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Robert Schumann and the art of musical composition

Following hard on the heels of the Mendelssohn bicentenary, 2010 marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Robert Schumann (1810-1856), a composer who will surely garner his full share of symposia, concerts, and special events reassessing his place in the European canon. To a large extent, Schumann has fared better in music histories than his Leipzig colleague and friend Mendelssohn, whose unusual posthumous reception, alternating between adulation and denigration, has contrasted strikingly with that of Schumann. 

Schumann's place in the repertoire 

That said, by no means has Schumann avoided controversy. Certainly his large-scale song cycles and piano works-Dichterliebe, the Eichendorff Liederkreis, Carnaval, Davidsbiindlertanze, Kreisleriana, the Symphonic Etudes and the Fantasy in C Major-maintain their long established, secure places in the repertoire, along with some chamber works such as the Piano QIintet and the Mendelssohnian String Quartets Op. 42. His Piano Concerto and the symphonies are well established, even if some critics complain that Schumann's orchestration relies too heavily upon strings. Of more questionable appeal are his forays into other genres- the opera Genoveva has been more or less consigned to the scrapheap of operas compromised by problematic libretti; there is generic confusion about the Scenes from Faust and the quasi-oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri, based on a (for some) too maudlin Victorian poem of Thomas Moore; and the choral ballades have yet to win general acceptance. Most problematic, there is the nagging question of Schumann's late style and whether it was irreparably compromised by the breakdown of his health. 

Perhaps there is still worthy music to be explored among the late works, for example the rarely performed Mass and Requiem, and the Fantasy for violin and orchestra. There is also, of course, the Violin Concerto, withheld from performance by Joachim, so that its premiere did not occur until 1937. This eighty-plus year delay attracted the attention of Paul Hindemith, Yehudi Menuhin, and the Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Aranyi (grand-niece of Joachim), who revived the piece after reportedly communicating with Schumann's spirit at a seance in 1933. The groundbreaking research of the late John Daverio has given fresh impetus to reexamining the late works, as does the release from Breitkopf & Hartel of a new critical edition of the Violin Concerto, but for many, the verdict on this music is still out. 

Schumann's literary interests 

Schumann's influence as a composer was augmented by his significant role in journalism, notably his work in founding the Neue ZeitschriJtfor Musik and serving as its editor from 1834 to 1844. Schumann takes his place among E. T. A. Hoffmann, Carl Maria von Weber, Hector Berlioz, Richard Wagner, Hugo Wolf, and a few others who raised music criticism to a new art form. The son of a book dealer, Schumann spent much of his childhood in Zwickau reading in his father's shop (August Schumann produced several novels and other pieces of fiction). 

Robert Schumann's reading tastes were catholic and spanned the popular literature of the time to classics from antiquity, Shakespeare and Calderon, Goethe, Schiller (and all the leading German poets), the critics Friedrich and A. W. Schlegel, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and his beloved Jean Paul. It was Schumann who compared Schubert's "Great" Symphony to a Jean Paul novel of "heavenly length." Schumann's interests also extended to translations of Burns, Byron, Bulwer-Lytton and Sir Walter Scott, and he struck up a serious friendship with Hans Christian Andersen, who visited him in Leipzig, where impromptu readings of the Dane's tales and novels were arranged. Late in life, Schumann was reading a German translation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.

A cardinal principle of Schumann's reception is that literature and music intersected in inextricable ways in his compositions and critical pieces. It is well known that Papillons was on the last chapter of Jean Paul's novel Die Flegeljahre, and that Kreisleriana was indebted to the writings of Hoffmann, who conjured up in his fanciful prose the madcap violinist Johannes Kreisler. Schumann signed some of his piano pieces and criticism with the initials F and E, for Florestan and Eusebius, the dual, extroverted/introverted sides of his personality. He often Sphinx-like ciphers in his music, most famously in the Abegg Variations and Carnaval, but also in the Album fur das Jugend, Op. 68, for the composer Niels Gade, whose surname easily accommodated musical translation.

There are literary titles for the individual movements of several of the piano cycles, from "Pantalon et Colombine" in Carnaval to "The Poet Speaks" (Der Dichter spricht) in Kinderszenen, and other, occasional literary cues, as in the last movement of the Novelletten, Op. 21, where we hear a Stimme aus der Ferne (a voice from afar), when Schumann quotes a piano piece of Clara Wieck.

Several decades ago, the English musicologist Eric Sams proposed that Schumann not infrequently employed a musical code to accentuate certain words or introduce characters, rendering their names in musical notation like so many musical noms de plume. One thinks of the expressive musical translation of the word "Ehe" ("wedding"), captured in German nomenclature by the pitches E-B-E in the low bass of Mondnacht, Op. 39, No.5. Sams even claimed that Clara Schumann's name (C-A-A) could be traced in several compositions, though one must admittedly question whether a descending minor third alone would be sufficient to insinuate her name into Schumann's music; if so, it would seem that she was present in the music of many composers. 

Be that as it may, Schumann was clearly intent upon exploring the links between musical composition and the musicality of prose. The two were joined in his worldview, and inseparable from everything that he sought to achieve in his career. But apart from specific, outwardly obvious manifestations-e.g., the unconventional, literary titles of works, Schumann's musical spelling of his own name in Carnaval, or his selection of verses by Friedrich Schlegel to serve as the motto for the Fantasy-how did literary techniques impinge upon his music? For it was arguably Schumann's greatest achievement to transcend the traditional limitations of musical composition, for centuries dependent upon the invention and elaboration of musical themes, to allow the art to admit a significant cross-fertilization from literary devices. In the following sections we shall briefly explore three examples of how literary approaches profoundly influenced and shaped Schumann's musical structures.

Robert and Clara Schumann

In media res 

One literary device comes immediately to mind, for it is especially conspicuous in Schumann's music: beginning a composition in medias res, that is, not at the "expected" beginning, but somewhere in the middle. Educated readers of Schumann's time would have been familiar with a similar technique from the hallowed tradition of the epic poem, extending back to Homer (Iliad and Odyssey) and Virgil (Aeneid), and continuing with Dante, Milton, and others. The Roman poet Horace was the first to describe Homer's tendency to "rush into action," to grab the reader "into the middle of things" (Ars poetica, 147-148). Thus, the Iliad begins toward the end of the Trojan War, not with the events leading up to it. Similarly, in The Aeneid, Virgil launches his epic not at the "beginning," with the fall of Troy, but with the fleet of Aeneas after it has already set sail for Carthage; the flashback to the sack of Troy then follows in the second canto. For twentieth-century film buffs, the technique is familiar in any number of flashback scenes, and the Star Wars films of the 1970s and 1980s follow the epic poem tradition by beginning in the middle of the saga. Post-modernist fans addicted to animated video games willingly subject themselves to the device in Play Station's Final Fantasy X, released in 2001.

In the case of nineteenth-century music, in medias res entailed beginning a composition not on the expected tonic, but harmonically removed from the tonic, to create the impression that the listener had been set down, at least in terms of the key scheme, "in the middle of things." Schumann was admittedly not the first composer to use the device. Beethoven had experimented with it in the slow introduction of his first symphony, where the inaugural progression moves from V7IIV to IV. Two equally famous examples are the openings of his "Tempest" Sonata, Op. 31, No. 2, and the Piano Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 31, No.3. Schumann himself alluded to the latter example in the opening of his String Op. 41, No.3 (see Excerpts 1 and 2); in a range of other works he went considerably further in exploring the device and its implications. Thus, Carnaval begins with a tonal gambit toward the subdominant D-flat major, reiterated several times before the tonic A-flat major is clarified. In the Humoresque, Op. 20, the tonic B-flat major is first distorted through an augmented triad (D-B-flat-F-sharp) and a feigning toward the subdominant before Schumann centers our attention on the tonic. In the celebrated opening of Dichterliebe, the piano introduction is deliberately left open-ended, tending either toward F-sharp minor or A major, two of the sharp keys that subsequently figure in the key scheme of that cycle. 

Excerpt 1: Beethoven: Piano Sonata, Op. 31, No.3. Mvt. 1, mm. 1-8.
Excerpt 2: Schumann: String Quartet, Op. 41, No. 3. Mvt. 1, mm. 1-4.

Two striking examples of Schumann's application of in medias res are the openings of the Eichendorff Lied Mondnacht and the Fantasy, both of which begin by prolonging a static, dominant-ninth harmony in order to avoid a clear definition of the tonic. In the case of Mondnacht, an exquisite, dream-like impressionistic miniature of sixty-eight bars, Schumann extends the dominant prolongation through most of the song (see Excerpt 3). The vocal part is allowed to tarry on the tonic pitch only in its final two bars; the piano postlude then secures the sense of arrival at the "home" key of E major, in response to Eichendorff's verse about the soul spreading its wings and flying home.  

Excerpt 3: Schumann: Mondnacht, Op. 39, No. 5, mm. 1-13.

In the Fantasy, Schumann explored the prolongation of a dominant-ninth sonority over a considerably broader time span: the first movement of a three-movement work. The Schlegel verses appended by Schumann as a motto– Durch alle ne tönet/Im bunten Erdenbaum/Ein leiser Ton gezogen/r den, der heimlich lauschet ("Through all the tones of the motley earthen dream there sounds a gentle tone drawn for him who listens secretly")-conceivably inspired the dramatic beginning, an open-pedal passage in which a dominant- ninth is sustained above the rushing figurations of the left hand, generating a colorful series of overtones, Schlegel's motley dream (see Excerpt 4). But nowhere in the opening pages of the score is the tonic C major conclusively established. Once again it is the postlude, marked Adagio, that performs this task, as the concluding measures apparently allude to a passage from Beethoven's song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved). 

Excerpt 4: Schumann: Fantasy in C major, Op. 17, mm. 1-9.

Parenthetical structures 

If the device of in medias res dramatically affects the very openings of Schumann's compositions, elsewhere he applies a second literary technique–parenthetical structures– to interrupt and reconfigure the unfolding of musical forms. One thinks, for example, of the intermezzi in the second movement of KreisleTiana: arbitrary, capricious interruptions seemingly unrelated to the gentle, lyrical course of the movement as a whole. In a similar way the early Intermezzi, Op. 3, juxtapose musical elements in a jumbled, carefree order, as if the principal line of thought is continually diverted through parenthetical digressions that remind us more of Jean Paul's unpredictable prose than of traditional approaches to musical structure. 

The locus classicus of this device is found again in the first movement of the Fantasy, over which a good amount of analytical ink has been spilled. Interpolated into the middle of the movement is an extended passage of several pages, marked Im Legenden Ton ("In the Style of a Legend"), that impresses as a structural digression, taking us off course from what various theorists have endeavored to read as a freely shaped movement in sonata form. Upon bringing the parenthetical section to its close in C minor, Schumann then abruptly resumes the Tempo primo, reviving the rushing material of the opening of the movement. It is a device as dramatic as Schumann's use of in medias res, and one that was not lost upon Franz Liszt in his Piano Sonata in B minor of 1850, dedicated to Schumann. In that through-composed work, which often takes on the quality of a fantasy, Liszt interpolates within a kind of grand parentheses the exquisite slow movement in F-sharp major, which effectively interrupts the dramatic unfolding of the development section, the threads of which he then picks up after the slow movement.

Schumann's music is filled with parenthetical structures, brief or extended passages that impress as improvisatory ideas that resist the formal thematic elaboration of his music and invest it with an undeniable spontaneity and expressive freedom. Schumann himself occasionally used the term papillon, or butterfly, to refer to spontaneous musical ideas that, like delicate winged insects, would occasionally flit across the pages of his scores, momentarily compromising the narrative thread and effectively dissolving the formal boundaries of the conception. 

Quotation and allusion 

The final device we shall consider is Schumann's employment of musical quotations and allusions, perhaps the most direct way by which he relates his compositions to non-musical ideas extrinsic to those compositions, and, once again, opens up for discussion the very limits of musical art. Of course, hunting down quotations can be a treacherous business, and we are on most secure ground when the reference is unambiguous and undeniable, as in Die beiden Grenadiere, where Schumann appropriates and quotes the Marseillaise (see Excerpt 5).  

The French anthem is unexpectedly pressed into service to illustrate Heine's ballade about two soldiers of Napoleon's grande armie, returning in abject defeat from the Russian campaign of 1812. While one soldier is eager to reunite with his family, his comrade, who wishes only to be buried on French soil, still has visions of future glory and of rising from the grave with his flintlock to fight for the Emperor. At this point Schumann introduces the strains of the Marseillaise, ultimately deflated in the piano postlude with a few ironic chords (of which Heine no doubt would have approved).

There can be no doubt about Schumann's purposeful use of quotation in Die beiden Grenadiere, but what are we to make of a passage from the first movement of the Faschingsschwank aus Wien (Carnival Jestfrom Vienna) cited in Excerpt 6? Here, too, the Marseillaise unexpectedly appears, but now it is metrically distorted (in a rollicking 3/4 instead of march time) and incomplete. We hear just the opening bars before Schumann abandons the theme-a brief symbol of political republicanism in the repressive police state of Metternich's Vienna of 1839-and returns to his principal musical argument. For some listeners the reference passes by without fully registering--it is more an allusion that is quickly snuffed out before it can emerge fully as a quotation, and so it is partly veiled, but only partly, so that the popular melody can make a brief appearance and add another layer of meaning to Schumann's music. 

More often than not, Schumann's allusions can be carefully veiled, ultimately raising the question of whether, indeed, they constitute valid allusions at all. Thus, a few bars later in Carnival Jests from Vienna we encounter a theme (see Excerpt 7) suspiciously similar to the Trio from the Minuet of Beethoven's Piano Sonata, Op. 31, No. 3, shown in Excerpt 8. Now there is every reason why Schumann, composing his delightful piano work in Vienna in 1839, would allude to Beethoven, a composer whose shadow certainly looms over Schumann's music, from the Fantasy to the symphonies. And yet are the characteristic displacements of register in Excerpt 7 intended as a deliberate reference to Beethoven's sonata, or a mere coincidence? That is the nature of Schumann's use of allusion, as opposed to quotation-some details are tantalizingly similar, while others are vexingly different, as if to invite ever changing critical readings. Presumably Schumann would have been delighted at the prospect of critics and scholars debating furiously the meaning and limits of quotations and allusions in his music.

Excerpt 7: Schumann Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26, mm. 341-350.
Excerpt 8: Beethoven: Piano Sonata, Op.31, N o.3. Mvt. III, mm. 16-19.

Of course Schumann was not the first to use musical references, nor was he the first to employ in medias res. But he was arguably the first to allow an extended range of literary techniques to penetrate into the compositional planning of his music and to add layers of extra-musical meaning to the rarified realm of purely instrumental music. After all, for Schumann, whether Florestan and Eusebius produced criticism or music was probably irrelevant.  

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