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Schumann and His World
By R. Larry Todd
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 1994 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
History, Rhetoric, and the Self: Robert Schumann and Music Making in German-Speaking Europe, 1800–1860
Introduction: Rescuing the Historical Schumann
"I often wonder whether my cultural ideal is a new one, i.e. contemporary, or whether it derives from Schumann's time." This thought, jotted down by Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1929, identifies how the work of Robert Schumann has come to be thought of as emblematic of a past discontinuous with our own. Schumann's music is understood to represent a critique of the twentieth-century present. An idealized and vanished culture whose qualities we wish we retained reappears to us in the music.
Wittgenstein's observation was a species of early twentieth-century nostalgia for a preindustrial world of Hausmusik (obliterated by a late nineteenth century that Wittgenstein found uncongenial)—for a civilized Biedermeier, bourgeois, domestic life of culture readily associated with Schumann, particularly with his piano and vocal music. The interconnection between the literary and musical in much of Schumann's music, particularly the keyboard works, evoked a moment in the past when art and ideas mattered to the individual.
No composer in the European tradition, in fact, was so actively engaged in the public arena with literature and, indirectly, aesthetic philosophy. Felix Mendelssohn, who worked to further Schumann's career as a composer and who stood as godfather to Schumann's offspring, never freed himself from the doubt—owing to Schumann's considerable reputation and achievement as a critic—that in some fundamental manner Schumann was, as a composer, a remarkable amateur.
Wittgenstein's implicit understanding of Schumann as somehow at odds with a twentieth-century cultural ideal mirrors a distinctly modernist enthusiasm for Schumann. Theodor Adorno identified Schumann rather than Richard Wagner as a forerunner of Alban Berg. In Adorno's view, Schumann's music was not manipulative. It did not employ a surface of lyricism or a clear pattern of tonal structure and resolution intended to lull the listener into a false sense of security. Schumann's music was not, therefore, an example of how music was consumed successfully to induce in the listener the arrogant inner sense of authentic aesthetic judgment. It resisted the use of the musical experience to falsify or camouflage the painful contradictions of existence. The epigrammatic character of the early Schumann was therefore not the only point of comparison that Adorno had in mind. In 1941 Adorno orchestrated selections from the Album für die Jugend, Op. 68, in order to underscore the modernist essence beneath the surface of Schumann's most accessible music.
The fascination with Schumann from the perspective of a critique of modernity is observed best, however, in Roland Barthes' view of Schumann. Barthes used Schumann to suggest a debasement in the evolution of our connection to music. The matter was not entirely left the prisoner of a musical text. When one played and listened to Schumann, one realized how faulty modern habits of listening had become.
Schumann, for Barthes, was "truly the musician of solitary intimacy, of the amorous and imprisoned soul that speaks to itself ...; loving Schumann, doing so in a certain fashion against the age ... can only be a responsible way of loving." Playing Schumann could reaffirm the sensual and spiritual sense of oneself; a respite from contemporary psychic alienation could be discovered.
Although it may be methodologically self-deceptive, one needs to set aside carefully this legacy of modernist and postmodern enthusiasm for Schumann and try to reconstruct the historical Schumann. In what sense was he typical of a culture? As early as December 1846, Eduard Hanslick, in one of his first published essays, sought to explain why Schumann would never be popular. He noted that his works were "too interior and strange ... too deep, too simple, too sharp, and too dry ... I believe Schumann is not for the majority but for individuals."
Indeed, the most well-remembered aspect of Schumann's life was his strangeness. The story of his attempted suicide, mental illness, and hospitalization, not to speak of his carefully documented romantic life, has been the object of uninterrupted popular and scholarly fascination from the time of his death to the present. Schumann's reputation as psychologically deviant has played into historical generalizations about the nineteenth century, particularly with respect to the image and role of art and the artist in society.
The idea that this manic-depressive and pathologically laconic musician can stand as a symbol of creativity per se continues to be argued. In the later nineteenth century Schumann exemplified the ideal type of the genuine artist as necessarily abnormal (one thinks of Thomas Mann's views on this issue). In 1905 Wilhelm Dilthey, in an essay on Holderlin, noted: "Feeling and fantasy proceed unregulated on their eccentric path. Who does not think immediately of Robert Schumann and Friedrich Nietzsche." Great art and thought ("feeling and fantasy") needed to be "out of season."
Schumann and his music have become synonymous with the aesthetics of authenticity. Both the realization of self-critical individuality and the costs of that ambition can be found in the case of Schumann. His life story and his music vindicate the struggle to protect the intimate power of art against the brutal facts of modernity. Intimacy and autonomy seem to have been systematically suppressed and nearly obliterated by the world after 1848. Counted among the enemies of the aesthetic values realized in Schumann have been industrialization and the politics of the modern nation-state, capitalist commerce in the arts—the exploitation of sentimentality—and the musical aesthetics of Wagner and late romanticism.
In order to reconstruct the historical Schumann, one needs to respond to the challenge most recently put forward by Anthony Newcomb about whether there was one Schumann, so to speak, or several different incarnations of Schumann engineered by the composer himself. Newcomb alleges that the habitual reliance on Schumann's critical writings, which date from only one period of his life, as the key to the entire range of his music has resulted in a distorted view.
Scholars frequently have noted apparent contradictions in Schumann's ideas and wide disparities in the quality of his music. Some have argued that these were the result of his fleeting self-conscious imitations of Jean Paul's own Doppelgänger literary technique. Schumann's extreme mood shifts and outbursts of short-lived enthusiasm are used to explain inconsistencies. Newcomb suggests, however, that the shifts in Schumann's career are fundamental.
The claim that one must not consider the life and work of Schumann as a whole was first put forth by Richard Wagner. Wagner argued that there was an early Schumann marked by a distinct and promising originality and a late Schumann whose talent was trivialized and destroyed by the Jewish influence of Mendelssohn. Schumann's unexceptional but persistent anti-Semitism aside—evident in his not entirely admirable relationship to Mendelssohn—the Wagnerian view has had a permanent echo in the conventional devaluation of the late music of Schumann.
Recent scholarship, for example, has nearly unanimously indicated a preference for the first editions of the early piano music. The mature Schumann had severe doubts about his early piano compositions. Not unlike many other composers, he was critical of his early work. When the opportunity came to bring out new editions, he reheard his work and made changes. The rejection of these emendations has been implicitly tied to the judgment that the new music he was writing when he re-edited the early work is inferior.
The claim of this essay is that there was indeed just "one" Schumann. His work presents the historian with a uniquely coherent subject. By implication, therefore, neither the late work nor the later editions deserve diminished respect. Furthermore, late Schumann is not inconsistent with the composer's earlier achievements and ideas. The phases in his career, his approach to the acts of music making—to playing, listening, and writing music—as well as his construction of the role of music in personal and social life were indelibly and coherently shaped by the intellectual and social foundations of his early years.
Perhaps Schumann was representative, in Wittgenstein's sense, of a cultural ideal precisely because he was, of all composers of his generation, the least professional. His career was even less the consequence of the heritage of guildlike patterns in musical training characteristic of the eighteenth and earlier centuries than Richard Wagner's. Schumann's approach to music was distinctly from the outside.
In Schumann's childhood home the practice of music was a component in a conception of the cultivated individual characteristic of a segment of society ascendant in the early 1800s. In contrast to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, Schumann's turn to music as a career was not the result of any family pattern. Unlike the case of Mendelssohn, it was not the result of stunning precocity. Schumann was perhaps the first in a line of great musicians whose prominent, affluent middle-class family, despite the prestige it placed on musical culture, fought the turn to music as a profession.
In Schumann the extramusical was transposed, self-consciously, into the musical. This did not prevent subsequent generations, particularly Hanslick, from recasting Schumann's music and aesthetics into an ideology of so-called absolute music. In contrast, the least sophisticated and nearly vulgar current in late nineteenth-century bourgeois culture remained, rather, closer to Schumann's ambitions. His vocal and keyboard music served as models for salon music during the later nineteenth century. The emotional relationship to music exploited by the mass-produced, sentimental piano works that made up the popular domestic repertoire around the turn of the century was an authentic extension of a compositional intent characteristic of Schumann's work. Salon music adopted his strategies in the reciprocal association between music, emotion, images, and ideas.
Four dimensions of the composer's life and world merit reconsideration in the search for the historical Schumann: first, his relationship to the work of Jean Paul and Wolfgang Menzel and to early nineteenth-century constructs of reading and writing; second, the philosophical discourse that Schumann encountered as a young man regarding the place of aesthetics within systematic accounts of knowledge and experience; third, his relationship to his own historical age in terms of past and future; and fourth, his interest in art history and early nineteenth-century painting.
Jean Paul and Wolfgang Menzel
No fact is more often repeated in the literature on Robert Schumann than his profound admiration for Jean Paul Richter. Schumann asserted that he learned more from Jean Paul about counterpoint than from anyone else. Hermann Kretzschmar placed Jean Paul at the center of Schumann's aesthetics. Newcomb has alleged, however, that by the 1840s Schumann had drifted away from Jean Paul. Public taste had already abandoned his novels. It was Jean Paul's posthumous fate that most of the more than sixty volumes of his collected works were ultimately forgotten, even though his reputation during his lifetime and for decades thereafter rivaled that of Goethe and Schiller.
Robert Schumann's diaries cast doubt on Newcomb's assertion. Throughout the late 1840s and 1850s Schumann noted his persistent rereading of Jean Paul. The last references are in the spring, summer, and fall of 1853, when Schumann reported that he (and Clara) read Flegeljahre, Die unsichtbare Loge, Hesperus, Siebenkäs, and Titan.
What were the consequences of this lifelong fascination and admiration for Jean Paul? In one of the most famous prose passages in Jean Paul's work, "Das Kampaner Tal," in the subsection called "Suffering without Consolation," Jean Paul writes:
Human suffering is also substantively different from the suffering of animals. The animal feels wounds somewhat the way we do in our sleep. The animal, however, does not see those wounds, and its pain is a fleeting moment and not more. It is not enlarged threefold and made more intense by expectation, memory, and consciousness. And therefore tears appear in our eyes alone.
Within the human soul lies the capacity to transform mundane existence into the spiritual confrontation with the ecstasy of sorrow and joy. In contrast to Goethe and Schiller, Jean Paul saw his task as a writer to evoke in readers a sense of the profound and the beautiful within the ordinary and frequently dismal surroundings of life. However, by comparison with the realism of the later nineteenth century, Jean Paul was not politically didactic. The intent of the systematic philosophy and theology of Jean Paul's father's generation—together with its idealization of universal categories such as humanity, truth, and beauty—remained.
The truth of those ideas had to be discovered in life by the individual. Jean Paul set aside the mid-eighteenth-century philosophic traditions about the proper forms and subjects of art. His turn to the ephemeral and modest facts of daily life reflected a closer affinity to Herder, and his experiments with forms of fiction vindicated Friedrich Schlegel's comparison of him to Friedrich Schleiermacher. For Jean Paul, the power of subjective imagination and feeling was stronger than the self-conscious act of abstract reasoning. If a synthesis of art and life was achieved in fiction to which the reader responded in the act of reading, the surface of the work need not necessarily conform to formalist conventions that had been validated by classical and neoclassical-classical aesthetic theory. This point was not lost on the young Schumann. Reading Jean Paul induced an inner transformation that the reader could transfer from the book to his own everyday surroundings. A synthesis of art and life emerged from the book that altered the reader's sense of his own capacities.
As Dilthey pointed out, what was unusual about Jean Paul was that in his prose there were no memorable descriptions, and there was a striking absence of the evidently artful poetic use of language. One of the reasons later generations abandoned Jean Paul was that in the language and narrative there was little surface evidence of artistry and no text of representation sufficiently compelling to hold the attention of later nineteenth-century readers in search of an evidently literary aesthetic achievement.
Jean Paul's long-winded and rambling prose works were designed to render the act of reading the temporal equivalent of philosophical and emotional contemplation. The use of extended imagination by the reader was indispensable; characters and events were never fully realized. With respect to Jean Paul the conceit that the text is defined or becomes complete only in the act of reading, therefore, does not derive from the imposition of modern criticism. That idea was integral to authorial intention.
Excerpted from Schumann and His World by R. Larry Todd. Copyright © 1994 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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