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Schumann: A Vanishing Star.


Dear me! I was quite overwhelmed by your remarkable Schumann number, dear Mr. Editor—the November number, containing the estimates of Messrs. Henderson, Alfred Veit, Law, Louis C. Elson, Henry T. Finck, Emil Liebling, and Frederick Dean. Mr. Elson’s article appealed to me because of its sane consideration of the subjective character in Schumann’s compositions. Mr. Veit, as usual, is thorough, and Mr. Liebling—heavens, what that man knows about piano technics!—is the most practical of all—from the teacher’s point of view. I had prepared a few disjointed ideas for you, but when I saw the list of names announced, my modesty got into a blue funk, and I resolved to keep the story to myself. But now that every one has had his say, I venture to send you a brief resumé of the rise and fall of musical romanticism in my own experience. It may serve or it may not. Old people, old fogies like myself, do not always stop to consider the chilling effect of their words of wisdom. That is the reason young folks are so seldom good listeners to the gray beards. “Because thou ‘rt virtuous” must we enjoy no more our musical cakes and ale? Certainly not; enjoy them to the full, but beware of the morning’s headache!

The missing meteors of November minded me of the musical reputations I have seen rise, fill mid-heaven with splendor, pale, and fade into ineffectual twilight. Alas! it is one of the bitter things of old age, one of its keen tortures, to listen to young people, to hear their superb boastings, and to know how short-lived is all art, music the most evanescent of them all. When I was a boy the star of Schumann was just on the rim of the horizon; what glory! what a planet swimming freely into the glorious constellation! Beethoven was clean obscured by the romantic mists that went to our heads like strong, new wine, and made us drunk with joy. How neat, dapper, respectable and antique Mendelssohn! Being Teutonic in our leanings Chopin seemed French and dandified—the Slavic side of him was not yet in evidence to our unanointed vision. Schubert was a divinely awkward stammerer, and Liszt the brilliant centipede amongst virtuosi. They were rapturous days and we fed full upon Jean Paul Richter, Hoffmann, moonshine and mush. What the lads and lassies of ideal predilections needed was a man like Schumann, a dreamer of dreams, yet one who pinned illuminative tags to his visions to give them symbolical meanings, dragged in poetry by the hair and called the composite, art. Schumann, born mentally sick, a man with the germs of insanity, a pathological case, a literary man turned composer—Schumann, I say, topsyturvied all the newly born and, without knowing it, diverted for the time music from its true current. He preached Brahms and Chopin but practised Wagner—he was the forerunner to Wagner, for he was the first composer who fashioned literature into tone.

Doesn’t all this sound revolutionary? An old fellow like me talking this way, finding old-fashioned what he once saw leave the bank of melody with the mintage glitteringly fresh! Yet it is so. I have lived to witness the rise of Schumann and, please Apollo, I shall live to see the eclipse of Wagner. Can’t you read the handwriting on the wall? Dinna ye hear the slogan of the realists? No music rooted in bookish ideas, in literary or artistic movements, will survive the mutations of the Zeit geist. Schumann reared his palace on a mirage. The inside he called Bachian—but it was n’t. In variety of key-color perhaps; but structurally no symphony may be built on Bach, for a sufficient reason. Schumann had the great structure models before him; he heeded them not. He did not pattern after the three master-architects, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven; gave no time to line, fascinated as he was by the problems of color. Bat color fades. Where are the Turners of yester-year? Form and form only endures, and so it has come to pass that of his four symphonies, not one is called great in the land where he was king for a day. The B-flat is a pretty suite, the C-major inutile,—always barring the lyric episodes,—the D-minor a thing of shreds and patches, and the Rhenish—muddy as the river Rhine in winter time.

The E-flat piano quintet will live and also the piano concerto—originally a fantasia in one movement. Thus Schumann experimented and built, following the line of easiest resistance, which is the poetic idea. If he had patterned as has Brahms, he would have sternly put aside his childish romanticism, left its unwholesome if captivating shadows, and pushed bravely into the open, where the sun and moon shine without the blur and miasma of a décadent literature. But then we should not have had Schumann. It was not to be, and thus it is that his is a name with a musical sigh, a name that evokes charming memories and also, I must admit, a name that gently plucks at one’s heart-strings. His songs are sweet, yet never so spontaneous as Schubert’s, so astringently intellectual as Robert Franz’. His opera, his string quartets—how far are the latter from the noble, self-contained music in this form of Beethoven and Brahms!—and his choral compositions are already in the sad, gray penumbra of the negligible. His piano music is without the clear, chiseled contours of Chopin, without a definite, a great style, yet—the piano music of Schumann, how lovely some of it is!

I will stop my heartless heart-to-heart talk. It is too depressing, these vagaries, these senile ramblings of a superannuated musician. Ah, me! I too was once in Arcady, where the shepherds bravely piped original and penetrating tunes, where the little shepherdesses danced to their lords and smiled sweet porcelain smiles. It was all very real, this music of the middle century, and it was written for the time, it suited the time and when the time passed, the music with the men grew stale, sour and something to be avoided, like the leer of a creaking, senescent beau, like the rouge and grimace of a debile coquette. My advice then is, enjoy the music of your epoch for there is no such thing as music of the future. It is always music of the present. Schumann has had his day, Wagner is having his, and Brahms will be ruler of all, to-morrow. Eheu Fugaces!

There was a time, mes enfants, when I played at all the Schumann piano music. The ” Abegg ” variations, the “Papillons,” the “Intermezzi “—“an extension of the ‘Papillons,’” said Schumann—“Die Davidsbündler,” that wonderful toccata in C, the best double-note study in existence,—because it is music first, technics afterward,—the seldom attempted “Allegro,” opus 8, the “Carnaval,” tender and dazzling miniatures, the twelve settings of Paganini, much more musical than Liszt’s, the “Impromptus,” a delicate compliment to his Clara. It is always Clara with this Robert, like that other Robert, the strong-souled English husband of Elizabeth Browning. Schumann’s whole life romance centered in his wife. A man in love with his wife and that man a musician! Why, the entire episode must seem abnormal to the flighty, capricious younger set, the Bayreuth set, for example. But it was an ideal union, the woman a sympathetic artist, the composer writing for her, writing songs, piano music, even criticism for and about her. Decidedly one of the prettiest and most wholesome pictures in the history of any art.

Then I attacked the “F-sharp Minor Sonata,” with its wondrous introduction like the vast, somber portals to some fantastic Gothic pile. The “Fantasiestück,” opus 12, still remain Schumann at his happiest, and easiest comprehended. The “Symphonic Variations” are the greatest of all, greater than the “Concerto” or the “Fantasie in C.” These almost persuade one that their author is a fit companion for Beethoven and Chopin. There is invention, workmanship, and a solidity that never for a moment clashes with the tide of romantic passion surging beneath. Here he strikes fire and the blaze is glorious.

The “F-minor Sonata”—the so-called Concert sans orchestre—a truncated, unequal though interesting work; the “Arabesque,” the “Blumenstück,” the marvelous and too seldom played “Humoreske,” opus 20, every one throbbing with feeling; the eight “Novelletten,” almost, but not quite successful attempts at a new form; the genial but unsatisfactory “G-minor Sonata,” the “Nachtstücke,” and the “Vienna Carnaval,” opus 26, are not all of these the unpremeditated outpourings of a genuine poet, a poet of sensibility, of exquisite feeling?

I must not forget those idylls of childhood, the “Kinderscenen,” the half-crazy “Kreisleriana,” true soul-states, nor the “Fantasie,” opus 17, which lacks a movement to make it an organic whole. Consider the little pieces, like the three romances, opus 28, the opus 32, the “Album for the Young,” opus 68, the four fugues, four marches, the “Waldscenen “—Oh, never-to-be-forgotten “Vogel als Prophet” and “Trock’ne Blumen,”—the “Concertstück,” opus 92, the second “Album for the Young,” the three fantasy pieces, opus 111, the “Bunte Blätter”—do you recall the one in F-sharp minor so miraculously varied by Brahms, or that appealing one in A-flat? The “Albumblätter,” opus 124, the seven pieces in fughetta form, the never played “Concert allegro in D-minor,” opus 134, or the two posthumous works, the “Scherzo” and the “Presto Passionata.” Have I forgotten any? No doubt. I am growing weary, weary of all this music, opiate music, prismatic music, “dreary music”—as Schumann himself called his early stuff—and the somber peristaltic music of his “lonesome, latter years.” Schumann is now for the very young, for the self-illuded. We care more—being sturdy realists—for architecture, to-day. These crepuscular visions, these adventures of the timid soul on sad white nights, these soft croonings of love and sentiment are out of joint with the days of electricity and the worship of the golden calf. Do not ask yourself with cynical airs if Schumann is not after all second-rate, but rather, when you are in the mood, enter his house of dreams, his home beautiful, and rest your nerves. Robert Schumann may not sip ambrosial nectar with the gods in highest Valhall, but he served his generation; above all, he made happy one noble woman. When his music is shelved and forgotten, the name of the Schumanns will stand for that rarest of blessings, conjugal felicity.

Dussek Villa on the Wissahickon.


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