By Leon Botstein
Written for the concert Paradise, performed on Jan 29, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
The reputation and fame of Robert Schumann rest on two contrasting but allied achievements. The first and foremost is his music for the piano, voice, and chamber ensembles. As a composer Schumann has been most celebrated for works in small form, the condensed instrumental evocation of sentiment, character, and literary idea. The piano was Schumann’s primary vehicle. He had, as is well known, a tortured relationship with his own ambition to become a concert pianist. Whether his failure to succeed derived primarily from self-inflicted physical injury or psychological barriers remains unclear, but the piano remained his dominant medium of musical expression throughout his life.
This was fortuitous, for in Schumann’s generation the piano emerged triumphant as the indispensable and most widely disseminated transmitter of musical culture. It was indeed the first standardized instrument of musical reproduction and instruction. It was through Schumann’s desire to study with Friedrich Wieck, a leading piano pedagogue of the era, that Schumann met his future wife Clara, Wieck’s daughter. She would become one of the nineteenth century’s greatest pianists. In addition to the music for piano solo, Schumann’s genius flowered in the form of the song, making him the composer most celebrated, after Schubert, for music for voice and piano. Then there is his music for strings, particularly strings and piano, notably the Piano Quintet.
As a composer for large forces, particularly in the genre of the symphony, Schumann’s work has been, comparatively speaking, a subject of controversy. To this day there is still doubt and debate about his skill as an orchestrator. Indeed, Schumann conceived of musical textures and figuration in pianistic terms and had little direct experience with other instruments, in contrast to Mendelssohn. Until the mid-twentieth century, conductors routinely “improved” the orchestration of Schumann’s four symphonies. Even Brahms, who revered Schumann, had his doubts about Schumann’s orchestration. But recently the insights we have gained into the use of period instruments has brought this habit of revision to an end. If one takes into account the size and character of the instrumental forces for which Schumann wrote, the orchestrations are in fact not wanting, but remarkable in their color and transparency.
The second achievement that has given Schumann a central place in the history of music is his prose criticism. Schumann once said that he learned more about writing music, and music in general, from reading the works of Jean-Paul Richter than from any composition textbook or teacher of music. Indeed, as a young man, Schumann’s ambitions wavered between the literary and the musical. The fusion between the two is what inspired the innovative musical forms of his early piano music and the striking and original use of harmony and rhythm. Schumann’s place in the development of musical romanticism can be located in his capacity to transform the literary and the poetic into the musical. Although after his death Schumann would be regarded as an inspiration to a so-called “absolute” or “autonomous” school in musical aesthetics (seemingly in direct conflict with that of Liszt and Wagner), it was Schumann, a contemporary of Liszt, who sought to create a connection between prose and poetry and music without words. The same ambition was shared by Mendelssohn, Schumann’s friend, colleague, and supporter.
The rift between warring factions in musical life after Schumann’s death greatly exaggerated the elements of contrast. Indeed Liszt and Wagner both held Schumann in high regard. In Wagner’s case the main criticism of Schumann was that his originality had been compromised by the deleterious influence of Mendelssohn. Nonetheless Schumann’s role as a critic was decisive in the establishment of a new aesthetic and rhetoric of musical romanticism. In that construct of romanticism, the connection between the poetic, the visual, the subjective, the intimate, and the musical became central. New forms were generated. Schumann heralded the work of Berlioz. He waged a war against mere virtuosity, academic imitation and philistinism. He particularly decried the embrace of the theatrical and crassly sentimental. Art became elevated to a status with sacred principle possessed of noble spirituality.
In his vigorous defense of Chopin, Schumann called on his generation to follow the path he believed had been charted by the greatness of Beethoven, toward a music that reached well beyond entertainment into the realm of the infinite and the profound. The poetic was an integral causal element in inspiring composers to develop a language of expression that exceeded illustration and decoration. Music was the greatest of the romantic arts because it was boundless, infinitely poetic, and emotionally intense. Interiority and the subjective, the intensity of feeling, became the province of music, and therefore forms of music-making tied to intimacy and intimate spaces. Schumann’s criticism ran parallel to his own career as a composer of works for solo piano, the single auditor, and for lovers and friends.
It was however the close relationship between Robert and Clara Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn that helped Schumann expand his compositional horizons. Indeed, in the 1840s, his activities as a critic receded as his work as a composer expanded in scale and scope. Schumann not only sought to enter the realm of the symphony and the concerto, but he turned to two genres central to the period and indispensable to the career of a successful composer: opera and oratorio. The engagement with such large-scale works involving texts was a natural outgrowth of the writing of instrumental music with a textual substratum and songs. Opera had become a popular national medium, particularly in Germany. Carl Maria von Weber was the central figure in the development of a distinctively German operatic tradition. Although Wagner ultimately would come to dominate the field, Schumann’s lone completed opera Genoveva would be heralded by none other than Liszt as the finest German opera of the day not composed by Wagner.
The oratorio form represented a narrower and more complexly sensitive option. After the fall of Napoleon, particularly in Protestant Germany, the oratorio remained an important part of musical life. Throughout German-speaking Europe, choral societies made up of amateurs developed. These voluntary associations, the most famous of which was the choral society in Düsseldorf founded in 1818, were one of the few civic organizations tolerated in the repressive, reactionary climate of post-Napoleonic German-speaking Europe. Even in Düsseldorf, a Catholic region, one of the sons of the King of Prussia was an eager supporter of the Düsseldorf Chorus and intervened through the help of the Catholic ecclesiastical authorities with the King to permit the creation of a Lower Rhine festival featuring choral music. Oratorios were written with these large, amateur choruses in mind. Even the young Wagner toyed with this idea. The subjects that formed the basis of these German-language oratorios were part sacred and part secular. Composers cherished the models of Bach and Handel.
The most successful composer of the early nineteenth century in the oratorio genre was Mendelssohn. His success with St. Paul (composed for the Düsseldorf Choir) in 1836 was extraordinary. It impressed the young Wagner, as well as Schumann. It is not surprising therefore that Schumann, from the 1840s until his attempted suicide in 1854, turned a good deal of attention to choral music, both sacred and secular. In fact he became, during the last stage of his career, the director of the chorus in Düsseldorf, a post that had earlier been occupied by Mendelssohn.
Unlike Mendelssohn, Schumann’s connection to religion and theology was tenuous. Schumann had been somewhat of a rebel and Bohemian as a young man. Friedrich Wieck, who opposed Schumann’s marriage to Clara, did so for good reasons. Schumann had already developed a reputation for alcoholism, unstable moods, and personal behavior held in high suspicion, including rumors of homosexuality. There was gossip about his close relationship with Norbert Burgmüller, the gifted young composer whose early death Schumann took very hard. Certainly Schumann never affected the piety and conventional morality that dominated Mendelssohn’s life and career. Nevertheless, Mendelssohn valued Robert Schumann’s genius and admired Clara’s greatness as a musician. Robert and Clara accepted Mendelssohn’s patronage with gratitude despite their residual anti-Semitism, envy, and resentment.
This all provides the background for Schumann’s foray into the choral orchestral dramatic form, including the oratorio. He completed several major works. The two best known choral dramatic works are the unusual Manfred, a setting of Byron that is really not an oratorio but a drama set to music, and the work on this afternoon’s program, Das Paradies und die Peri. As Christopher Gibbs remarks in his notes on the program, this work, although nearly forgotten today, was perhaps the greatest single triumph in Schumann’s career during his lifetime, and deservedly so. Given the enormous popularity afforded the oratorio form, success in writing a large public work of this kind was like the opera, a key ingredient for success and fame. And Schumann, with Das Paradies triumphed.
Whatever the motivations behind Schumann’s decision to try his hand at an oratorio, the choice of subject was brilliantly suited to his sensibility. It also set him apart from Mendelssohn. The distinguished German interpretive sociologist Jürgen Habermas is known for his analysis of an emergent public sphere in early nineteenth-century Germany. There was indeed a phenomenal growth in the reading public. Schumann’s father was a figure in that historical transformation. Among other things, he translated and published Walter Scott in German. The pre-1848 reading public was enamored of the romances of the north. Mendelssohn had been inspired by Ossian, the fraudulent northern Homer, whose works were actually written by the eighteenth-century Scotsman James MacPherson. Sir Walter Scott was among the most popular authors of the period.
Instead of turning to a biblical or classical subject, or a subject indirectly related to Christianity linked to the Crusader period, Schumann instead took the work of a minor contemporary of Scott’s. The irony of his choice was that his turn away from the Italian or the French to the northern European, in the case of Das Paradies und die Peri, involved a circuitous bridge to a burgeoning fascination with the East. What was compelling in the poem was not only its appeal to romantic fantasy but also its evocation of a strange non-Christian world far removed from the European everyday. Although some have wished to see in Schumann’s oratorio an inherent Christian message, it is precisely the appropriation of the non-western spirituality which lends the work its uniqueness.
Das Paradies und die Peri is unusual as an oratorio because it is conceived dramatically in near operatic terms. Indeed, one needs to recall that when the work was written there was a widespread practice of performing choral music with tableaux vivants. This involved costumed, static depictions of characters arranged in the form of paintings that illustrated the action in a stylized wordless pantomime. Das Paradies und die Peri lends itself to this kind of visualization, and indeed there have been performances in recent years in which such reenactments and stagings have been undertaken.
However, it is the greatness of the music of Paradies that makes its relative obscurity so hard to understand. There is no work by Robert Schumann on the scale of this oratorio that is so consistently convincing, including the masterful use of the orchestra. The beauty, lyricism, and drama of the work are flawless. It is well known that Johannes Brahms was devoted to Schumann’s music and memory. There is perhaps no greater compliment to the musical genius of Das Paradies und die Peri than Brahms’s unmistakable allusion to it in his own German Requiem.
The year 2006 marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Robert Schumann. He died incarcerated in a mental institution as the result of the suicide attempt. Modern scholarship has identified Schumann as a classic manic-depressive, whose life was tormented by the vacillation between euphoria and despair. In that terrifying mix was genius. Tragically, toward the end of his life, in the years preceding the suicide attempt in 1854, Schumann’s health deteriorated steadily. It was in a period of extreme depression that the young, handsome, and compelling Brahms was introduced into the Schumann household by their mutual friend Joseph Joachim. Robert and Clara were each enamored of young Brahms and Schumann went so far as to declare Brahms the future hope of German music, a prophetic claim that would haunt Brahms for the rest of his life. In this Schumann anniversary year, there is the opportunity not only to revisit all of the well-known great accomplishments of this seminal composer and writer, but to restore to its proper place in the repertoire Schumann’s greatest large-scale composition, one of the great masterpieces of nineteenth-century dramatic and lyric music.