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Schumann and the Warm Bath of Memory

This year marks the bicentennial of Robert Schumann’s birth and has brought with it many concerts, festivals, and recordings. His father was a publisher, and Schumann was an avid reader as a child. Aside from his great productivity as a composer, he became one of the most important music critics of his day. Given these interests, it is perhaps not surprising that he treated music as a form of literature. One of the main objects of his musico-literary reflections was childhood.

In his musically illuminating biography of Robert Schumann, John Daverio tells us that Schumann’s childhood was a happy one. According to Schumann himself he was a child like any other until his third year, when his mother contracted typhus and he was placed in the foster care of friends of the family for two-and-a-half years.  While he had only fond memories of these years, too, some have hypothesized that this early dislocation contributed to the composer’s later bouts with depression and his attempted suicides, the last of which came in 1854 when he jumped into the Rhine from a bridge in Düsseldorf, where he’d been recently sacked as conductor of the city’s thriving Music Society.

Perhaps as a salve for the torments of his adulthood, Schumann harbored fond memories of childhood, and he immortalized these in several collections of piano music. In this Schumann year the wonderful Norwegian pianist, Liv Glaser, has recently issued a CD devoted to many of these pieces.  The Poet Speaks presents this subtle pianist’s intimate interpretation of Schumann’s vision of his early years and those of his own children.

The first of these collections written by Schumann, Scenes from Childhood, is from 1839 and closes out Glazer’s disc. In a letter of that year to Clara Wieck, long the object of his amorous devotion, Schumann asked whether the world depicted in the collection might “one day become reality”: would they have children together? The pair’s teenage romance had been forbidden by Clara’s  father, who also happened to be Robert’s one-time piano teacher. A clever mating strategy this: depict your vision of childhood as a way of presenting your possible parenting philosophy and credentials. In a letter quoted by Glaser in her charmingly personal and informative liner notes, the composer writes to his future wife that “I have composed some short and droll things for you — perhaps as an echo of your comments that my behavior sometimes reminds you of a child.” The composer will be good with children because he’s one himself. It’s the German Romantic equivalent of getting down on all fours and playing peek-a-boo with a prospective niece or nephew.

Schumann’s music for and about the young only intermittently mounts any challenge to the technique of the player, but is instead welcoming to listener and performer: these pieces are poised and occasionally ill-tempered, but always saturated with longing for an idyllic past in which even short-lived preludes to the emotional travails that inevitably beset any adulthood are cast as lost treasures to be cherished in all their crystalline naiveté.

These pieces are also utilitarian—an excellent way to learn to play the piano, because of the highly accessible means by which Schumann represents seemingly profound emotional states.  The child musician simply accepts them, and Schumann is indeed expert at re-capturing a sense of child-like awe and inexperience, the inchoate feelings, that are later remembered, or more often, misremembered in adulthood. Perhaps it is because of the turbulence of Schumann’s maturity that his childhood vignettes appear like precious porcelain figures from the composer’s native Saxony put in the glass-fronted cabinet, to be picked up only with utmost care.

These are short, often intensely-felt pieces: childhood of miniatures and fragile mementos. There are 46 tracks on the disc: the longest of which is barely passes three minutes; the shortest (Hasche-Mann) depicts a game of tag, and lasts all of thirty seconds; like childhood itself seen from adulthood, the piece is over in a flash.

The first 33 tracks of Glaser’s disc, a gem of the Schumann bicentennial, come from the Album for the Young, composed in the Revolutionary year of 1848. The initial group of fourteen pieces was presented to Schumann’s eldest daughter, Marie, on her seventh birthday. Some of them depict scenes from her childhood, such as her walking to her first day of school (“Little Dawn Wanderer”). Having a soundtrack to your childhood of this intensity is exhilarating and but also more than a little bit scary, whether you’re Schumann’s kid, or a suburban American a century-and-a-half later. This music is not just useful in teaching you how to play the piano, but how to feel. Do I have Schumann to blame that tears come so easily to me? He may not be fully to blame for my sentimentality, but he certainly didn’t help my condition.

Glaser plays a Viennese piano built by Gottlieb Hafner in 1830, less than a decade before the Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood was published. Now in Oslo after having been built in Austria and then spent several years in Ithaca in the house of our resident fortepiano master, Malcolm Bilson, the instrument is well-traveled and sorely missed here in Upstate New York, where it graced the small concert hall at Cornell University with many memorably Schumann performances that still glow in my memory like a perfect day from childhood. A large, sumptuous grand with a warm tone still capable of exerting a dignified brilliance, this is a perfect instrument for the domestic world this music inhabits. The Hafner’s tone is clear but warm, and decays more quickly than that of the modern piano, so that the contours of phrases can be shaped finely. When as well played on as by Glaser, this piano draws you into its world of joy and tears, whispers and shouts, murmurs and dreams.

Ultimately Album for the Young grew to some sixty numbers, 42 of which were published. These in turn were divided into two sections: the first for “little children” and the second for those “more grown up.”  In her recording, Glaser does not follow the order of the original print, but makes her own lovely progression, one which brings to the fore some unexpected connections. She puts numbers 15 (Spring Song) and 17 ( “Little Dawn Wanderer”) together, saving the intervening “First Loss” for much later in her survey of the Album. In this way the hopeful and introspective devotion of the first moves directly from its final E-major chord directly into the encounter with a crisp morning in A-major, marked “fresh and powerful.”  The hope of the new season and the bite of that morning air are wonderfully juxtaposed, and Glaser’s performance moves from fragile yearning in the first to nervous exuberance in the second.

“First Loss,” which commemorates the death of  the Schumann children’s little bird (an illustration of a child kneeling before a tiny coffin graces the original edition of the set), is paired with “Remembrance,” written on November 4, 1847, the day that Felix Mendelssohndied. The first childhood encounter with mortality is brittle and painful, its descending minor lines falling like a child’s tears. There is a resistance to the reality of the death in the middle section and finally an outburst of angry disbelief. The piece in memory of Mendelssohn (to be played “not too fast and very singingly’) is an homage to him and to his songs without words; but it is also an affirmation of a friendship and of the power of music to offer solace. The gentle quality of the emotion expressed and its deep affection for the object of loss are all the more devastating. Thanks to the tentative quality of Glaser’s reading of “First Loss” and the disarming warmth of her “Remembrance,” we hear anew Schumann’s profound statement about the nature of childish mourning and that of adulthood, the music poured out of the pen of the composer with a natural ease, as if writing in his diary, or simply thinking to himself.

My favorite piece in the collection, and on the CD as a whole, has no title: it is merely “No. 26.”  Here the force of Schumann’s nostalgia is at its most irresistible: the dissonance waiting to resolve as if unable to let go  of a memory, the momentary flash of chromaticism like a pang of a sharp, perhaps painful recollection colliding with another one, the fading of a phrase like a thought vanishing. This piano and this player are at their best in this super soft and interior mode with its inward-looking sentiment. Listen to Glaser play this music is almost like reading someone’s thought.

The piece is paradoxically hopeful and melancholic at the same time, holding on to memory but intensely sad that the lived experience is gone forever. Schumann wrote of Scenes from Childhood that “the titles were invented later and were not intended to be more than a hint about the execution and sentiment of the pieces.” “No. 26” from Album for the Young could be any poignant memory: “Best Friend Moves Away”; “Lost the Championship”; “Grandma’s Gone.” It’s adaptability shows that the music is as much about us as about the composer.

Glaser bookends her thirty-three selections from the Album for the Young with “Choral” (without text, but to any Lutheran churchgoer of Schumann’s time, it would have been immediately recognized as “Be Joyful, O My Soul”) and a gently decorated version of the same hymn one step lower. Glaser plays both with slight but unmistakable fluctuations in rhythm that are at odds with the regularity that governs hymn singing. This is my one criticism of Glaser’s otherwise compelling style: that her use of rubato occasionally sounds not effortless but imposed on the music. In the case of both chorales, however, this interpretive tick has the unintended effect of starching the child’s collar with a contrived and uncomfortable piety. The fantasy world of the child seated at her piano, imagining handsome soldiers, happy farmers, horsemen, dark foreigners, swashbuckling hunts, and the freedom of the outdoors glimpsed through the mullioned windows of the drawing room, chafes against Protestant conformity and its claims to a truth binding all generations.

After this second chorale Glaser takes us into the earlier collection of Scenes from Childhood. There are moments of youthful impetuosity like “An Important Event” that allow Glaser to thunder gracefully. But this collection is as fraught emotionally as it is easy—at least superficially—to play technically. Schumann’s project of depicting the past of childhood is most plainly to be heard in the Träumerei (Reverie) perhaps the most famous—and therefore now the most hackneyed—piano piece of the 19th century. It has become a cultural cliché with its floating ascent and meandering descent into the warm bath of memory. Schumann uncannily evokes the elasticity of youthful time, distending according to its own dictates. But adult ears hear this as a particular ephemeral luxury of the young. Never has aimlessness had such a powerful message.

Indeed, the music’s apparent lack of intent proves a necessary exercise for the cultivation of genius.  The proof of the necessity of daydreaming comes with the final piece, the one that gives Glaser’s exquisite CD its title: “The Poet Speaks.” The chorale-like simplicity of its opening phrase presents the new religion of Schumann’s 19th-century: now one worships art.  To think musically about youth, its joys and disappointment, requires true artifice and this mode of reflection as practiced by Schumann has the effect of sanctifying children and childhood. It is a development we see in extreme form with the overbooked, overtaxed, over-taxied, and overprotected children of our own time. Those parents in the SUVS hoping to give their charges the childhood they’ll enjoy remembering might as well have Scenes from Childhood playing on the fully-loaded stereo system with each pick-up and drop-off, each ferrying to the swim meet and the soccer game and, yes, the piano lessons, where Träumerei teaches you the kids of affluence how to feel.

That so many pianists learned to emote at the piano through Schumann’s “childish” pieces shows the profound skill and appeal of his version of childhood, even while the music’s most unsettling message comes through with every note: that it could never have been that good, never that pure.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

 

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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