Tag Archive: piano

Edwin Fischer (1886-1960)

My grandfather, who was a disarmingly intelligent but warm and selfless storyteller (not pictured), once told me of a concert he attended at some point in his youth.  The recital took place in Düsseldorf, the city of his birth, and the pianist was Edwin Fischer.  I can’t be sure of the exact date of the performance, but my struggling sense is that it would have taken place somewhere between 1918 and 1925.  To insist on nailing down the specifics would be to crucify the moment, since so much of the meaning we draw from the past takes shape through a hazy layering of myth and fact.

“all the old accumulated rubbish-years which we call memory, the recognizable I, but changing from phase to phase as the butterfly changes once the cocoon is cleared, carrying nothing of what was into what is…” ~ William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

My grandfather never relayed to me the details of the program itself, but one thing stuck with him for decades: Fischer had the younger members of the audience join him on stage.  He invited them to gather around the piano to watch him perform an encore.  With that warm gesture my grandfather found himself next to one of the old masters of the piano, youthfully spellbound by a performance of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp Minor (BWV 849)  from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

Listen here to Fischer’s 1933 studio recording of that very piece.

The prelude is all beauty in a minor mode; the fugue, which eventually reaches out with its “trumpet call” (4.44), is a darkish gem.  My grandfather always singled out that moonstone as his most treasured of the “48.”

In 1960, some three to four decades after that recital in Düsseldorf, Fischer’s renowned student, Alfred Brendel, would reverently recollect that “with Fischer, one was in more immediate contact with the music: there was no curtain before his soul when he communicated with the audience.”*

When I listen to Fischer’s recording of the C-sharp Minor Prelude and Fugue, I suppose that a “curtain” of some sort does fall.  But it’s a curtain drawn by the invariably limited reach of memory, drawn between me and the faded world of a childhood in Düsseldorf, between me and a Germany pre-‘33.


Recommended Recordings:

  • Edwin Fischer: Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Books 1 & 2 (EMI).  You can read a review of this CD issue here.  These are the very first recordings of the complete “48.”  The same performances have been reissued on the Naxos Historical label, but I haven’t heard them and am unable to speak to their sound quality.


* Quote taken from Alfred Brendel’s “Edwin Fischer: Remembering My Teacher” (1960), published in Thoughts and Afterthoughts but legally fetched online.

Landowska at her Pleyel harpsichord in Saint-Leu-la-Forêt (1933).

In November of 1933, harpsichordist Wanda Landowska put to wax the very first recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  It’s true that the Goldbergs, at least since the time of Glenn Gould’s historic piano recording for Columbia in 1955, have been widely recorded by pianists and harpsichordists alike.  In fact, the market has been so inundated with stellar recordings of the Golbergs that I sometimes catch myself wishing that the record industry – to summon but one of the mercilessly many, inane slogans from the business world – would diversify its portfolio.  But I know that it’s ultimately an embarrassment of riches, and I remind myself that in 1933, before the Goldbergs met the gramophone (and well before the levy broke) the public had very little opportunity to hear this great music.  Audiences, for that matter,  had very little exposure to the harpsichord, Landowska’s ultimate instrument of choice.  Peering into the early twentieth century, we find a time in which the harpsichord was perceived as a relic of a bygone age.  We find an era in classical music history that is often characterized as the golden age of the piano.

Landowska was instrumental in reviving the harpsichord as something other than a mere museum piece.  By the time of her first recording of the Goldbergs, Landowska had already publicly championed the instrument for close to three decades.  She had scoured Europe for clavichords, harpsichords and examples of other period keyboard instruments.  Her years of study of the keyboard music and literature of the preceding centuries culminated in 1909 with the publication of La musique ancienne.  Shortly thereafter, she commissioned the Pleyel company to build her a personalized instrument that was capable of greater dynamic range and tonal colour than more conventional, less muscled harpsichords.  She exhibited four such Pleyels to American audiences during a tour of the US in 1923.

You can hear one in action here in a sampling of her Paris Goldberg sessions of the subsequent decade.

Landowska’s performances, like her writings, were positioned and persuasive, and their impact on music culture was both immediate and sustained.  As a result, the harpsichord came to be resurrected as the instrument on which to perform Bach “properly.”  So considerable was the move to “proper” – which is to say “historically informed” –  performance practice that pianists were reluctant to go near the music of the periwigged one.  (Edwin Fischer and Claudio Arrau in the ‘30s, and Rosalyn Tureck shortly thereafter, are three of the more remarkable exceptions to that lamentable trend.)

The Harpsichord: “the sound of two skeletons copulating on a tin roof in a thunderstorm.” ~ Sir Thomas Beecham

In Landowska’s wake came the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) brigade.  Its proponents, for whom I’ve coined the term HIPsters, followed Landowska in holding that music should be played in accordance with the standards of performance – and on the instruments – of the historical period in which it was composed.  Now it’s all in good fun that I call them HIPsters here; and I recognize that their opinions are rich and varied, if sometimes prone to dogmatism.  I’ll write more on another day, and I mention them here for a simple reason:

In following through on Landowska’s contention that musical interpretation should everywhere be informed by the principles of performance of a given historical period, HIPsters came to believe that Landowska’s own interpretations of Bach’s music were bygone and inauthentic – which is to say not “historically informed.”  Writing of the Pleyel and its chief ambassador, one writer tells it as he sees it:

“Undue emphasis was laid on the ability of the harpsichord to vary its tone color. . . .  These instruments produced an enormous variety of sounds, all bad.  However, Pleyel was blessed by the genius of a young Polish pianist named Wanda Landowska, who in a transcendent exercise of pure imagination found a way of using even the Pleyel to make viable music.  Thus, for nearly fifty years the movement to revive the literature of the harpsichord was to be dominated by this perversity.”*

The Pleyel was a harpsichord in name, perhaps, but it had the capacity for sonics that were not proper to keyboard instruments of Bach’s day.  Some chose to label it a “perversity,” and found equally perverse Landowska’s approach to Bach’s music: Landowska, high-priestess of Baroque music, played it like a hopeless Romantic (or so some thought).

“You play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way.” ~ Wanda Landowska

It’s true that Landowska was also sometimes guilty of taking a firmer-than-necessary stance on the nature of correct or proper performance.  But the mythologized words above, so often taken out of context and even falsely attributed, were actually said in jest during an interchange with cello great Pablo Casals in 1941.

Landowska am Cembalo ("Landowska at the Harpsichord") 1920

In La music ancienne of 1909, published in English some 15 years later as Music of the Past, Landowska attempts to debunk “the sorry legislators of taste” who, in the name of progress, undersold the harpsichord and the musical riches of a bygone age: “In all times, not only the mediocre minds, but sometimes the cultivated musicians as well, have imagined that their art had surpassed that of their predecessors.”**

It turned out that in dusting off the harpsichord, Landowska had inadvertently laid the ground for a school of Historically Informed Performance that would imagine that its art had eclipsed her own.

Myths of progress, myths of “proper” performance: In the extreme, they run counter to the notion of art as something in motion, bound to unfold in ways unforeseen.

In coming to terms with the history of music, it’s as important to look ahead as it is to look back.  And that, in my view, is yet another expression of artistry that is truly historically informed.  If we can draw lines, if we can impose boundaries, then I see them as traced in sand rather than as set in stone.  I still believe that the history of music is guided by a principle of process rather than of progress.

Landowska’s 1933 recording of the Goldberg Variations – a work which she called “a secular temple of absolute music” – is an invitation to think it through all over again.


Recommended Recording:

  • J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations / Italian Concerto / Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue (1933-36) – Wanda Landowska, Pleyel Harpsichord – Naxos Records. (More info here.)

Harpsichord Comparison:

You can sound out for yourselves the differences between Landoswka’s Pleyel harpsichord and a period harpsichord from Bach’s day by clicking on the two great performances below.  (Remember that in terms of audio fidelity, the Landowska has the disadvantage of some sixty years):

  • Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue – Landowska, Pleyel Harpsichord
  • Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue – Christophe Rousset, Harpsichord (Henri Hamsch, Paris 1751)


* Quote taken from Frank Hubbard, “Reconstructing the Harpsichord,” in The Historical Harpsichord I, edited by H. Schott (New York, 1984), p. 8.

** Wanda Landowska, Music of the Past, translated by William Aspenwall Bradley (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1924), p. 5.

Alban Berg published his first and only piano sonata (Opus 1)  in 1910.  He was twenty-five years of age and finishing up a lengthy period of study with Arnold Schoenberg.

I often think of Berg’s sonata as one good entry point to the thick terrain of 20th century classical music.  It rethinks the sonata as traditionally conceived, over the course of a single movement.  If there’s a steady feeling that the centre might not hold, the music never slips out of orbit.

Debussy once suggested that, after Beethoven, the sonata was no longer a valid form of composition.  Whether he meant it absolutely or rhetorically is a matter of some question; but I take his point.  In Berg’s sonata we find still another considered position.  For it stands at a threshold, at the threshold of atonality.  While it may not represent a “schooled” breaking with the music of the past, you never get the sense that its young composer is anything but open to the possible shape of music to come.  In the liner notes to his Carnegie Hall Concert (Teldec Classics, 2002) pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard calls it an “odd” work that “suggests a reflection on what the sonata has been and might become.”

You can watch Canadian pianist, Marc-Andre Hamelin perform Berg’s sonata live here.

It was Berg’s teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, who painted a well-known portrait of the young composer.  It dates from 1910, the same year as the publication of the piano sonata.  Here, as above, it would appear that Berg was fond of leaning his chin on his clenched right hand.

Schoenberg's portrait of Alban Berg (1910).

In the bigger picture, Schoenberg’s portrait of Berg stands as a snapshot of pre-World War I Vienna – a lost world that Berg’s friend, author Stefan Zweig, thoughtfully described as “the age of security.”  It is, as the title of Zweig’s great autobiography has it, The World of Yesterday.

I sometimes think about the young Berg in that time and place, at the threshold of tomorrow, before the monumental mess of 20th century European history.  For it’s in that historical context that his piano sonata – like Schoenberg’s painting of the same year – provides us with an important portrait of the artist as a young man.


A special note on Yvonne Loriod (1924 – 2010):

I’ve only recently discovered Yvonne Loriod’s sizzling version of the Berg sonata.  Loriod, most often remembered as interpreter and wife of Olivier Messiaen, died in May of last year.  It’s in memory of her that I link to her special interpretation of Berg’s Opus 1 here.

Recommended Recordings of the Berg Sonata:

  • Glenn Gould – Berg, Krenek, Berg, Debussy & Ravel (Columbia, 1958; Sony, 1995).
  • Maurizio Pollini – Debussy: 12 Etudes – Berg: Sonata. Op. 1 (DG, 1994).
  • Mitsuko Uchida – Schoenberg: Piano Concerto – Berg: Sonata, Op. 1, etc. (Philips, 2001).
  • Pierre-Laurent Aimard – At Carnegie Hall – Berg: Sonata, Op. 1 – Beethoven: Appassionata, etc. (Teldec Classics, 2002).

Van Cliburn - Life Magazine, 1958The idea of formal competition has become an established part of the classical music industry.  Freely, competitions give a great many musicians the opportunity to showcase their talents on the national and international stages.  And there is something to be said for their role in the advancement of young players on the pathway to professional careers in music.  (Exposure in music magazines, record deals will often follow.)  But I see a darkness in it all: the general flattening, rather than the development, of the creative landscape.

But let me warm up by bringing up three of the more momentous moments that come to mind when I think of the history of classical competition.


FIRST: Russian pianist, Tatiana Nikolayeva, took first prize in the Leipzig Bach Competition in 1950.  Oral history sometimes has it that she played both books of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier – which is to say all 48 Preludes and Fugues!  Hmmm … Given that the competition only called for a single Prelude & Fugue as part of a contestant’s program, it’s unlikely that there’s much accuracy in that version of the story.  But there’s an echo of truth in it: Another – more likely – account goes like this: Nikolayeva was prepared to play anything from the Well-Tempered Clavier and offered to play whichever Prelude & Fugue the jury requested.  So impressed was Shostakovich (one of the panel judges) with her performance that he composed his own set of 24 Preludes and Fugues – and dedicated them to her.  Whatever the details of the 1950 Leipzig Bach competition in 1950, the result is some of my favourite music of the 20th century.  Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues linger on; they are more important than the competition – than any competition.  (You can listen to her play Bach’s great Prelude & Fugue in C-sharp Minor here.  And also be sure to check out her rendition of Shostakovich’s dark Prelude & Fugue in E minor.)

History is like a piano: It resonates long after the notes are struck.  And, sometimes, its notes will blur.

SECOND: American pianist Van Cliburn was famously awarded first place at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.  That the year was 1958, at the height of the so-called cold “war,” only added to the resonance of the event.  I may be tripping on my own self-spun legend here, but I think it was my grandmother who told me that Russian pianist Emil Gilels – who was heading the competition jury – personally awarded the Texan with a score of 100 (on a scale of 1 to 10!) in order to guarantee Cliburn’s victory.

Do we find ourselves here, again, amidst the mist of myth?

One thing we do have is the Cliburn’s own account: that Gilels – after walking the American onto the stage to take his bow before a standing audience, beside itself with enthusiasm – kissed him on the cheek as sign of his admiration for the American’s performance.  It’s a wonderful story, and a tribute to the cultural promise of music.  For it’s now 2010, and who has won?  The McCarthyites or Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto?  A quick listen to the opening notes of that masterpiece – from the infamous 1958 competition itself! – clearly answers the question.

Sometimes music can help to temper the illusions, to dampen the delusions, of a time.

THIRD: The year is 1980, and Yugoslavian (Serbian) pianist Ivo Pogorelich is eliminated from the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw.  Argentinean pianist Martha Argerich walks away from her position on the jury, and famously declares Pogorelich “a genius.”  So sharp is the controversy that Pogorelich is asked to give a last recital at the end of the competition (a privilege usually only reserved for the competition winner!).  You can here take in the dizzying levels of artistry and technique that Pogorelich brought to that very performance.

Pogorelich - "The Genius" (DG)THE VERDICT

But how would Pogorelich’s career have progressed had Argerich not resigned in protest?  What if the other members of the jury – the supposed arbiters of “truth” – had had their way?  My questions are speculative, I admit, but I write them here to trigger a bit of discussion about the state of competition culture as it exists in our day.  And if my questions seem speculative, I certainly don’t think they’re any more so than the pretense of a jury that supposes to offer an “objective” gauge of a musician’s performance.

To my mind, objectivity is impossible to the point that the very thought of it is boring; and I fear that music culture is dulled by structures that discourage the flowering of an artist’s personal (and, yes, subjective) vision.  I’m reminded of the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where the young Stephen Dedalus takes on his role as an artist in the world, and sets out to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”  In the world of music, what competitions do is impose limits on the artist by pushing for a standardized measure of what constitutes proper performance, and in this sense limit the reach, the creative potential, the variety of views and interpretations of music.

The present and future of music are compromised by the conservative idea of “proper” performance.  Think of the blandness of American Idol.  (Sure, “America’s Got Talent,” but what’s talent without vision?)  Think of the merciless number of songs that are given the auto-tune treatment.

It hurts.  Even Beethoven’s ears are bleeding.

I don’t think that competitions should be done away with.  But I don’t need to state their merits here: You don’t have to put your finger to the wind to learn that their merits are everywhere assumed.  I only hope that people who are part of the industry begin to think of alternative ways of furthering music, of writing about it, of poking holes in the surface of what is blindly accepted.

Ultimately, it will continue to be up to the artists to forge the uncharted horizons of music.  Gone are the days – so to speak, because I doubt there ever were such days – when the interests of the industry coincided with the interests of artistry.

The basic issue is that there is a general acceptance of the way things are rather than a push to explore how things could be.  The first is a question of the music industry, and the second, a question of classical music culture, a matter of artistry.

And while industry doesn’t necessarily exclude artistry, it doesn’t always encourage it.  So if I see something of a darkness in it, then maybe it’s that the idea of classical competition misses the mark, misses the point of artistic development.  And if it can be said to see the truth at all, then I really think it can only do so as through a glass, darkly.

Bookmark and Share


Claudio Arrau plays Beethoven's opus 111.







Opus 111 is the publication number given to Beethoven’s last piano sonata (no. 32 in C minor).  Outwardly, the sonata is unique in that it’s in two-movements: Beethoven had begun sketches for a third, concluding movement, but eventually scratched convention and left us with a searching sonata in two parts.  A music professor in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus suggests that this signals the end of the sonata form itself.  And my impression is that Debussy said something similar some thirty-plus years before Mann’s novel.

The sonata’s first movement is a restless pronouncement; it urges forward in darkness.  The gorgeous second movement, the Arietta, changes course: a set of variations that take us per aspera ad astra, from darkness to the stars, from struggle into light.

Now I don’t want to romanticize the sonata.  Musicians and critics of the nineteenth century did enough of that: Slaves as they sometimes were to a general state of aesthetic heat, it didn’t take much to set them reeling in fits of poetic adulation.  But it would be a mistake to see the sonata as incomplete, or to take away from its mysterious quality.  If it lacks a third movement, if the feeling is sometimes one of open-endedness, it is only because the sonata searches, probes mysterious regions often left uncharted in music.  I’m reminded of Wittgenstein’s comment that mysteries, unlike puzzles, are deepened, not solved.

There’s a moment towards the end of Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting where the author speaks about Beethoven’s late music.  He suggests that while Beethoven’s symphonies represent an epic journey outward, the variation movements of the late sonatas draw us inward.  They mark a progressive unfolding of the inner life, the search after the elusive goal of the creative process.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to stress the searching quality of Opus 111’s variations.  The Arietta is an instance of music that is meditative rather than heroic, reflective rather than epic.  As the variations unfold, they give way to increasingly unexpected and inventive music.  It is a case of Beethoven, within the apparent confines of a traditional classical time signature, pushing the rhythmic pulse of this music to something that hints at jazz of the next century.   (You can hear for yourselves here.)

Even Stravinsky heard in this music the emergence of the “boogie woogie.”  And though the Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff might protest such a view in this insightful clip (which I highly recommend checking out) there is something compelling in the idea – again recalling Mann’s Doctor Faustus – that “there are already movements of a rhythmic freedom foreshadowing things to come.”

In the second half of the variations movement, where radiance ultimately counters the darkness of the first movement, we have one of the many meditative moments of Beethoven’s late period.  This is music that can capture the imagination.

Opus 111 is by no means a work of jazz, but it does manage to create the illusion of jazz.

Its journey hints at the shape of music to come.  And I will sometimes catch myself thinking of it as the first birth of the cool.


Recommended Recordings:

  • Claudio Arrau – Beethoven: The Late Piano Sonatas (recorded in the 60s, Phillips; reissued in 2001)
  • Anton Kuerti – Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas (I am in love with this 1974-75 set, reissued on Analekta in 2006.  It has since been discontinued, though Kuerti has recently rerecorded the last five piano sonatas for the same label.)
  • Maurizio Pollini – Beethoven: The Late Piano Sonatas (recorded in the late 70s, Deutsche Grammophon; reissued in 1997)
  • Mitsuko Uchida – Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Op. 109, 110 & 111 (Phillips, 2006)

Bookmark and Share

The Young Prokofiev (1915)While Sergei Prokofiev’s third piano concerto may be his most well-known, I want to reach still further back.  I essentially see his first two explorations with the form as better gateways to his music.  They are doubly worth hearing together because they present us with two entirely individual expressions of a young composer in the burgeoning stages of creativity.  The years are 1912-1913, and Prokofiev is in his early twenties: The first two concertos represent the attempts of a student-come-composer to find a place in his art for the comic and the tragic.

The first concerto in D-flat major, Op. 10, is a short single-movement piece.  It was written by Prokofiev at the end of his stint at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he was considered the resident “enfant terrible” and mischief-maker.  While at school, Prokofiev sought to develop his own musical voice, unimpeded by the disapproval of the conservatory’s more conservative faculty members.  The piece is rarely longer in performance than a quarter of an hour – making it perhaps the most accessible of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos.  A full concerto in miniature, it consists of a slow and distinctively Russian middle mini-movement, bookended by sections that are full of rhythmic fun and playful detachment.  There is comic lightness in Prokofiev’s step here.  In the dance of the piano part, is the young composer poking fun at his less adventurous teachers? 

With the second concerto in G minor, Op. 16, we find ourselves on bleak, wintry terrain.  And as with all great tragedy, there is nothing superficial, no skating on the surface.

Sorrow found Prokofiev when he was young: first with the death of his father, and shortly thereafter with the suicide of his dear friend and conservatory classmate, Maximilian (to whom the concerto is dedicated).  The second concerto begins with the quiet rumblings of an unaccompanied piano.  And I see significance in the soliloquy: For while the orchestra plays a major part in adding to the tragic texture of the music, I think that it’s really with the piano that Prokofiev gives voice to the memory of a friend.    

This would explain the monster of a piano part, a cadenza that takes up nearly half of the first movement.  It’s an ode to dejection, a dark coming to terms with the death of a loved one – marked by a melancholic mood more commonly associated with Rachmaninov than with Prokofiev.  The build is defiant, and the climax – with the return of the orchestra – is one of the darkest moments in all of Prokofiev.  The cadenza is essential listening. 

On his website, Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky speaks of Prokofiev as “a symbol of light, of rhythm and of life.”  Perhaps it is that the comic and the tragic are part of the same rhythm, the same dance.  Perhaps it is that these two works of the young Prokofiev show that comedy and tragedy are less forces of youth than they are functions of art.


Recommended Recordings:

  • Prokofiev: The Five Piano Concertos – Vladimir Ashkenazy, with Andre Previn / London SO (Decca, 1997 CD release; 1970s recording)
  • Prokofiev: Piano Concertos 1, 3 & 4 – Kun Wai Pak, with Antoni With / Polish National Radio SO (Naxos 8.550566; 1992)
  • Prokofiev: Piano Concertos 2 & 3 – Evgeny Kissin, with Vladimir Ashkenazy / London SO (EMI, 2009)

Bookmark and Share

Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg, was born one hundred and sixty-seven years ago today.  Many people will be familiar with his works, even if unknowingly.  His incidental music for Peer Gynt has successfully permeated popular culture. 

But I am reminded of a story that gives still more colour to the day.  In 2007 Leif Ove Andsnes decided to mark the centenary of his fellow countryman’s death by having a piano helicoptered to the top of a mountain, where he performed Grieg’s Ballade for piano, with no one but mother nature (and a conveniently placed film crew) to hear.  The footage and commentary are fascinating. 

This is not Andsnes’ only, shall we say, creative attempt to give voice to the music he loves.  A 2002 disc finds him performing some of Grieg’s lyric pieces on the composer’s piano at his very own villa outside of Bergen.  (Mikhail Pletnev did something similar, wanting to pay homage to his compatriot, Rachmaninov.)  More recently, Andsnes “reframed” Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, performing the remarkable work in a multimedia setting, surrounded by video screens that displayed visuals by artist Robin Rhodes.  The details of that fascinating project have also been captured on film.  These are the attempts of a world-class musician to see if classical music is capable of transcending itself, of broadening its horizons.

Some of you will remember the story of violinist Joshua Bell busking incognito – and going virtually unnoticed – in a Washington D.C. subway station.  Stunts, experiments of this kind are small ways of sounding out the place of classical music in our day-to-day lives.  And as Bell’s experience shows, it does seem that classical music has gone underground.

Scenes such as these lead us to consider the place of classical music in popular culture.  Does classical music need the help of Disney, a Fantasia?  What of so-called “crossover” albums?  Whatever the case, musicians as thoughtful as Andsnes help to give it life. 

I don’t think that this is just a case of trees falling in the forest.  For the music – mountain-high, river-low – waits for us to hear and discover.

Bookmark and Share

Robert Schumann

Today marks the 200th anniversary of Robert Schumann’s birth.  And I must say, he looks rather good for his age – not a day over 46, even… .

On this day, I ask: In what light is it best to remember Schumann?  Many people remember him as one player in a bizarre love triangle (with his wife Clara and the young Brahms) that was as intrigue-riddled as an episode of Gossip Girl.  The fact that he spent the last two years of his life confined to a mental asylum has further deflected the focus from his music.  These sadder, more disordered aspects of his life and personality have even led a scattered few to question the structural integrity of his works.

If nothing else, days such as this can remind us of the great musical heritage that has come before us, and of which Schumann was a pivotal part.  There has never been more music in the world than there is now, and technology gives us ready access to it.  And yet, the classical repertoire survives: Schumann and friends are off the radar to some, maybe, but the significance of their music has not been eclipsed.  It is still there to be mined, still there to be discovered and advanced.  For an example of one of my prized Schumann discs, you can listen to Maurizio Pollini’s interpretation of the Symphonic Etudes here.

But what I’d like to point to here is perhaps something more than any given Schumann composition.  It is simply the fact that Schumann was a huge lover of music, and a tireless champion of art.  In his early twenties, Schumann founded the New Journal for Music (Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik) which he used as a springboard for discussion about all things music and culture.  There he acclaimed the work of some of his contemporaries; others were burned by his fiery wit.  It was in the New Journal that Schumann famously touted the then-unknown twenty year-old Brahms as the “chosen one” of music. 

For someone who is quoted as saying that music cannot be spoken about because its language is too precise for words, Schumann did an awful lot of talking.

This is because Schumann (and I’m paraphrasing here) thought it the artist’s duty to bring light into the darkness of the human heart.  And one way of accomplishing this, beyond his own compositions, was to fight for the music of others. 

Perhaps Schumann’s greatest gift to us?  It was he who, while on a visit to Vienna, discovered the dusty score to Schubert’s eighth symphony (the great “Unfinished Symphony”).

On the 200th anniversary of his birth, I remember him in this way:

Robert Schumann: All in the name of music.

Bookmark and Share