that she, Joachim and Brahms have just agreed that Schumann’s violin concerto would not be published, “not now nor at any time.” Joachim explained “it is not of equal rank with so many of his glorious creations.” His son later sold the manuscript to the Prussian State Library in Berlin with the stipulation that it would not be published or played until a hundred years after Schumann’s death (that would be 1956).

Joachim had a great-niece who was a brilliant young violinist in her own right. Jelly D’Aranyi was also psychic and in March of 1933, she and friends were playing with a ouija board when she received a “spirit message” telling her to find and play an unknown work – when asked where this message was coming from, the ouija board spelled out “Robert Schumann.” Now, granted, as a grand-niece of Joachim’s, she probably knew about the suppression of the piece and the message apparently didn’t tell her where to find it. Anyway, she found the manuscript and was making arrangements to perform it in 1937 but her performance was postponed after opposition from Eugenie Schumann (and a copyright claim by Hitler’s government). She gave her first performance of it in England in 1938 but only after another violinist gave the actual first performance in Berlin in 1937 after all.

- Dick Strawser

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Much of this material is culled from basic resource materials, like Grove's Dictionary as well as Nancy B. Reich’s Clara Schumann: the Artist and the Woman.”   

Picture credit: Chalk drawing of Schumann by J.J.B. Laurens, done in 1853, the year before his attempted suicide: the artist at the time commented on the abnormal enlargement of the pupils of Schumann's eyes.

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