If it hadn’t been for the cellist Steven Isserlis, I wouldn’t have written this post. At least not now. I follow Isserlis on Twitter, and a week ago, he pointed out an article he had written some time ago about the Romantic composer Robert Schumann for the Gramophone magazine. That intrigued me since I did not make any direct connection between Isserlis and Schumann. To my surprise, I found out that he is a keen admirer of Schumann, like me. Needless to say I was delighted. “There is no composer to whom I feel closer than to Schumann. He has been a beloved friend since I was a child; I remain as fascinated today as I was then by his unique blend of poetry, ecstatic strength and confessional intimacy”, Isserlis once remarked.
Well, I couldn’t have said it better, and so, while driving to work, I randomly picked an album to listen to: Four Duets, Op. 34 and Op. 78, as well as Myrthen Op. 25, all sung by Dorothea Röschmann and Ian Bostridge, accompanied by Graham Johnson on the piano. Such a lovely record! And I adore that Bostridge fellow’s voice! Both pieces mark the beginning of Schumann’s career as a professional composer. Initially his goal was to become a composer-pianist, but his middle finger became paralyzed around 1831 and he thought about a career as a composer-music critic. But the young man had to earn money and writing songs seemed a good idea: They were quick to produce and marketable!
Of lovers and family life
The eight duets of Op. 34 and Op. 78 depict idyllic moments experienced by lovers or a family. The music is of such a sweetness, grace and love for mankind that I hesitated a moment to out myself as someone liking this. It is bordering kitsch, but hey, I also like little crimson flowers! My favourite song is “Unterm Fenster” (Under the window), where a young man tries to gain the favour of the girl he desires and a jocular dialogue develops. A real diamond of a song, scintillating and precious!
The poems which Schumann set to music are a clever mix of Romantic ideas and witty language. If you master German, you might even laugh at the degree of Romantic transfiguration. Schumann wrote the four duets of Op. 34 in 1840, a year before he started with his first symphony, that I have discussed in an earlier post. Op. 78 was written in 1949.
Inspired by the Scottish Highlands
In 1840, Schumann also wrote the song cycle “Myrthen”. What I said about the duets is valid for “Myrthen” too. The music has a simple elegance, the emotions it sets free harmonize perfectly with the lyrics, where every verse is a pledge to Romanticism. The pleasure I feel when listening to Op. 25 is so intense that I shiver. Schumann himself wrote in a letter to Clara: ” Oh Clara, what a bliss it is to compose songs!” The cycle comprehends 26 poems written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Rückert, Heinrich Heine, Lord Byron, Thomas Moore, Robert Burns and Julius Mosen.
Schumann dedicated the song cycle to his wife Clara Wieck, whom he married in 1841 after a court procedure. Actually, it was his wedding gift. The first song “Huldigung” (Praise) sums up the composer’s feelings and longings. Clara Wieck’s father taught Schumann in his youth, and initially, he was not ready to allow his very young daughter to marry a musician without a job. In the end, he did not have a choice but to give the bride away to young Robert.
The influence of Robert Burns, one of the most important Scottish poets, on Schumann becomes apparent in three songs circling around the theme of the Scottish Highlands. I really like “Die Hochländer-Witwe” (The Highland Widow’s Lament), which depicts the Massacre of Glen Coe, where King William made the Campbell clan kill their longtime enemies, the Macdonalds, when they failed to show up on time to pledge allegiance to the British crown.
Beware of the Schumann curse
On his webpage, Steven Isserlis writes: “[T]here seems to be something of a curse on those who become too closely involved with Schumann. The scholar who edited Robert and Clara’s letters suffered a breakdown and was hospitalized; the author of one of the few good books in English about Schumann, John Daverio, drowned in mysterious circumstances in the Charles river in Boston […]” I sincerely hope the Schumann curse will spare me so that I can enjoy his music as an eager listener and a pianist apprentice!
© Charles Thibo