Jonathan shared some final thoughts about Schumann for The Guardian as his season of Schumann: Under the Influence draws to a close, and you can read the published column here. But for those interested in the full “director’s cut” version, see below!
“His head was like water.”
The head in question was Robert Schumann’s; the observation was made by Dr. Franz Richarz, chief psychiatrist of the Endenich asylum. It was there that Schumann spent the 29 last, unhappy months of his altogether unhappy life.
For most of the century and a half since Schumann’s death, these final months have been shrouded in mystery. Clara Schumann, encouraged by a group of close associates that included Brahms, suppressed the music of this period, fearful that it would betray signs of her husband’s mental deterioration. And until 2006, Dr. Richarz’s family kept Schumann’s medical records sealed, presumably as much to protect their ancestor and the well-meaning but antiquated institution he headed, as to protect Schumann. Seven years ago, these records were finally made public, and now, thanks to Lise Deschamps Ostwald, they have been widely disseminated. In 1985, the psychiatrist Peter Ostwald, Ms. Deschamps Ostwald’s late husband and collaborator, wrote Schumann: The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius, the first work to examine its subject with both the rigor of a scientist and the ardor of a music-lover. A new edition includes an extra chapter, “Endenich Revisited”, written by Ms. Deschamps Ostwald. It is a loving and meticulous account of the composer’s day-to-day life, as his frailties finally defeated him. Schumann’s medical treatment, interactions with doctors, and fears and passing delusions are all presented soberly, with an admirable refusal to overreach for conclusions. A gift as unprecedented and inimitable as Schumann’s remains impossible to understand fully – and the line between his creativity and his madness remains as porous as his head apparently was – but this is an invaluable contribution to Schumann scholarship. New information about an artistic genius is always welcome, and understandably, people seem to have a particular craving for knowledge about the lives of the great composers. Instrumental music is unequaled among the arts in its magnificent, even defiant abstractness. It suggests infinite possibilities, without offering any definitive answers; at its best, it is simultaneously about everything, and nothing at all. What could be more tantalizing?
But Schumann’s music excites the curiosity further still, because it is not only lofty, but personal. Excruciatingly personal. So much of its shattering emotional power comes from the feeling it conveys that confidences are being shared – that Schumann is disclosing the sorts of truths one often hides even from oneself.How ironic, then, that this most self-revealing of composers has been so often overshadowed, even betrayed, by his biography. One of the defining characteristics of Schumann’s music is its tendency to wander. Virtually no work of his proceeds directly to its finish on precisely the path its start seems to promise. This quality produces moments of heart- and time-stopping beauty, but it also means that his music resists the human desire for a clear narrative.
Far clearer is the narrative offered by his life: talented, sensitive man can’t cope, goes mad, jumps in the river. This version of events – lacking in nuance but verifiably true – gives the listener an easy out, a reason not to engage with the most striking, and therefore most unsettling aspects of his music: If I don’t immediately understand it, if it doesn’t meet expectations set by other great music, then, well, we all know what the poor man’s limitations were. Prejudices against Schumann’s music that we might otherwise dismiss as facile have been given ballast by his life story, which ultimately obscures his music as much as it informs it.
I have heard these prejudices articulated again and again, and each time, I find it dismaying. His music is well-represented in concerts and on disc (though, I would argue, by a too-narrow sampling of his work), and yet plenty of musicians and music lovers persist in saying that his large-scale works are rambling, his orchestral ones grey, his late ones incoherent. Imagine a sizable portion of the art world speaking condescendingly of van Gogh, and you will have some idea of how this makes me feel. That is why I have devoted much of the last year to a project called Schumann: Under the Influence, which places Schumann at the center of his own musical world, surrounding him with the music he admired, and the music of composers who took his unique creative vision as an inspiration. It asks the audience only to listen, with an open mind and heart, and not to ask Schumann’s music to be anything other than it is.
Under the Influence began 7 months ago with the Gesänge der Frühe – songs of the early morning – completed only days before Schumann’s suicide attempt. As ever, an autobiographical aspect can be felt from the outset: the fifth was always the interval he used to invoke his beloved wife, and the Gesänge der Frühe open with a pair of them, first rising then falling, a Clara couplet. This rise and fall – a tentative advance and immediate retreat – is emblematic of the work as a whole, which is suffused with emotion throughout but daringly lacking in motion or activity.
This stillness is not serenity, though; it is the sound of a soul unraveling. Each piece evokes, with painful precision, the confusion and vulnerability many of us associate with the first light of day, and which Schumann perhaps associated with life itself. Simultaneously highly charged and very obscure, these pieces do what Schumann’s music does best: They speak for the part of us that stays silent, yet longs to be heard. They are the lump in our throat, in full voice.
The Gesänge der Frühe have never entered the repertoire; most piano students are unaware of their existence. Perhaps the work’s most remarkable qualities – its lack of purpose, its opaqueness, the extremity of its resignation – are the very ones that have led us to ignore it. Any listener primed by the Cliff’s Notes version of Schumann’s life to hear mental decay in his late works will find it here. It is stripped of anything externalized, of the desire to please, even to be understood.
Predictably, Schumann has been very misunderstood indeed. In our minds’ eyes, we tend to reduce composers to clichés of their last years: Brahms is bearded; Haydn is grandfatherly; Beethoven is deaf. But while even Beethoven’s deafness is seen as ennobling, the spent, lifeless, inert Schumann we envision only diminishes him. And us. These descriptions are inevitably one-sided, limiting, but in the case of Schumann’s, what is revealed ultimately areour failings– of imagination, empathy, and courage.
So, please, go listen to the Gesänge der Frühe. Any recording will do. They will pose many questions and provide no answers. And yet they will reveal so much of him, his end of life, his fragility. Far more than is revealed by his recurring vision of the destruction of Düsseldorf, or his affection for lukewarm baths and warm milk, or his time spent in straitjackets.
Or, if these late works seem a bridge too far at first, begin with the early ones. They are sometimes dazzling in a way that the Gesänge der Frühe never are, but in their finest, most characteristic moments, they are equally mysterious and disconcerting.Davidsbündlertänze, the magnificent 1837 cycle with which Under the Influence comes to a close next week, may be a work from Schumann’s youth, but it finds him no more at ease with himself or the outside world. The work runs the gamut of expression, from tender to wild, but is most moving when it is at its most internal – when everything about Schumann, even his desire to communicate, feels closed in on itself. Revealingly, its most extraordinary moment is marked “Wie aus der Ferne” – as if from a distance.
This being Schumann, the “distance” is not merely a question of space: it reflects his feeling of being out of step, out of place, out of time. Listen to Schumann. Accept, even embrace, his unknowability. The moment you stop listening for the water in his head, his soul opens itself to you.