Schumann and his favourite novelist

18th June 2014 | Concerts, Musings, Travel | 0 comments

Now back from the Gaudier Ensemble’s festival, I’m preparing an all-Schumann recital programme for the Aspect Foundation at Leighton House in London on June 25. The Aspect Foundation aims to expand listeners’ experience of concerts by inviting historians and musicologists to put the music in context after it’s been played – telling us things about its historical, literary or artistic background.

On this occasion it’s a double-act for me and Bob – me playing the piano, and Bob exploring Schumann’s literary influences. Schumann, the son of a bookseller, was an avid reader from an early age. His favourite novelist was the now-virtually-forgotten Jean Paul Richter, known simply as ‘Jean Paul’, and hugely popular in Schumann’s day. All Schumann’s friends were familiar with Jean Paul’s novels, and in fact Mendelssohn’s wife Cecilie was so caught up with them that Mendelssohn had to ask her to stop reading them at the dinner table.

Schumann himself said that he had learned more about counterpoint from Jean Paul than from any composition teacher. This has generally been taken to refer to Jean Paul’s obsession with dual characters who represent different aspects of the same person. Immersing himself in this world of extroverts vying with introverts, men of action set against poets and dreamers, people followed by their ‘shadow’, seems to have given Schumann the freedom to express the wild volatility in his own character, rather than reining it in.  The contradictions in his own nature were given fantastical outward form by two invented characters ‘Florestan’ and ‘Eusebius’ (one impulsive, the other thoughtful) and in fact his first piano sonata was published as being ‘by’ them. It was a bold step for a young composer to withhold his own name and publish a major work in the name of two imaginary friends.

Next Wednesday I’ll be playing Schumann’s ‘Papillons’, and his ‘Davidsbuendlertanze’ – two different piano cycles linked by various themes and ideas. In both, Schumann seems to struggle with contrasting ‘voices’, each gaining the upper hand at different times. It all turns out to be linked to an important scene in his favourite novel. Are we meant to know that? Unsurprisingly, it’s not clear. He told his friends, and some editions of the piano music have indications of his extra-musical inspirations, but others do not. Clearly Schumann wanted the music to stand on its own, but I find that it adds something special to know about the literary origins of his turbulent mood changes.

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