Sometimes the best things come in distorting packages, no matter how good they are. And sometimes that good is itself misleading when it has great appeal, or even particularly then.
I was not yet a teenager when I stumbled into the discovery of a recording of tremendous command—an LP with Schumann’s Carnaval, Op. 9, on one side and Chopin’s B-flat minor Sonata, Op. 35 (the one with the famous Funeral March), on the other, both performed by Sergei Rachmaninoff, the first in 1929, and the second in 1930. I was quite overwhelmed by the performances; it didn’t quite dawn on me then that such music had its own inherent authority, a charisma that did not depend even on such grand pianism. Later on, I heard many recordings of these great compositions, and even a few (such as those by Alfred Cortot) that gave Rachmaninoff some competition.
A certain implication in the pairing of Schumann and Chopin was subconsciously misleading. There was the possibility that Schumann and Chopin had something in common as composers for the piano, but that was only superficially so. Though Schumann hailed Chopin as a genius, Chopin did not like Schumann’s music at all, so these pianistic creators of the Romantic era did not match up. Schumann did also characterize “Chopin” in an episode of Carnaval, but there the pairing breaks down. The difference between them was substantial, though both of them were victims of disease, and Schumann of madness as well. Another difference was that Chopin was a brilliant artist of the keyboard who rarely appeared in public, while Schumann was a failed player who was married to the superb pianist Clara Wieck. She played the premiere of Henselt’s piano concerto, for one thing, and that piece is an intimidating challenge.
But this brings us to the real difference between Chopin and Schumann, which was the latter’s determination, quite simply, to write music in virtually every respected mode and formulation. Listening to Rachmaninoff play Carnaval, I somehow missed the bus, even with a ticket in my hand! But since Schumann’s first 23 opus numbers are devoted to piano pieces, we can see how a certain impression was made.
And we have to say that Schumann’s first 23 piano pieces are really something—he would still be greatly admired if that were all his work. But the truth is that he didn’t stop there, which says more about him even than those inspired works do. We don’t have to go over every one of them, but we can see or hear immediately that his musical imagination was stimulated by vehicles of German Romantic literary experimentation. Jean-Paul Richter was one writer who directly inspired Schumann, as in Papillons; and E.T.A. Hoffmann, as in Kreisleriana, was another. Those writers helped him get going—they stimulated his imagination—but there is a limit to how much they can explain Schumann’s compositions. After all, there is a difference between the modes of writing and those of music, and we can go only so far in seeing or hearing or comprehending how Schumann related poetic prose and music beyond the realm of art song or lieder. And yes, Schumann made a great contribution in that latter realm also. That’s just the point.
Schumann’s inspired early piano compositions, reflecting his cryptogrammatic allusions and his dependence on the subjectivity of German Romantic literature, set themselves apart as a unique achievement in the Romantic age. Carnaval is still Schumann’s most often played work among those others, and in an obvious sense, it is Schumann’s most appealing work. But we tend to forget that even then, in those early years, four of the others were written in sonata form: the F-sharp minor Sonata No. 1, Op. 11; the Sonata in F minor, Op. 14; the Sonata in G minor, Op. 22; and the Fantasie in C major, Op. 17. The last of that list is misleadingly named, as it is not only a sonata but perhaps also the best such work written in the age of Romantic pianism, outshining even the analogous masterworks of Chopin, Liszt, and Brahms.
Exceptions that prove the rule, such formally constructed sonatas as these four are demonstrations of Schumann’s flexibility in composition, but in spite of their worth, we still don’t think of them first when we think of Schumann’s piano music. Rather, we think of the “character suites,” as we might call them, and other such pieces as Papillons, Op. 2; Intermezzi, Op. 4; the Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6; the Toccata in C major, Op. 7; the Fantasiestücke, Op. 12; the Études symphoniques, Op. 13; the Kinderszenen, Op. 15; the Kreisleriana, Op. 16; the Arabeske in C major, Op. 18; the Humoreske, Op. 20; the Novelletten, Op. 21; the Nachtstücke, Op. 23; and after that Opus 23, the Faschingsschwank aus Wien or “Carnival Pranks from Vienna,” Op. 26.
Going otherwise beyond his Opus 23, Schumann made imposing and inspired contributions to the various forms of chamber music, art song, and symphonic constructions, including concerti, of course. The only area in which he was stymied was the operatic one, known as Genoveva. I have some thoughts about that matter, but they are of little import, as Schumann was unquestionably held back from doing everything by his challenged health, both mental and physical. The latest book on Schumann—Schumann: The Faces and the Masks, by Judith Chernaik—offers, among other things, a detailed and harrowing account of the composer’s descent into madness as a consequence of syphilis.
As she emphasizes, as Schumann deteriorated, he fought back his illness by achievements of composition that were something different from the early piano works. Yet no matter how damaged he was, he could still produce compelling works in other musical formats and forms. Perhaps the best known of these is the Piano Quintet in E flat, Op. 44, a work with supercharged appeal. So, electing to scant the extensive work in vocal and choral music, I want to cite the orchestral scores and chamber music.
The concerti are orchestral works, of course. The Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54, is only too well known and has been expertly played and recorded. The Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129, is not as famous as the piano concerto perhaps, but it is played quite a bit. The Violin Concerto in D minor, WoO 23, is a work that was denigrated by Joseph Joachim, for whom it was written, and was suppressed by Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms after the death of the composer. Not to put too fine a point upon it, I like the Schumann Violin Concerto a lot, and so do an increasing number of people these days when our attention has not been forbidden.
The symphonies come to mind, and I will insert in the list a work that is not called a symphony, but could be, for obvious reasons. About the symphonies, we can say that in the last 50 years, they have come into their own, and they are widely recognized and enjoyed. Schumann’s symphonic work was important to Brahms, but a better comparison might be with Mendelssohn (who had a splendid friendship with Schumann until his death at the age of 38). Mendelssohn never heard his own superb “Italian” Symphony, because its premiere followed the premature death of its composer. So, as we consider Romantic symphonies, leaving aside the prominent works of Berlioz and Franck, Mendelssohn seems to have won the prize. But today Schumann does not lag far behind.
In their early days, Schumann’s symphonies suffered some incidental damage because he was himself a bad conductor. Later on, Gustav Mahler tried to reorchestrate those scores. But today, in part because of the advocacy and performances of Leonard Bernstein, the symphonies of Schumann are seen in proper perspective. The Symphony No. 1 in B-flat major (Spring), Op. 38, is a work that lives up to its nickname. I list here also the pseudosymphonic, intriguingly titled Overture, Scherzo and Finale in E major, Op. 52, because of its opus number. Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61, is a favorite of many, including me. Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major (Rhenish), Op. 97, also has an evocative nickname. And Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120, is a work of power. Taken together, these symphonies reward any attention paid to them and show a Schumann who has grown beyond his youthful achievements. But these are not all of Schumann’s exceptional ventures.
Only in the first of the chamber music compositions I will cite did Schumann escape the piano keyboard altogether. The three String Quartets, Op. 41, let us know that Schumann had Beethoven and Schubert on his mind. The Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 47, has some particular beauty that will not be missed when heard. The Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 63; the Piano Trio No. 2 in F major, Op. 80; the Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor, Op. 105; the Piano Trio No. 3 in G minor, Op. 110; and the Violin Sonata No. 2 in D minor, Op. 121, show what a sick and dying man could do when he was inspired and when he willed the transformation of that inspiration into objective form.
Robert Schumann did not repudiate his early accomplishments, but neither was he bound by them—not even by Papillons and Carnaval.