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Robert Schumann--Poet.


There is an ivy-covered stone in a graveyard at Bonn that has a potent attraction for the musical pilgrim. Push aside the luxuriant vine and spell the name of the lodger beneath—a name that stands for the poetic element in modern music—Robert Schumann.

Poetic, Schumann ever was. Poetic by nature and by culture. Poetic in his work both as composer and as criticiser of the works of others. Poetic in his every thought—every idea. And this poetic spirit he infused into the music of his time, and cultivated it wherever and in whomsoever he found it. And it is for this that I have called him “Robert Schumann—Poet,” and it is as poet that I shall here regard him.

The oft-told story of his boyish fit of somnambulism— how, at midnight and in a dream, he had stolen down to the old piano and played a series of chords, weeping bitterly the while, is as good a key to his after life as any, picturing, as it does, the art intoxication with which he was ever possessed.

And, when in Vienna, Schumann found two treasures which he carried home in triumph—a blotted page of Schubert’s manuscript and a rusty steel pen. The pen was found on Beethoven’s grave, and was afterward used by Schumann in writing some of his most beautiful songs. The blotted score served as an ever-present source of inspiration to his poetic mind.

Take the well-known case of his mass. Schumann was a Protestant, yet in this mass he goes out of his way to write for an offertory a hymn to the Virgin Mary, not from any feeling of adoration for Mary, but simply because of the poetic mediaeval idea of “the Blessed Virgin.”

Art invariably attracted him. It was in a state of art intoxication that he lived. It was from art intoxication that he died.

The two sides of Schumann’s life-work must be studied together. He is not complete as composer, but must be known as the criticiser of the compositions of others as well. And it is well to remember that it was the regular routine work that he was compelled to do upon his paper that roused him from his “dreams at the piano” and made him the Schumann that we know. To a youth, shy and sentimental, with independent means and a fondness for Jean Paul and his ilk, this imperative, regular, critical and editorial work that was forced upon him by reason of his position of editor of a revolutionary musical weekly, proved to be the best possible tonic. He was roused from his poetic stupor and forced to become a leader in the most radical of parties.

On the third of April, 1824, a new journal appeared with this preliminary notice:—

“The day of reciprocal compliments is gradually dying out. The critic who does not attack what is bad is but a half-hearted supporter of what is good.”

And with this banner nailed at their mast-head, young Schumann and his enthusiastic assistants sought to revolutionize the music world. The “honey-daubing” of the journals of the time was censured in unmistakable language. Music itself was not what it should be. The light, flippant measures of the time were criticised, and their composers were told to go back to the writers of the olden time, “since it is only at those pure sources that new beauties in art can be found.” But, after all, the chief idea of the new journal was to accelerate the coming of a new poetic era by the encouragement of what was best in the work of the younger writers of the day. And thus did this new critic and his fellows fulfill the requirements of their office. They tore down the bad and built up in its place and stead all that was really good, all that reflected the true beauty of the olden time, to which they ever pointed as the source of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

But even in this prosaic work of criticism Schumann must be the poet. And so he gathers about him an imaginary company and calls its members “Davidites,” and the mission of these “Davidites” is to wage unceasing war with the “Philistines.” The “Davidites”

were the believers in true and pure art. The “Philistines” were the shammers, the would-bes.

Now, in this literary work of Schumann’s there is this noticeable point:—

The work was not for the advancement of his own compositions, but for that of the best music of the time. Glück was a literary genius, but his pen was only used to prepare the world for his own revolutionary dramas. Richard Wagner was one of the most remarkable essayists of modern times, yet Richard Wagner’s essays were ever in the interests of Richard Wagner’s music. It is very true, as some one has recently remarked, that Schumann has somewhere said that “if the publisher were not afraid of the editor the world would never have heard of me.” But the end and aim of his paper was to forward the music of his time—the advancement of art. Nothing less would be compatible with his poetic reachings after the ideal.

And for practical demonstration of this fact, recall for the moment what he actually did. The names and works of the foremost men were made known to the reading public. Not only were exhaustive articles written about his fellow-countrymen, Mendelssohn, Hiller, Franz, Brahms, but equal mention was made of the English Sterndale-Bennett, the Scandinavian Niels W. Gade, Chopin, the Pole, and Berlioz, the Frenchman. He was the champion of a cause, and it mattered little whether the composer be German by birth or breeding or not. If he were a believer in the new faith, if he were bearing a torch of the same new light, this was enough. It was Schumann who pointed to the light and explained its meaning. It was Schumann who increased and utilized the interest already roused, who concentrated the forces then in motion.

And thus did Schumann do his share in furthering and making possible that wonderful modern school, “Romantic” by name, real by nature, whose disciples hated the bad, clave to the good, despised cant, and impetuously proclaimed “Truth in Art” to be their motto.

Such was Schumann’s work as a critic.


In the summer of 1844 Schumann laid down his editorial pen for good and aye and devoted himself entirely to composition. As a critic he had defied wrong and deified right, and now in his own compositions he sought to exemplify all that he had advocated in his journal. And note how closely his compositions come to the realization of what he thought true music should be.

Schumann’s musical intuitions were remarkable. He received no incentive to music from either his father or mother. He had no musical bent during his boyhood, and even as a young man it was poetry first and music afterward. And, since his soul is upon music bent, to whom does he turn? Sebastian Bach! Without instruction, for he was untaught. Without incentive, for he went unurged. Schumann intuitively searched for and found in the mysterious depths of sentiment lurking about the harmonies of the old canton the soul satisfaction for which he longed.

But Bach was the sternest of classicists. Schumann the most pronounced of the romantic school. And yet so truly is the one the pupil, the follower of the other, that in the works of no other modern writer is the union of modern feeling and ancient form more clearly marked.

Schumann at first confined himself to the composition of music for the pianoforte. And there is something truly pathetic in his seeming concentration of all thought and interest upon this one instrument. Seven hours a day are given up to the practice of such scales and exercises as will make his fingers perfect executants of his meaning. Does he go to ride, he carries in his lap a dumb key-board, and the evening is spent playing piano duets with a friend “for pleasure.”

Can anything be more engrossing?

The piano is the most unpoetic, unromantic of instruments. But Schumann forces it to utter the poetry of his soul. Surely, if Schubert could “set a handbill to music and write an opera with a menu card for a libretto,” Schumann weaves romances out of five-finger exercises.

But the time comes when the strings of his pet

instrument no longer echo his thoughts. A time when he would “crush to pieces” his tinkling box. The voices of the orchestra beckon him, and to tune and combine them to his liking is his next desire. He complains of his lack of practice in orchestral writing, but sets to work with the old-time oneness of purpose to master its details, and these once in subjection, he longs to utilize them in expressing his poetic thoughts. But even in his desire to create in freer mode, he recognizes the necessity of the mastery of those “strict forms which hold good for all time.” And so in his symphonic work one can always find the old form vitalized by the new spirit.

Schumann’s first symphony was “born in an ecstasy of delight.” In it is mirrored the happiness of a newly-made bridegroom. But others there are that picture the sorrow of his later days—that pall that first shadowed and finally enveloped and extinguished the light of his genius.

But upon all his symphonic work the poetic nature, the poetic thought, the poetic idea and ideal are indelibly stamped, and be they grave or gay, serene or sad, they express the poetry of his nature in whatever mood they find him. And perhaps in the very form of his later symphonies there may be a truer poetic expression of sentiment. For how the themes harmonize with one another! And so perfectly are they in sympathy in the D-minor Symphony, they run into one another and form one united whole, and the symphony is as a rhyming stanza from beginning to end.

Schumann’s name has been often coupled with that of Mendelssohn, and I shall couple the two names but for one purpose,—to show the restfulness of the one and the restlessness of the other. Scan the faces of the two. Mendelssohn looks at you with the frankest of smiles. Schumann’s eyes are averted, and under the half-closed lids seem to be ever searching for the unattainable. Take a page of the music of each. What can be more calm and peaceful than the measured strains of “O, Rest in the Lord”? what more restless and turbulent than the broken musical sentences of the writer of “Manfred” and “Faust”? But poetic is he even in these broken bits of melody—poetic in the completed symphony and the half-written verse. In every branch of work he has carried the same beautiful touch of poetic reverence, gilding all the treasures of his art, all the precious fancies of his soul.

And it is for this that I speak of him as ” Robert Schumann—Poet.”

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