Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Life and Work of a Romantic Composer

With so much of the serious biographical material on Robert Schumann available only in German, a noteworthy book on the composer in English is always most welcomed. In 1985, psychiatrist and musician Peter Ostwald wrote Schumann – The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius, excellent psychobiography of the composer. Dr. Ostwald applied the same clinical analytical methods to his book Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius, an effort which I thought was less successful.

Hot off the press is German musicologist Martin Geck’s Robert Schumann – The Life and Work of a Romantic Composer, translated by Stewart Spencer (University of Chicago Press, 2013). Professor Geck set out, I think, to write not so much a purely chronological account of Schumann’s life, but more a discussion of the life and art of the composer within the context of the artistic and political milieu of his time. For me, what is even more intriguing is the fact that interspersed between chapters of his book are nine Intermezzi, essays that deal with various aspects of Schumann’s art.

With any biography of a well known figure, musical or otherwise, the acid test lies in whether one can learn something new about that historical figure. Other than facts of Schumann’s life, which are well known to music lovers, I do find the author’s discussions on the composers work and art most insightful.

Although friendly with his famous contemporaries Liszt and Wagner, he was not really close to them as friends or as artists. However, Schumann shared with Liszt and Wagner the belief in the idea of “the total artwork”, and searched for ways “of ensuring that the grand idea of a universal art might acquire a physical, tangible form.” Although it is well known that Schumann was regarded as a composer as well as a music critic, the author reminded me that Schumann viewed his music criticism and his writings on music not as reviews “in the traditional sense but as a form of poetic discourse”, not as criticism but as discussions of art and music.

One also finds within the chapters and in the Intermezzi quite detailed analysis of specific works of Schumann. I find the author’s discussion on the composer’s Kreisleriana, Op. 16, particularly interesting, even exciting. Geck points out that in Schumann’s pianistic masterpiece, the composer was writing

with Kreisler looking over his shoulder, and it is Kreisler who gives him the courage to indulge a fantastical imagination unsupported by any program and to create a cycle that explores what Franz von Schober had called “life’s untamed circle” with a tremendous wealth of ideas but without the sort of safety harness that Bach and Beethoven had at their disposal in the form of an initial theme on which their respective sets of variations are based. It is now Kreisler / Schumann who provides the theme.

Geck also highlights for me two major works of Schumann’s that have been all but ignored by contemporary musicians – his opera Genoveva and the oratorio Paradise and the Peri, as well as some of the composer’s choral works. He goes on to discuss and analyse Schumann’s universally popular Träumerei and argues that the work refutes Hans Pfitzner’s dictum that “Great works of art spring from the unconscious, not from the conscious.” In Träumerei, Schumann “was deliberately flying in the face of the ideal of natural beauty” by having an extremely carefully calculated and constructed work sounding like it was the composer’s “feeling” that “painted” the scene, or the dream.

The composer’s marriage to pianist Clara Wieck, the subject of much misinformation since Schumann’s death, is also handled well by Geck. It is neither the haliographic account of an “ideal marriage between two artists” nor the feminist viewpoint of Clara’s genius becoming completely suppressed by the forces of social convention. The author discusses the role Clara played in the marriage, as well as the challenges faced by women composers in the 19th century.

Martin Geck’s book on Schumann is not an easy read, but is an intelligent, insightful, and ultimately interesting addition to the literature on the great 19th composer. The author did not set out to write a biographical study as exhaustive as Ernest Newman’s biography on Wagner, or Henry Louis de la Grange’s massive study on Mahler, but he does provide interested readers much new insight on Schumann’s life and the art, as well as the times in which he lived.

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