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Schumann the Romanticist

By EDWARD BAXTER PERRY
 
Together with the author’s personal recollections of his lessons with Clara Schumann
 
In considering Schumann as the ablest and most fearless champion of the modern romantic school of composition we must take into account two important factors: the personality of the man and his early environment.
 
By temperament and natural endowment Schumann was the representative, the personified type of the pure Teutonic race, with all its unadulterated heredity; the race which out of its own powerful though crude imagination evolved the wonderfully complex, poetic and subtly allegorical mythology of Germany and Scandinavia, so widely different in fundamental significance, and in every important detail from that of the Greeks; that Teutonic race which, with its inexhaustible fancy, peopled every forest glade, every mountain-top and rocky glen, every stream and lake and woodland spring with fairies, elves, cobalts, nixies and gnomes, that race which produced the wandering Minnesingers, who with their untaught, unformulated art, with harp and voice, in hamlet and castle, in burgh and freehold, kept alive the spirit of poetry and music, of romance and heroism, through the darkest of the dark ages.
 
This soul of the bard and minstrel, this instinct for idealization, imaginative creation and artistic self-utterance belonged to Schumann by right of blood and birth, by the cumulative development of ancestral traits.
 
Moreover, his youth and early manhood were spent in the midst of that constant stir, discussion and ferment of the new progressive revolutionary spirit that was sweeping over Europe like a tidal wave. This mighty movement, dominating all classes and departments of life, derived its initial impulse from that terrific cataclysm, the French Revolution, as a tidal wave is started by a submarine earthquake. Its general trend, the direction of its all-compelling, irresistible onward rush, was toward individualism, greater freedom and independence of personal action, thought and expression; and nowhere was this force so pronouncedly felt as among the student body of France, Germany, Poland and Russia.
 
The tyrant monarch or priest might hold in check the ignorant masses by force or fear, might cajole or bring over, or quietly dispose of, the great nobles; but the students thought and felt and acted for themselves, and the colleges and universities all over Europe hummed like hives of swarming bees with revolt against the old order of things and clamored for the new. It was the students that were mainly responsible for the second revolution in France, the political earthquake of 1848 in Germany, the desperate, long-sustained, heroic, the futile death struggles of Poland, and the nihilistic efforts in Russia.
 
Schumann was a university student at Leipsic during a part of this most important and significant period, and during just the formative years of his life. It cannot be questioned that his already fervid and wayward imagination, his intense and profound emotional nature were both naturally affected by that atmosphere; being given additional stimulus for fuller, more rapid development and the trend toward subtle, often somber, mysticism, which later became marked in his art work.
 
portrait-of-schumann.jpgSCHUMANN, THE REVOLUTIONIST.
It was Schumann, the man as well as the musician, Schumann, the fighting Teuton as well as the dreaming poet, who drew his sword in the cause of modern romanticism, and fought for it so fearlessly and persistently and so successfully throughout his entire life, becoming one of the leaders of that gallant little band significantly named by him the Davids Bündler (David’s Band), who for so many years battled with the “Philistines” and Philistinism in all forms of art, and finally revolutionizing the aims and standards of art work and art criticism in the entire musical world.
 
The spirit of the new movement, as manifested along all art lines, was of course a fierce scorn of the old time-worn rules and restrictions in artistic creation, a rebellion against formalism and pedantry, under whatsoever name, a demand for greater liberty of fancy and expression, greater individuality of thought and utterance; more directness and force in the presentation of all thoughts and moods, and less mere scholastic form and superficial embellishment.
 
In comparing Schumann’s works, for example, with those of earlier writers, one of the first characteristics that strike even the casual observer is the lack of definite form and the utter absence of all ornamentation. No useless cadenzas, no trills or ruins or mere technical flourishes of any sort are to be found in any of his compositions.
 
This is the more remarkable since the music of his time, in general, was overladen with excessive, often wholly irrevelant (sic), embellishment, possessing little, if any, point of purpose, the melody usually serving as a mere string on which to hang glittering but worthless ornaments, like festoons of glass beads.
 
Witness such writers as Herz, Thalberg and their class.
 
The all-important feature, however, in which the romantic writers, with Schumann at their head, differ radically from the old classic school, is this: They hold, as fundamental tenet of their creed, that music is not a so-called abstract art, adapted only for the embodiment of, first, pure beauty, and second, a few general impersonal emotions; but a definite language, subject, of course, to its own laws and limitations, but capable of dealing with individual moods with specific incidents, with scenes in nature and episodes in actual life; that in brief, its scope as a medium of expression is practically coextensive with the breadth of human experience; that anything in nature from a dew-drenched violet to a cyclone at sea, anything in life from a love-scene by moonlight to a charge of cavalry, may be legitimately and can be successfully used as the subject for a composition.
 
A NEW CONCEPTION OF MUSIC.
This progressive, and to some even now, startling theory, raises music at once from the rank of the merely decorative and vaguely suggestive arabesque, to that of the definite vividly realistic painting, one might almost say of the impressionist school.
 
We find it convincingly demonstrated in the music of Schumann, in an infinite variety of forms and subjects, from the lonely flower breathing its life away in the woodland solitude and the mystically prophetic song of the “Prophet Bird,” to the grotesque summersault of the clown in the “Carnival” and the noisy hilarious bluster of the Davids Bündler on their march against the Philistines; from the modest avowal of the timid lover to the sparkling witcheries of the expert coquette; from rollickling (sic) humor to touching pathos; from delicate tenderness to sturdy strength and manly heroism.
 
He is at home in all moods and successful in their expression.
 
Schumann has been called the Shelley of music and justly; but in certain moods he also resembles Browning and at times even suggests Walt Whitman in the bold, almost brutal force of his utterances.
 
It cannot be denied that Schumann at times lacked clearness of form and finish of detail, faults due partly to his natural temperament and partly, it may be, to that incipient mental disorder which becomes more apparent in his latest works and which ended in his tragic death.
 
But it must also be conceded that he was, beyond all question, the strongest, most profound and most versatile, as well as the most dauntless and uncompromising representative of the romantic school of his time, with the single exception of Chopin.
 
SCHUMANN AS A SONG WRITER.
Schumann’s remarkable and quite sudden development of lyric power, as manifested in his songs and melodic piano compositions during his early manhood, was undoubtedly and directly attributable to his profound affection for his Clara, or “Chiarina” as he called her, now known throughout the musical world as Madame Clara Schumann.
 
Her love, companionship, and influence formed the third important element in the molding of his artistic personality, a factor whose power from the hour of his first meeting with her, through all the years of their life together, can hardly be estimated. From that first hour he thought always of her, wrote always for her. The tender warmth, the serious tranquility, the matchless fidelity of her love, the strength, nobility and genial womanliness of her character are voiced in his melodies and reflected in the depths of his harmonies, in all his lyric productions throughout those prolific years of which she was the inspiration.
 
Her calmer, more conservative temperament and her severe, early training as Clara Wiecke in the more classical traditions, served as a gentle but constant restraint upon his extreme, sometimes erratic tendencies toward the fantastic in his art, and his natural contempt for form and finish in expression.
 
A comprehension of her personality and influence is, therefore, essential to a clear understanding of Schumann’s ideals and achievements as a composer.
 
On this ground, some brief personal reminiscences of Madame Schumann, as the writer knew her in Frankfort during the season of 1884 and ‘85, may be in place here.
 
MME. CLARA SCHUMANN AS I KNEW HER.
At that time she was a lady of most unassuming but dignified presence, somewhat above the medium height and slightly bent, with a strong but placid face, thin grey hair surmounted by a simple cap, well though plainly dressed, always in black, and wearing her right hand in a silken sling. Her voice was low, firm and pleasantly modulated. The only noticeable infirmity that age had brought to her was a partial deafness, which rendered conversation with a stranger somewhat difficult until she had become accustomed to the new voice.
 
Although sixty-four years of age, and much enfeebled by trouble, grief and illness, Madame Schumann was devoting all her remaining energies to her artistic labors. Besides the revision and fingering of a complete new edition of her husband’s works, which she had undertaken, she taught two hours daily, with a careful thoroughness and a whole-souled enthusiasm for the work, which might shame many a young teacher whose forces are still in their first vigor and whose career is yet to be made. Owing to her limited time and strength, and to the large number eager to profit by her instruction, she was obliged to refuse many advanced pupils. Her rule was to give no private lessons, and to accept only students first thoroughly prepared in her methods at the “Hoch” Conservatory in Frankfort by her daughter. It was only through the personal influence of the Prince of Hessen, whose family were upon intimate friendly terms with her, that an exception was made in the writer’s favor, admitting him without previous preparation to her classes.
 
Madame Schumann practiced regularly and with unflagging interest, and played, when the ever-threatening and implacable foe, rheumatism, permitted, with a breadth of power, a certainty and finish, scarcely credible at her time of life. Her principal skill lay in the fineness and delicacy of her shading, and her clear, intelligent enunciation of formal beauties. One admired and enjoyed her playing, was lifted and ennobled by it, but seldom deeply stirred.
 
Aside from her authoritative renditions of her husband’s works, her chief successes in concert were with compositions of the “Two Big B’s” as she called them, namely Bach and Beethoven. Her Chopin readings were never sympathetic, and when she was announced for a Chopin number, even her most enthusiastic worshippers confessed that it was “an unfortunate choice.”
 
Always earnest and thoughtful, sometimes grave even to solemnity, yet warm and genial, tender, but never passionate, strong and noble, but never overwhelming, always simple and self-forgetful, scorning tricks, display and strivings after effect, equal to the highest and grandest emergencies, but never swept from a certain self-poise by the torrent of enthusiasm; such were her nature and her playing, and so similar and evidently inseparable they were, that one was often in doubt as to which was the offspring of the other. But one “felt very sure that nothing in her personal life or her professional career ever had or ever could shake the dignity, courtesy and calm of so great and wise a woman.
 
As is well known, long before her marriage with the now famous composer Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck, as daughter and pupil of the much sought teacher of that name in Leipsic, enjoyed an enviable reputation as the first lady pianist in Europe. She began to appear in concert when only ten years of age, and with her great talents and exceptional training, her success was rapid and brilliant. Schumann, though several years her senior, was at the beginning of their acquaintance only an obscure student, taking piano lessons of her father and composing in a small way under an assumed name. For years he dared only to admire and worship from afar this swiftly rising star, already so far above him and mounting so surely and brightly toward the zenith of resplendent renown. Only after long waiting and desperate struggle with parental opposition and a final lawsuit, was Schumann able to make Clara Wieck his wife. But later it was chiefly to his name that her great celebrity was due. Her star had not sunk but his had risen. Such is the superiority of creative over mere interpretative power, and musicians of to-morrow will, remember Clara Wieck simply as the maiden name of the wife of the great composer.
 
At sixty-four Madame Schumann still spoke of making progress, remarking that she had gained more during the past year than in any one of the preceding ten. It was impossible to restrain a smile, thinking of the question so often asked by pupils and amateurs at home, “Professor, how long will it take me to finish the piano ?”
 
That which impressed me most in her teaching, excellent as it was in all respects, was her unvarying patience and gentleness, even with very trying pupils. There are many infinitely inferior teachers who feel in duty bound to furnish each pupil with a given amount of abuse per lesson, and who cover the lack of real ability and information by the assumption of an exaggerated sensibility, which makes them furious at a rhythmic blunder and throws them into spasms at a false note. They resemble a pastor whom I once knew, who made a habit of raising his voice to a shout when he came to a passage in his sermon which even his dim perception recognized as unusually flat and dull, hoping to atone by vehemence for stupidity and platitude.
 
It has always been a pet theory of mine that the really good instructor who has anything to teach, will have too much self-respect to lose his temper in a lesson hour, and too much interest in the work and the pupil to notice whether a mistake made is personally agreeable to himself or not. He is paid to instruct, not to enjoy, and owes it to art to be always a
 
gentleman in her service,—Bülow and Liszt to the contrary notwithstanding. An excellent cure for such super-sensitive musical explosionists would be to have seen Madame Schumann sit, quiet and well-bred, through a merciless vivisection of one of her dead husband’s choicest compositions, one which very likely was dedicated to herself in the early days of their love, and every measure of which was fraught with sacred memories; and then to hear her just, dispassionate detailed criticism, and her friendly helpful suggestions and admonitions. Truly with her art stood higher than self.

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