Schumann leads the vanguard to the light

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The rule of darkness. © Charles Thibo

The first bars speak of clarity and of sadness. Of love and madness. This piece is a frightening good-bye. In a last burst of desperate creativity the composer wrote his own musical epitaph. I imagine him, at times fully aware of his mental illness, at times in total denial. I feel his pain, his loneliness. He is desperate, he is helpless. He is the recognized musical genius of his time, he is a withdrawn human wreck. Schumann.

A million inspirations

The German writer Peter Härtling draws a parallel between Robert Schumann’s “Gesänge der Frühe” (Early Songs, Op. 133) and certain poems of Friedrich Hölderlin, a German poet (1770-1843). “And different it intends to be from what I have thought” – a line from a poem of Hölderlin. Schumann had set out to become a composer and a pianist and a writer. So many ideas, so many gifts. He was driven, obsessed by his inspirations – a million voices in his head asking to be heard, pinned on paper, played by an instrument.

Nobody would have been better suited to set the world described in Germany’s Romantic literature to music than this son of a Saxonian librarian. He opened up new spaces in the world of sound, rewrote the rules, pushed the Romantic idea to the extreme. He broke the spell of the past and wanted to set the world free. Ideas Hölderlin sketched in his poems. Poems that Schumann had read as a young boy. Poems that had become part of him just like the novels of Jean Paul and E. T. A. Hoffmann. Schumann and the vanguard of Romanticism.

On the brink of anarchy

He was a follower of Franz Schubert, a contemporary of Felix Mendelssohn and Richard Wagner. He lived in politically fragile times, on the brink of anarchy in Dresden and Vienna. Revolution was in the air. And chaos in Schumann’s head. A suicide attempt. He died in an asylum after a long agony, stuck for years half-way between life and death, paranoia and exuberance.

Are you still with me? Are you afraid? We can see the light only when it’s dark. While Schumann stayed at the asylum, the visits of his friend, the young Johannes Brahms were his ray of light. While the piano cycle is dedicated to the liberal writer and activist Bettina von Arnheim, Schumann wrote it under the impression of Brahms’ genius. Maurizio Pollini will play for you Schumann’s “Gesänge der Frühe”, and you will see the light as a shining beacon showing you the way through darkness.

© Charles Thibo

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