Friday, April 26, 2013


(pic: Robert Schumann)

I, the Widder, thank all who have joined up. Rather brave, it seems to me. Just for info, I am on Facebook as Mrs John Claggart. Ahi! Facebook! Quelle cliché !!! The Widder could use a poke, but not cybernetically!!!! But those looking for a disembodied "friend" can look me up. I mostly post You Tube links, some surprising, but my hate boils over too, so that's fun.

I have been most moved by a film of the old Alfred Cortot, playing "Der Dichter Spricht".

This is the the thirteenth and last piece of the Kinderszenen (Scenes of Childhood) composed in 1838 by Schumann; and here, Cortot is filmed giving a masterclass (in French, but his intent is clear). It's a very simple piece, which he acknowledges. We can assume the child is asleep. Somehow, through touch and intent, Cortot suggests -- through touch, for this is the piano -- that percussive instrument -- "you must dream this piece, rather than play it." Notes become spirit and immortality -- is there such a thing? Or is that merely what we dream as children, when sleep has obliterated time, indeed, has cured us, oh, so temporarily from that disease called consciousness? Neither life nor death matters for a little while but perhaps there is something fluttering about us that we can almost touch, "spirit" Cortot says. The adult who plays, in this case a very old man, 81, knows, that we will live, most of us, coarse and silly lives, make serious and stupid mistakes, lose the game, and that we will die. But in playing this piece he must convey that impossible hope we all have in dreams -- the good ones --- that suspicion, that just beyond is ... well, who knows? This little piece ends. Or rather as Cortot says, "fades away"

Roland Barthes, who loved Schumann, wrote of this piece, "Schumann is truly the musician of solitary intimacy, of the amorous and intimate soul that speaks to itself...."

The frightening Theodor Adorno (nee Wiesengrund) makes a distinction between the "false" in art: that merely depicts, and the "true", which speaks. He seems to have thought that the earlier scenes, charming as they are, are standard genre scenes of a Biedermeier childhood. It is in this final movement that Schumann tells the truth, gently casts aside the artist pose and even his announced theme, and seeks to express in this simple style, his deepest, private thoughts. Adorno thought Der Dichter Spricht was an early form of "expressionism"

Schumann, in a very simple way, instructs us to listen, perhaps differently to this piece. The one before it, Kind im Enschlummern (child dozing off), ends unexpectedly on the subdominant (A minor) not the tonic (E minor). This is a cadential dissonance, which means that the piece is left unresolved. A question hangs in the air. Der Dichter Spricht is in G major, the prevailing key of the work, and since this is the final piece it is where the work has been tending all along. It contains as Cortot remarks, questions, but no answers; perhaps no questions have answers in life. The lucky among us fade away to nothing. Heart stops. Body bleeds out. Brain collapses. It is important,  perhaps crucial, merely to have raised the questions, bravely, without expecting answers.

Schumann was a double spirited creator. For one thing he had aspired for a time to be a poet; music made that impossible for him, it engulfed him. His access to odd or emotionally immediate states of mind may have led to his later breakdown. For a long time, scholars asserted that Schumann was bipolar, and they used his febrile, self contradictory work to justify a popular theory that all creative artists are bipolar (but not bi), though not all end up in insane asylums, as Schumann did. Holders of this theory point to "fatigue" in his late work (the violin concerto for example), and notice that he and many other creators experience "manic" moods, where they are very productive, brave, sometimes "original"; and "depressive" periods where their creativity lessens, even dries up, and any work produced is "tired", "halfhearted", not "fully realized".

(pic, the young Clara Wieck Schumann)

Looking at the short Kinderscenzen, these people argue that there is a feeling of spontaneous invention, though Schumann worked hard and generated more pieces than he used. And that there is role play and disassociation,  two symptoms of bipolar disturbance. These people argue that some of the pieces are "manic". The composer as child, tender dreamer (the famous Träumerei, also the opening and closing musical theme in the 1947 Hollywood film Song of Love starring Katherine Hepburn as Mrs.Schumann) 

(Cortot plays Träumerei)

Robert was never an earner and was thought eccentric. The 1830's were his best decade.  He accompanied his far more successful and practical wife, the famous pianist, Clara Wieck, to Russia where she enjoyed enormous acclaim. On their return, in late 1844, he abandoned his critical writing, brilliant as it was, and began to have periods of sustained exhaustion, shivering, a terror of death and worst, for a composer, tinnitus. He confided in his diary that he heard the A5 (a very, very high A) clanging almost continuously in his ears.

(pic: young Brahms)

On September 30, 1853, the twenty year old Johannes Brahms, a genius certainly, but what was probably more immediately apparent, a beauty who looked younger than his years, knocked on the Schumanns' door, unannounced  It was love at first sight on all sides. Later, Brahms worked closely with Clara to popularize Schumann's work (a difficult task, the English in particular hated it). Some assume Brahms and Clara had either a consummated fling, or an intensely neurotic, sexually obsessive but tensely restrained involvement. 

The Schumanns were awed by Brahms' talent, though even their connections did not ease his way to prominence. Much later, in 1869, Brahms wrote one of his most popular pieces, The Alto Rhapsody, as a wedding present for Julie Schumann, daughter of his close friends. The text from Goethe -- a confession of lifelong loneliness by a man pessimistic about finding love -- and the undertone of heat broken longing, has led many to assume that Brahms was secretly in love with Julie. But I wonder if this was simply a cover; the love of his life may have been Clara and this moving piece may have been about the impossibility of either expressing that love openly, or perhaps, even fully to each other.  

Marian Anderson sings The Alto Rhapsody, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Municipal Chorus of San Francisco, Pierre Monteux, conductor. Recorded March 3, 1945.

It is forbidden to speculate on whether Robert Schumann and Brahms also were in love. Schumann confessed to his diary that he had indulged homosexual experimentation as a young man, though young ladies also figured in his imagination (the prolonged and bitter effort to marry Clara against her father's wishes, two days before she was free of needing his permission, suggests what Nietzsche might have called "self overcoming" through terrible struggle and upheaval. There are those who would snark that Schumann was "trying too hard to prove...") The Schumanns had eight children, the girls were more stable than the boys, and Robert apparently loved Clara at first. Somewhat peculiarly, given all those children, his postlude to Widmung quotes Schubert's Ave Maria, a hymn to the Virgin Mary, odd in a non-Catholic  -- and then -- Clara was needed to keep things going and money coming in through her well compensated tours. She was made of steel. Eventually he seems to have come to resent her.

This is from the movie: SONG OF LOVE with Kate Hepburn. Perhaps the Widder Claggart, one of these days, will tell of an August in her youth, spent with Kate at Fenwick, invited officially by her, but really by her playwright brother, the too aptly named Dick. I love my small band of followers, but perhaps need more to venture into autobiography.

 (Katharine Hepburn - Clara Schumann, Henry Daniell - Franz Liszt, Robert Walker - Johannes Brahms, Paul Henreid - Robert Schumann
"Widmung" Schumann versus Liszt Transcription)

Brahms hardly had a conventional sex life, female prostitutes figured heavily in it (It's possible he played in the parlors of brothels early on to make ends meet -- some scholars have doubted this story, but Brahms told versions of it throughout his life -- self dramatization? But at the time, it was a shameful confession for someone finally acclaimed as a great master. I believe Brahms. One wonders if some of the "trade" parading those parlors or dance halls were transvestites, a typical way gay young men sold themselves when the need arose. In later years he cashed his royalty checks and kept the money in a closet in his Vienna apartment. The working girls simply helped themselves and thus adored him, no doubt choking on the composer's excessive cigar smoking. His addiction to cigars occasioned a painful, lonely death. Well, how does the cliché go? Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar! And sometimes...?)

And yet, given the softness of his features, his androgyny as a young man, can one view his frustration and longing for female love as a "screen"? And, as successful as he came to be, surely it would not have been impossible for him to find a loving woman. After all, Alma Mahler gave her virginity to her composition teacher, Alexander Von Zemlinsky, mainly, perhaps, to shock her parents -- he was considered "the ugliest man in Vienna". But she went on to marry the second ugliest man in Vienna, Gustav Mahler, though, no doubt, his power was a potent aphrodisiac  Also strange, both men were Jews, and Alma's private writing reveals a considerable degree of Antisemitism. Of course, she betrayed Mahler with a much better looking, younger man, broke his heart, but still... is one to think the Great Brahms couldn't have done better somewhat earlier but in the same milieu? 
(Mahler: A Life by Jonathan Carr uses over-looked and recently discovered documents by Alma to paint quite a portrait, though it's not a surprise that she was a monster, the degree to which she was is amazing.)

One of my favorite Schumann works is Carnaval, composed in 1834-35. This amazing group of 22 pieces (only 20 are numbered), most of them titled, revolves around three ciphers of four notes each. They are threaded through most of the pieces but not all. The first, Preambule, does not have them but instead contains an homage to Franz Schubert (Schumann was an early champion, and he chose Schubert's Waltzes of Longing -- Sehnsuchtswalzer -- initially for a set of variations, which gave him the opening theme for Carnaval. A key to the work then, longing within a festive context.)

Schubert has been thought of as a candidate for homosexuality, though he died at 31, probably of syphilis. It does seem as though he was, now and then, "kept" by better off men in a circle that seems full of intense feelings between males. Schubert's letters to a young man named Schober, a divisive figure in the circle, who lived with Schubert (supported him?) for a time, suggest an erotic charge between them. Searchers after Schubert's gayness have noted that the cafes and bars his entirely male circle frequented were also frequented by transvestites; that the arrest of four members of this circle including the composer, though ostensibly political, may have also been for "immorality" (gayness). Young women were conspicuous by their absence in Schubert's Bohemian group and the composer doesn't appear to have had a serious girlfriend; a very early attempt to marry a soprano is used by the "no genius can be gay" group as proof of something, overlooking the number of gay men and women of gifts who have been married or who, when young, considered marriage (and there is no indication there was a sexual charge between them as there was between the composer -- nicknamed "Schwämmerl" -- "mushroomie" by his pals -- and Schober.) Schumann might have heard rumors; and if he thought Schubert was gay, he isn't the only composer to have "intuited" that, Benjamin Britten thought so too.

In Carnaval, among the characters is an old girl friend of Schumann's, "Estrelita" (she was Ernestine von Fricken), that's number 13. That's followed by a movement marked animato and titled Reconnaisance -- apparently they bump into one another at a party and run away from each other! And she's followed by those commedia figures, Pantelone and Columbine, we've already run into Pierrot and Arlequin, and it's all tending to the thrilling finale, an attack on "philistines" (we live in a society full of them, I think Herr Schumann was luckier), this is called Marche des "Davidsbündler" contre les Philistins, number twenty, which quotes a 17th century waltz, some of the earlier sections of Carnival and then whirls into a wild, whirling dance of life and defiance. 

There are two sections that I especially love: One is a tribute to Frèdèric Chopin and in fact is called Chopin (number 12). Schumann was a great and prescient music critic, and adored Chopin. Alas, Chopin didn't think of Schumann's output as music. But there is such restless longing in the music (it is marked agitato and is part imitation of and part comment on Chopin's songful style married to Schumann's double nature, a testing, fast bass moving against a lush melody).

That is Cortot.

Another part of Caranval is called Sphinxes. This has three sections, one bar each -- no key, no tempo, no other indications. Schumann seems to have wanted listeners to intuit what was going on there and it usually isn't played. Cortot plays it, and so does Rachmaninoff. and some think these pianists were arrogant to improvise around these notes, since solutions must be found as to just what should sound.

Sphinxes is at the core of the work, and the "theme" of Carnaval is ciphers, mystery, a casting off of public identity -- a convenient cloak for getting along in a society. In Carnaval as celebrated in history, people wore masks, dressed up, even cross dressed. Men can be feminine under their disguises, women can dispense with the required reserve, and an entire personality can whirl itself into a creative flux: neither male nor female, good nor bad, fully itself or completely other. Carnaval is, for me, a triumph of what only great artists can do, abandon all the rules of what "I" or "You" must be, play, sing, act, joke, tease, mystify, dance -- and escape gravity. It is a phenomenal work. So naturally, anyone who creates something like that must be nuts, and should be put in a mental asylum. An enormous number of researchers into the workings of the mind (!) right up to the present day, seem to feel that is only just.

However, Schumann did cooperate. On 27 February 1854, he jumped into the Rhine. Rescued by boatmen and taken home, he asked to be taken to an asylum for the insane. He entered Dr. Franz Richarz's sanatorium in Endenich, a quarter of Bonn, and remained there until he died on July 29, 1856 at the age of 46. But he had voluntarily committed himself and early on, to a considerable extent, he recovered. He might have discharged himself but he didn't feel "cured". Then again, he hated where he was being held and repeatedly asked friends and family to have him transferred somewhere else. Who was he trying to get away from? Himself? Clara? His identity as the man of a family where the woman wore the pants? Schumann was convinced that he was misunderstood by the physicians who were supposed to cure him — and there is evidence to support his claim. But when he was upset, the ministrations of the young male trustees calmed him. He asked for Clara but she didn't want to visit. No one knows why. Finally, perhaps succumbing to pressure, she did visit her husband once, two days before his death.

(Carnaval, recorded by Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1929).

The older Clara.

Schumann wasn't well regarded in his lifetime but when he finally came to be considered a great composer, a vast ocean of books were written about his mental condition. As recently as 2004 Dr. Richard Kohan of Cornell and Julliard asserts that Carnaval "could not have been written by someone who did not suffer from bipolar disorder". He calls it, "practically a catalog of bipolar symptomatology". In a delectable and sadly necessary marketing ploy, The Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra and the National Orchestra used "bipolar Schumann" as the basis for mini-festivals. Don't come for the music, but for the insanity! Using the title of a sentimental and foolish film, the Baltimore Symphony presented something called Schumann's Beautiful Mind. If one accepts that Schumann's music is great because he was crazy then I don't know what that tells us about how arts are valued in Fecund America Today. Though Robert really wanted more appreciation for his work, I don't know how comforting this kind of acclaim would have been.

However, not every investigator thinks the issue was bipolar illness. In 1906, the German psychiatrist Paul Julius Möbius, who thought that mental illness was typical of hereditary degeneration, published a “pathographie” of the composer. “Listening to Schumann’s music,” Möbius wrote, “instructs one that Schumann was an extremely nervous person. It seems evident that from youth onward Schumann was mentally ill.” And he 'diagnosed" Schumann, without ever meeting him, of course, with dementia praecox, which we call schizophrenia.

There was some disagreement. The Nazis held Schumann up as a shining example of German biological superiority. They lost little time in passing a law that mandated sterilization for anyone diagnosed with schizophrenia or manic-depressive illness (psychiatrists were battling over what suit best fit Schumann long after he was dust). By 1945, almost 400,000 people had undergone forced sterilization. At least 70,000 had been murdered. 

But the Nazis needed Schumann. They had banned Mendelssohn's "Jewish" Violin Concerto. so Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister, arranged the premiere of Schumann's Violin Concerto in 1937. Nazi psychiatrists (I seem to have paid a few of them a lot of money) held that Schumann's troubles and death were brought on by a series of strokes.
However, the American villain isn't a Nazi, but a sweet academic genital female known as Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor at Johns Hopkins University whose hit was a book of essays about Schumann sweetly titled “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament” (Free Press) from 1993. It is probably the best-known study to argue for connections between bipolar disorder and genius. Performances and marketing of “manic-depressive music” are largely indebted to her work.
But were no records kept about Schumann's condition when he was confined? Did no professionals of that era keep notes stemming from interviews with and observations of him?

In 1991 Schumann’s "lost" medical records from the Endenich asylum resurfaced. Aribert Reimann, composer of the impressive opera, Lear, though I am very fond of Melusine, and also of The Castle, whose grandfather’s sister had married a son of Schumann's doctor, Richarz, inherited the records on the condition he keep them secret. Reimann eventually offered them to the Berlin Academy of the Arts. In 2006, 150 years after Schumann’s death, the records were published in their entirety (a few pages were evidently lost during World War II). Many scholars believe they indicate that Schumann died of neurosyphilis. But because conclusive diagnosis of syphilis was not possible until the early 20th century, the records cannot resolve all diagnostic disagreements. Published alongside the records are analyses whose conflicting readings dispel notions that the records relay straightforward or easy truths.

According to studies by the musicologist and literary scholar Eric Sams (author of one of my favorite books on that eternal puzzle, William Shakespeare, The Real Shakespeare, retrieving the early years, 1564-1594, but also of The Songs of Robert Schumann (1969; revised 1993), and a brilliant consideration of The Songs of Hugo Wolf, who also ended up in an asylum, Schumann's symptoms during his terminal illness and death appear consistent with those of mercury poisoning, mercury at this time being a common treatment for syphilis and other conditions. Sams also wonders why none of the posthumous pychoanalysts looked at Schumann's autopsy. That exists and suggests that he had a "gelatinous" tumor at the base of the brain; it may have represented a colloid cyst, a craniopharynggioma, a chordoma, or a chordoidmeningioma -- meningiomas are known to produce musical auditory hallucinations, such as Schumann complained of.

Sams was a student of ciphers and in an interview given to John Tibbets for a book from 2004 called The World of Robert Schumann, remarked: “I began as a linguist in the intelligence corps but I didn’t hear cipher in Schumann until I heard the D Minor Symphony and what you hear in that is what everyone had heard in different generations. You hear monothematicism, to use one word for it. You hear the same thing and the same theme and almost in the same meaningful sense over and over again repeated almost obsessively. You hear it at the beginning of the Symphony most clearly, and what it says is C,B, A, G#, A—in other words, C, something, A, something, A, and it’s perfectly clear that what it’s actually saying is Clara. I don’t mean that it’s actually depicting her in her various moods, but I mean that Schumann throughout the length of the Symphony had his wife and his relationship to her and his own feelings of guilt and unworthiness in that connection and his hope for later triumph and future happiness all go into the Symphony, and I think they all come to the ears of the listener through an awareness of that theme."
Sams continues, "and when he comes to the end to see the theme again in the major—the last movement is kind of a triumphant finale—and what it seems to say is that he has been—and I’m sure he had good reason for thinking this—that he has been guilty and unworthy of Clara. But in the future, the music seems to say, all is going to be happiness, radiance, and light, and “I will prove worthy of her.” In thinking of the Clara Symphony, he isn’t just saying things about her; he’s saying things about himself and their relationship and making a programatic type of music pattern. That’s as I hear the music."

If one views the organization of pitches as a code (and that seems just) then music is full of secret meanings. They may be intuited, and perhaps it is in the nature of the artist using code (as opposed to the spy in a war) that one shouldn't expect consistency or clarity. But codes, symbols, dreams, illusions, "madness" mean multiple things. They signify the uncertainty of life lived as we live it; they call into question the very notion of "reality". Oh, we must label things, we humans, never more so than in the idiot crammed America of today. But were there superior beings watching us, in on the joke, how they must be laughing. And if some tiny mote of Schumann became "spirit" as Cortet suggests we may all, somehow, become spirits, perhaps that spirit finally has some joy knowing that what he created wasn't noise, or silliness or "not music", but a gateway to the safe danger the sane madness that art must offer us to be art.


  1. Thanks for your post on your Fbook re Petre Munteanu. Totally new to me (the invincibly ignorant Rory) and a real find. I have a serious soft spot for tenors in that Schumann rep. Also thanks for you fascinating posts here. Rory

  2. This post appears to be the first in a series. If so, hurray!

    Thank you for your teaching, Albert.

  3. You have concentrated your attention on Carnival which is certainly a wonderful work, But have nor referred to the great EXTRA.bipolar Kreisleriana amd the wildly extremely bipolar Davidsbuendler Dances (as played by Schiff). I'm being ironic. Schumann composed the maddest works when he was sane and the seemingly sane works when he was mad.The theme dictated by Schubert and Mendelssohn with its variation, all lucidly set out and clear.. And this talk about nervousness: who of is is not nervous, with ups and downs.
    It is not for nothing that Schumamn fought his battle of the Davidsbuendler against the philistines, who consider his greatest works as bipolar. I sincerely hope I'm bipolar and not a common or garden bourgewoose

    Your article is full of suppositions without any basis in fact, e.g. Schumann being obviously physically in love with Brahms.Brahms was NOT an androgynous young man but a strong athletic one who did somersaults over the upstairs bannisters landing on his feet downstairs to amuse the Schumann children
    About Brahms sexuality I have my own theories which I'll leave aside for now.. I am so tired of the attacks on the Schumamns, full of pure inventions and suppositions presenting themselves as facts that I hardly have the energy to refute them any more. Maybe I'll come back.

    I'll keep a copy of this letter as I'm not yet sure it will actually be posted.

    if this goes I have another letter which I wrote some time ago defending the Schumanns against absurd accusations, which I will insert, but it's a bit long Maybe you can put it somewhere else on your Davidsbuiendler site
    My address,if you don't get it automatically, is

    Felix de Villiers,
    Committed Davidsbuendler.

    1. Thank you for responding, Felix, but it is long after this was written and many of the links no longer work. You do use a dodge of many people who are bigoted against gay men (I am not suggesting you are, but you are nonetheless repeating an argument): What has Brahms' physical flexibility and youth to do with Schumann's attraction to him (if it were sexual)? Brahms was indeed described as "pretty" as a young man and he was boyish when he met the Schumanns. But the issue is whether SCHUMANN felt attracted to Brahms, not whether Brahms was agile enough to entertain the children, which says nothing about ways in which he might have been perceived as desirable by Robert! There is no certain answer, which this blog post makes clear, and there is no evidence that Brahms was attracted to males at any point in his life. He does seem to have had intense feelings for Clara, and to have used female prostitutes when he finally had money, It is possible that Schumann may not have identified his fondness for Brahms as more than fraternal. Without concrete evidence, we are speculating, and speculation can be wrong, of course. Still, despite his intense wooing of Clara and all those children, I personally think that Schumann's sexuality remained unsettled and that there was a homoerotic aspect to his personality. But that is my opinion, not a fact. I hope you don't think I am attacking the Schumanns. I love Robert. Clara's behavior doesn't always seem "devoted" but on the other hand she had to support them, had to look after all those children and cope with an unstable husband. Given all that, she seems to have been more admirable than otherwise, though fairly quick to disengage at the end.