Satire and passion for the benefit of mankind

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Let there be light… © Charles Thibo

Knowledge itself is power. The British philosopher Francis Bacon formulated this idea in 1597. Today I would say that education is key, knowledge alone is not enough. Mankind needs to learn how to apply knowledge to solve real world problems. Education is essential for personal success, but also for the survival of our democratic societies. Educated citizens alone can make informed choices. Educated citizens alone can become responsible citizens. Too often however impressive diploma hide the fact that the diploma holder has neither social skills nor creativity, never learned to think by himself and is therefore unfit for survival in this society, unless he uses brute force.

A shared passion for music and writing

Robert Schumann was a well-educated young man. He had notions of French, Latin and Greek, he had studied ancient and contemporary literature, he was  interested in current political and cultural affairs and never hesitated to pen a critical piece of journalism. He greatly admired the German Romantic novelist E. T. A. Hoffmann who happened to be an amateur composer. Both men shared two passions: music and writing.

A life seen from to opposing perspectives

Hoffmann published in the early 19th century a satirical novel of the name of “The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr together with a fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper”. It consists of two story lines so intertwined that the reader is at first very confused – precisely what Hoffmann had in mind. This polarity is reflected in many ways in the work I am about to discuss: Schumann’s piano cycle “Kreisleriana”, Op. 16.

One line is about the tomcat Murr who wants to become a perfect cat through education. Hoffmann exposes the hollow aspiration of some of his contemporaries to gain social status by displaying their cultural refinement. The second story, linked to the first through Murr, recounts the life of Kapellmeister Kreisler, a composer torn between his sensitivity on the one hand and the need for serenity on the other hand. Music is the only place where his mind can find any peace, but his musical obsession drives him almost mad. And if that sounds familiar to you… yes, Schumann experienced these extremes too.

Schumann’s wild music mix

The structure of Hoffmann’s novel and the description of Kreisler inspired Schumann in 1838 to write what he considered himself his finest piece of piano music: the “Kreisleriana”. Schumann was fascinated by the alternation of satire and passion in Hoffmann’s novel and recreated this tension in his eight-movement-cycle. The US pianist Koji Attwood wrote that Hoffmann’s tale gave Schumann “an excuse to yoke together musical ideas that seem incompatible at first sight, to change mood and expression without warning, to go directly from a lyric meditation to a strangely sinister scherzo or an outburst of rage.””

On arts and education

When Schumann started to write the “Kreisleriana” he had just recovered from a period of depression and enjoyed a new thrust of creativity. He composed “in a state of enchantment over Clara [Schumann, his wife]” as he wrote in a letter. The cycle keeps me spell-bound just like Hoffmann’s novel: confusing and delicate, ironic and tender – beauty married to intelligence. The cycle has been recorded by many artists such as Vladimir Horowitz and Maurizio Pollini.

It takes people like Schumann to write such pieces of music. Excellence plus sensitivity plus creativity and the will to live no matter what. Schumann believed like many Romantic artists that art can change the world for the better. I am not optimistic enough to sign up on that.  But I do believe that the exposure to art, i.e. art education, can influence a man for the better from early age on. Stimulating creativity and encouraging sensitivity certainly helps raising responsible citizens.

© Charles Thibo

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