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Vol. LXIV, No. 23
 
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
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Record Review

Schumann at 200 — The Fate of Music “Too Deep for Tears”

Stuart Mitchner

I once had to play Schumann’s “Träumerei” for Josef Mengele. I suppose he was a musical man.

Auschwitz survivor and cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch in a 2005 interview in Der Spiegel

At 6:55 Moscow time there will be a minute of silence in memory of the victims of the war, broadcast by all the stations of Russia. Underneath the sounds of Schumann’s “Träumerei” [translated as “dreams” in Russian] words will be addressed to all mankind calling for the memory to be kept forever of those who gave their lives in the struggle with fascism.

Radio Moscow, May 9, 2005

… we shall indeed lead a life of poetry and blossoms, and we will play and compose together like angels, and bring gladness to mankind.

Robert Schumann to Clara Wieck, April 1838

“Träumerei” is the seventh in a series of piano pieces about childhood (Kinderzenen op. 15) written in 1838 by the German composer Robert Schumann, who was born 200 years ago, June 8. It was composed to warm the heart of the virtuoso pianist Clara Wieck, who would become his wife three years later when the couple prevailed at last against the Draconian opposition of Clara’s father.

This bouquet of music, with its prophetic implications (the Schumanns had seven children), delivered the desired effect. Clara “could not forget” Kinderzenen, writing from Paris, where she was giving a concert: “Your beautiful melodies are constantly singing in my head.”

No doubt “Träumerei” was the foremost of those melodies. For decades after her husband’s death, gowned in black, she performed the deceptively simple piece that has proven to be one of Schumann’s most popular compositions. The music has a searching quality, poignant, thoughtful, haltingly, bravely dreaming, finding its way. A hundred years later it found its way to a concentration camp, played by the cellist quoted above for the amusement of Dr. Josef Mengele. The same melody favored by the man they called the Angel of Death is so revered in Russia that it was aired on the 50th anniversary of VE Day, in addition to being played 24/7 at war memorials all over the country, including the one in Volgograd/Stalingrad.

No one on the “Traumerei-and-Russian-History” blog has been able to explain how a German song came to achieve this ceremonial eminence in the former Soviet Union. The “music hath charms” theory is too easy. The simplest explanation is to credit the humane genius of the composer of whom Lotte Lenya once said “the angels must have been with him when he was writing.” Some of the respondents on the blog associated Russia’s love of Schumann’s music with an emotional performance by 83-year-old Vladimir Horowitz that can be seen on a YouTube clip from his historic 1986 Moscow concert. Near the end of his life, the exile had returned to his homeland and “Traumerei” was the piece he chose to play for an encore, which left some members of the audience in tears.

For Schumann, tears were the ultimate acclamation. Dreaming ahead to married life with Clara in that April 1838 letter, Schumann mentions another group of piano pieces, Kreisleriana, which he will dedicate “to you; yes, to you, and to nobody else; and you will smile so sweetly when you see yourself in them …. And when you are standing by me, as I sit at the piano, then we shall both cry like children. I know I shall be quite overcome.”

In one letter from the collection published by Clara Schumann in 1885, the 17-year-old Schumann imagines himself as a tear in a girl’s eye: “I would weep with her, and then, if she smiled again, how gladly would I die on her eyelash.” Referring to the same girl in another letter, he describes a scene it’s easy to imagine him setting to music a few years later: “I seized Liddy’s hand, and said to her, ‘Liddy, such is Life!’” and I pointed to the blackened purple of the horizon, and she looked at me sadly, and a tear glided from her eyelash … at that moment I thought I had found my Ideal again, and silently I plucked a rose; but as I was going to give it to her, a clap of thunder and a flash of lightning rushed up from the east and I took the rose, and pulled it to pieces. That clap of thunder awoke me from a beautiful dream. I was again upon earth, Liddy still sat before me, and the tear still quivered dimly in her blue eye; sadly she looked into the wildly-rising masses of cloud.”

A few weeks of intensive reading about and listening to and becoming fond of Schumann and you have to smile because the scene is so characteristic of the composer of Kinderzenen and Kreisleriana. Here he is in his late teens already anticipating Florestan and Eusebius, the imaginary alter egos he finds roles for while composing music and writing about it. Who else but the dreamy, thoughtful, lyrical Eusebius would fancy himself a tear on Liddy’s eyelash and pluck a rose for his Ideal only to have the antic, impetuous, passionate Florestan tear it to pieces?

Mickey Weeps

The fate of Schumann’s best-known composition takes another unlikely turn, this time in a Disney short, where “Traumerei” is the subject of a passionate performance on the violin by Mickey Mouse in a 1930 cartoon called “Fiddlin’ Around” (also known as “Just Mickey”). As he plays, Mickey is overcome with emotion, weeping and blowing his nose. And then there’s Song of Love, Hollywood’s version of the Schumann’s romance (to be shown on TCM June 16 at 4 p.m.), in which “Träumerei” is the “song” of the title, Robert and Clara’s song, so you know there has to be at least one scene in which Paul Henreid, who was Ingrid Bergman’s husband in Casablanca, performs it for a tremblingly, diaphanously exalted Katherine Hepburn.

Other films on the Schumanns include a German biopic called Träumerei and Frühlingssinfonie (Spring Symphony), a 1983 feature, in which Clara is played by Natasha Kinski.

Schumann’s Judgment

Schumann’s Yin and Yang, Florestan and Eusebius, make their debut in his first article for the journal he co-founded and edited, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, where Florestan salutes Frédéric Chopin’s “Variations on Mozart’s Là ci darem la mano for Piano & Orchestra,” declaring, “Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!” Schumann also celebrated Brahms in print at a time when no one was taking the fledgling composer seriously, and when Berlioz was attacked, Schumann wrote an in-depth study of Symphonie Fantastique (“There is a divine spark in this musician”), expressing himself in the all-out style appropriate to his subject: “Berlioz does not try to be pleasing and elegant; what he hates, he grasps fiercely by the hair; what he loves, he almost crushes in his fervor.”

The composer Schumann most effectively championed, however, was Franz Schubert, who died when Schumann was 18. Schubertians and music lovers everywhere have Schumann to thank for rescuing masterworks like the Great C-Minor Symphony (not to mention its composer) from near oblivion.

Yearning

Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-Flat was written for Clara during the first year of their marriage; she gave the first public performance in January 1843 in Leipzig, and it remained a staple of her repertoire long after her husband died. The second movement, In modo d’una marcia, contains one of the most poignant melodies ever written, one that may even surpass “Träumerei.” Coming in what is generally assumed to be a funereal context, it’s a melody equal to the love theme from Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet, or the andante from Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, or the adagio of Schubert’s String Quintet. The music aches, pulses, yearns, rends the heart, and if there was ever a time when Schumann realized the marital bliss he imagined for himself and Clara (“And when you are standing by me, as I sit at the piano, then we shall both cry like children”), it must have been when they shared this piece of music. No need to cry, not when the little theme does it for you, not as children cry, but like poets, as in Wordsworth’s “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

Along with some online sources, I consulted Barbara Meier’s Robert Schumann (Haus 2004). YouTube is still a good source for click-of-the-button access to Schumann’s magnificence.

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