Robert Schumann (possibly with Clara) & muses

The sound of love

Robert Schumann expresses the intense passion and despair of true love better than any other composer


This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In Shakespeare in Love, Queen Elizabeth I sets a wager on whether it is possible for the essence of true love to be portrayed in a play. The film’s answer is Romeo and Juliet, and the odious Earl of Wessex, played by a bearded Colin Firth, has to pay up. How would a similar question be resolved in musical terms? A plausible view is that if you had to use the language of music to explain what mature love feels like to a visitor from a distant planet, you could do no better than direct him to Robert Schumann. His music perhaps conveys a more explicit and intimate expression of the state of being in love than that of any other composer. 

To make this unlikely encounter with an aesthetically curious alien more interesting, we should exclude opera, which is undoubtedly full of the most powerful and intense dramatisations of the condition. Here character, plot and context, as well as words, give the composer a “leg up”. But without these props, examples of the realisation of the inherently private “I/Thou” nature of love are harder to find.

Schumann was one of the handful of great composers to be blissfully married

To state the obvious, love may be requited or unrequited, and as with poetry it seems that it is easier to write the music of love where it meets resistance. The tumbling semiquavers of Rastlose Liebe by Schubert make explicit Goethe’s sentiment that “this affection of one heart for another, ah, how strangely it creates pain!” The more abstract frustrations of much of Brahms’s music implicitly inhabit the same world and sometimes break the surface, as in the opening movement of the C minor piano quartet, incidentally also inspired by the composer’s feelings for Clara Schumann. 

As for gratified desire, one might expect that Schubert, the greatest of all songwriters, would have occasionally managed to express it, for instance in his setting of the Rückert poem Du bist die Ruh, though even here there is the sense that all is not as it should be — unsurprisingly for a composer who claimed not to know any happy music, and whose own love-life was without joy.

Schumann by contrast was one of the handful of great composers to be blissfully married. His lengthy pursuit, opposed by her father, of the woman who eventually became his wife is well-known. (Her father, Friedrich Wieck, taught the piano, and is credited with one of the crasser remarks of the 19th century: “I told Liszt that he could have been the finest pianist in the world — if only he had had a proper teacher.”) The marriage to Clara eventually took place in 1840, inspiring an outpouring of Lieder on the theme of love in all its forms. 

The composer’s so-called year of song includes some of his greatest short pieces on this theme. Frauenliebe und -leben, depicting the feelings of a woman falling in love and enjoying the brief raptures of marriage and motherhood before a sudden widowhood, is sometimes derided on the grounds of Chamisso’s poetry (with some justification) or of its supposedly antifeminist sentiments (with none). 

Musically speaking, the best moments perfectly convey love’s ache and inwardness (the nearest translation of the quintessentially Schumannesque quality of Innigkeit). The exploration in Dichterliebe of unhappy love is the greatest expression of that condition anywhere in music. Schumann wrote dozens of other songs depicting both extremes. 

It was, however, in 1836 that Schumann made his most heartfelt declaration of love for Clara. At this stage, Schumann was composing exclusively for the piano. The Fantasie in C, Op 17, is one of the pinnacles of the Romantic piano repertoire. It is dedicated to Liszt, whose B minor sonata constitutes another (and was dedicated to Schumann in return.) 

The genesis of and references within the Fantasie are complex, not surprisingly for this most allusive of composers. The work honours Beethoven in several ways; one explanation is that it was intended to help raise funds for the erection of a statue to Beethoven in his birthplace, Bonn. 

An instance of this homage is found in the cooler moments of the ecstatically melancholy last movement, which contains near-quotations from the adagio of the Emperor concerto. But a more significant allusion points to the Fantasie’s true inspiration. The first movement was originally entitled Ruines. (All the movements originally had titles of a classical nature, removed when the work was published in 1839). 

It was an expression of Schumann’s despair at being apart from Clara; he wrote that it was a “deep lament” for her. At the end of this movement is an explicit quotation from the last song in Beethoven’s Op 98 cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant Beloved). In this work, the composer sets six poems by Alois Jeitteles on the theme of lovers separated. 

The final song (“Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder”) has the poet sending his beloved the songs he has written, and imagining that she will sing them in turn when sunset falls across the sea and behind the mountain; she will sing what he has sung from the fullness of his heart and longing, and the songs will vanquish what keeps them apart, and join one loving heart to the other.

Through repeated listenings to the Fantasie, the attentive listener comes to realise that the grand rhetorical gesture which opens and dominates the first movement is a concealed form of the “Nimm sie hin” melody, which is only fully revealed at the conclusion of the movement. This is part of the meaning of the Friedrich Schlegel quatrain which Schumann places at the head of the work: amid all the tones in the brightly-coloured dream of life, there is one gentle note that is revealed only to the one who listens in secret. (A theme and variations traditionally begins with a statement of the theme; much later, Benjamin Britten would deploy reverse variation technique, whereby the themes are obscured until the end, when they are at last plainly stated: Lachrymae and the third cello suite are two cases in point.)

She will sing what he has sung from the fullness of his heart

All of this is more or less familiar to those who know Schumann’s piano music. But there is a more arcane feature of the Fantasie of which all who love it should be aware. It provides one of several examples of Schumann making substantial revisions to a work where the cognoscenti are divided as to whether the first or the second version is the better. Common to both here is the beautiful conclusion to the first movement. It consists of an unvarnished statement of the Beethoven quotation, followed by two attempts by that path to provide a simple cadence in the home key to end the movement. But in each case the music wanders away from this closure as if dissatisfied. It is only at the third utterance that a solution is found, as the piano breaks off halfway through the quote and rises to a series of soft, celestial chords that combine tonic and dominant harmonies. Perhaps these are the stars that Schumann instructed the publisher to place at the head of each of the three movements. For many, this is the most tender moment in the entire work and it is over all too soon. 

The second movement is an energetic dotted march with a fiendish coda which has unnerved pianists since its composition. The third is a profoundly expressive meditation on the distant beloved, this time without quotation from the song cycle. Its last page seems to rock itself to sleep on a sea of arpeggios, which become briefly impassioned then subside to a gentle conclusion. Or so the published version of the Fantasie has it. However, the Széchényi library in Budapest has a signed copy of the manuscript which shows the last-minute changes that Schumann made. These include what Alan Walker rightly calls “a major musical surprise”.

A full 15 bars of the original ending of the last movement have been crossed out and replaced by the comparatively perfunctory few bars with which modern listeners are familiar. The rejected measures are a near-repetition of the eloquent closing of the first movement, complete with its statements of the Beethoven theme and the same resolution. In two places, the harmonies are poignantly altered and intensified by comparison with the first movement, in a way which it is beyond the power of words to express. 

Maybe Schumann wished to emulate the cyclical nature of his model, for An die ferne Geliebte brings back the music of the first song at the end of the last; or maybe he wanted to finish the composition with a reiteration of its core message. Walker is right to say that this original ending works beautifully within the context of the whole composition. Happily, listeners can hear both and decide for themselves. Our several experiences of love may vary as widely as its contrasting portrayals through Schumann’s oeuvre, but whatever our individual fates the music remains to divert us, console us, and draw us, as the poet says, into a better world.

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