Robert Schumann
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Piano Concerto in A Minor and Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major, "Rhenish."

 

These works present fascinating variations on the classic forms of their respective genres. In each work, the composer uses thematic cross-references between different movements to impart a sense of unity and cohesion. The thoughtful approach to compositional structure combines with a poetic conception of melody, harmony and orchestration, yielding a fusion of Classical and Romantic elements that make Schumann's orchestral works especially rich.

 

Gerard Schwarz, Conductor
Bella Davidovich, Piano
Seattle Symphony Orchestra

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Tracks:

1.     Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A Minor Allegro affettuoso

2.     Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A Minor Intermezzo

3.     Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A Minor Allegro vivace

4.     Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major Lebhaft  

5.     Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major Scherzo--Sehr massig 

6.     Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major Nicht Schnell 

7.     Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major Feierlich  

8.     Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major Lebhaft  

9.     Listener’s Guide to Schumann's Life and Music  

10.                        Listener’s Guide to Concerto for Piano and Orchestra Movement I

11.                        Listener’s Guide to Concerto for Piano and Orchestra Movement II

12.                        Listener’s Guide to Concerto for Piano and Orchestra Movement III

13.                        Listener’s Guide to Robert and Clara Schumann Marriage 

14.                        Listener’s Guide to Symphony No. 3 Movement I 

15.                        Listener’s Guide to Symphony No. 3 Movements II & III

16.                        Listener’s Guide to Symphony No. 3 Movements IV & V

17.                        Schumann's Final Years      

 

Schumann: Genius and Madness

 One of the most enduring legacies from the Romantic movement of the 19th-century is the concept of artistic genius as a kind of divine madness.

 Many of the Romantic poets equated abandonment of social and behavioral norms with creativity. In music, this notion has some factual basis in the lives of several great 19th-century composers. Beethoven indulged in such peculiar behavior, particularly toward the end of his life, that many who met him questioned his sanity. But the most real and most poignant instance of genius fused with mental turmoil was Robert Schumann.

 One of the great composers of the 19th century, Schumann wrote piano solos, chamber music, choral pieces and opera, dozens of superb songs and some of the finest works in the orchestral repertory. Much of this music conveys contented and even joyful sentiments; there is surprisingly little darkness in Schumann’s compositions. Yet from the beginning of his career, Schumann was plagued by irrational fears and melancholy. In the end, his personal demons overwhelmed him.

 In 1854 Schumann suffered a mental breakdown and made an apparent suicide attempt. Although his life was saved, his career as composer had reached its end. Already, however, his formidable creative energies had produced a remarkable body of music revealing a natural and lyrical sense of melody coupled with a keen and original handling of both harmony and composition.
 

Schumann’s Life and Career


 
Robert Schumann was born on June 8, 1810, in the town of Zwickau, in the northeastern part of present-day Germany. His family was intellectually inclined, though not musical. Schumann’s father ran a small publishing house and bookstore, and was himself a writer. His literary interests passed to his youngest son, who read passionately and eventually became a distinguished critic as well as a composer.

 At about age six Schumann began learning to play the piano. Apart from his keyboard studies he would be largely a self-taught musician. He began composing at age eleven, using as his models pieces he had played or heard. Although he eventually took some lessons in counterpoint, he never received any formal training in composition. He compensated, however, by diligently studying the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and other Classical masters.

 Shortly before his 18th birthday, Schumann bowed to the wishes of his widowed mother and entered the University of Leipzig as a law student. His heart was never in his studies, however, and after two desultory years he abandoned the effort and devoted himself entirely to music.

 At first Shumann thought to make a career as a concert pianist, and with this in mind he placed himself under the guidance of Friedrich Wieck, a well-known keyboard pedagogue. Wieck had developed a rigorous course of piano study that included general musicianship as well as purely technical exercises. Already he had produced a prize pupil – his daughter Clara, who at age nine was an accomplished performer.

 Schumann initially applied himself to piano study, and even lived for a while in Wieck’s house. But after a couple of years he had to admit he was not destined to become a virtuoso performer. For one thing, he sustained a debilitating injury to one of his hands, possibly by using a device that attached weights to his fingers in order to strengthen them.

 Even without this decisive setback, however, he chafed under Wieck’s regimented program of instruction. Schumann was an innately impulsive and imaginative personality, given to dreaming, burning enthusiasms, and literary and musical fantasies. And so he now turned finally to his true fields of interest: composing and writing.

 From early 1832 through 1840, Schumann composed with increasing skill, authority and originality. But his enthusiasm for music, especially that which was new and vital, spilled over into literary activity also. In 1834 Schumann helped found a new magazine known as the “Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik”, or “New Musical Times”. From the start Schumann served as editor, principal writer and guiding spirit of this periodical. His reviews and essays combined insight, passion and literary flair. They included pioneering appreciations of such important musical figures as Schubert, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Brahms, and Chopin.  

 Most of Schumann’s compositions from the 1830s were piano solos, and the finest of these stand today as pillars of the Romantic keyboard literature. Apart from his own familiarity with the instrument and its capabilities, Schumann had a special motivation in writing so extensively for the piano. By 1835 Clara Wieck, who Schumann had always regarded with friendly admiration, had grown into a beautiful young woman as well as one of the most accomplished pianists of her day. Now the relationship between her and the composer blossomed into love. This passion was not destined to be an easy one. Nine years separated their ages – Schumann was by this time 25 – and the girl’s father vehemently opposed their liaison.

 Indeed, Friedrich Wieck did everything he could to extinguish the romance. He curtly refused Schumann’s request for engagement to marry Clara and forbade the lovers from seeing each other. Taking no chances, he kept Clara traveling on concert tours for much of the next several years and even took to spreading malicious rumors about Schumann. But the young couple kept their affection alive through smuggled letters and through music. Schumann composed many of his piano pieces expressly with Clara in mind, and he made clear to her which passages conveyed his innermost feelings for her.

 Eventually Friedrick Wieck’s implacable opposition to their affection became intolerable to the young couple, and they went to court to gain Clara’s permission to marry without her father’s consent. A contentious legal battle ensued, but in the end Schumann and Clara triumphed. On 12 September 1840 the couple joined their fates in a wedding ceremony held in a small village church not far from Leipzig.

 In the year he married Clara, Schumann devoted himself almost exclusively to songwriting. Beginning in February 1840, he composed in quick succession no fewer than eighteen sets of songs comprising well over a hundred individual pieces. They stand beside the songs of Franz Schubert as the most beautiful lyric expressions of the spirit of German Romanticism.

 From song Schumann now turned to symphonic music. Clara had hoped for this. In her diary she wrote: “It would be best if he composed for orchestra; his imagination cannot find sufficient scope on the piano.”

 She was delighted, therefore, when her husband sketched his First, or “Spring”, Symphony during four days of creative fervor in January 1814. There followed shortly another symphony, a “Fantasie” for piano and orchestra (later incorporated as the first movement of the composer’s Piano Concerto in A Minor), and several shorter orchestral works.

 Schumann now expanded his activities into the areas of chamber music and choral composition, producing significant works in each field. He also continued to write and serve as editor of the “Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik”. But despite the energy he poured into creative work, his career advanced slowly. Accompanying Clara on a concert tour to Russia, the composer grew despondent at realizing how much more acclaim she enjoyed than he did. Back in Leipzig in the summer of 1844 he suffered some sort of nervous breakdown, finding that the sound of music “cut into my nerves like knives”. In response to this crisis, the Shumanns decided to leave Leipzig for Dresden. In the more quiet atmosphere of Dresden Schumann recovered his psychological equilibrium and returned to work. During the next few years he completed another symphony, an opera, and a number of piano pieces and other compositions. But he still had little professional recognition to show for his achievements, having been passed over for several prestigious musical positions.

 Late in 1849, however, the composer, conductor and pianist Ferdinand Hiller recommended Schumann to succeed him as director of the municipal orchestra and chorus in the city of Dusseldorf. Schumann was initially reluctant to consider this post. In the end, though, he accepted the position and in September settled with his family in this city on the Rhine.

 At first, the move to Dusseldorf seemed to have a salutary effect on Schumann. During his first few months there he composed a Cello Concerto and a symphony, the “Rhenish”, inspired in part by the mighty Rhine. But the music directorship of a provincial chorus and orchestra suited Schumann poorly. A broadly knowledgeable musician, he was nevertheless an indifferent conductor, and he failed to maintain the performance standards his predecessor had established. Moreover, he disliked the administrative chores that attended his job and had little interest in, or talent for, its social obligations. As a result, Shcumann’s situation in Dusseldorf deteriorated rapidly. After his first season the chorus was in open revolt, and the orchestra grew lax. 

 In 1852 Schumann again experienced a nervous attack that left him sleepless and depressed. A year later he suffered what may have been a stroke. He recovered quickly enough, but his worsening mental state left him unable to continue his conducting duties, although he did continue to compose. Around this time he made the acquaintance of the young Johannes Brahms, whose talent he proclaimed to the world in a famous article.

 By early 1854 Schumann was sinking into psychosis. He began experiencing auditory hallucinations, then visual ones as well. On February 17, Clara reported to her diary: “In the night, not long after we had gone to bed, Robert got up and wrote down a melody which, he said, the angels had sung to him. ….When morning came the angels had transformed themselves into devils and sang horrible music….. He became hysterical, screaming in agony…. The two doctors who luckily came just barely managed to control him.”

 For the next ten days Schumann’s mental state swung between lucidity and madness. Then on February 27 he slipped unnoticed from his house and, wearing neither a coat nor shoes, walked through a driving rain to bridge spanning the Rhine. Running past onlookers, he crossed midway and leaped into the ice-choked waters. Some fishermen rowed after him and managed to bring him ashore. Clara now accepted the necessity of committing her husband to an asylum. A small, well-regarded facility near Bonn received the composer, but the resident physicians could do little for him.

 For more than two years Schumann languished without recovering. In the summer of 1856 Clara received word that his physical health was deteriorating rapidly. Fearfully, she went to see him for the first time since his abortive suicide attempt. “He smiled and embraced me with great effort,” she wrote in her diary. “My Robert, that’s how we have to meet again. With what effort I had to search for your beloved expressions. What a picture of pain!”

 Two days later it was over. The composer died alone in his room on 29 July 1856, his suffering finally ended.

 

Schumann’s Illness


 A number of medical investigators have taken up the difficult challenge of formulating a posthumous diagnosis of Schumann’s psychiatric illnesses and the related, but distinct, circumstances that lead to his death at age 46. Dr. Franz Richarz, who attended the composer during his final years, described him as suffering from “chronic melancholia”. While this term has no specific medical meaning today, it suggests a well-known modern psychiatric diagnosis, manic-depressive illness or “bipolar affective disorder”, to use the current label. Schumann’s swings between creative ebullience and paralyzing depression fit the main symptoms of this diagnosis. Moreover, in its extreme forms, manic-depressive illness brings on the type of psychotic experiences – hallucinations and delusions – that Schumann suffered during his final years.

 Schumann’s condition could well have been exacerbated by other illnesses. There is some evidence to suggest that he contracted syphilis as a young man, and may have used mercury treatments to quell the disease. Both the illness and the mercury cure might have damaged his nervous system. Bouts of malaria and tuberculosis during his early years also may have undermined his health generally. Schumann’s ultimate demise undoubtedly resulted from self-induced starvation. For weeks before his death he would take only a bit of wine and broth each day, and reports of his physical condition in the summer of 1856 indicate that he we severely malnourished.

Clara Schumann: Wife and Muse


Clara Schumann was the love of her husband’s life. She won his heart through a combination of affection, intelligence, shared sympathies and a high level of musicianship. The daughter of a respected music teacher, Friedrich Wieck, Clara developed into one of the outstanding pianists of her day. Franz Liszt, generally regarded as the greatest keyboard player of the nineteenth century, considered her a paragon of pianistic technique and poetic expression. Chopin and Mendelssohn, two other brilliant pianist-composers also praised her. From early adolescence, Clara toured Europe, performing in concert to great acclaim. But her musical activities extended beyond playing the piano. She showed considerable talent as a composer and produced piano solos, songs and orchestral scores. Ultimately she chose performing over composing. In doing so, she may have been intimidated by her husband’s phenomenal creativity. “I once thought that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea,” she confided to her diary in 1839, a time when Robert was reaching his first height of productivity. “A woman must not desire to compose. Not one has been able to do it, so why should I expect to?”

 As his devoted friend and wife, Clara became an integral part of Robert Schumann’s musical life. She encouraged her husband and championed his music, performing it at every opportunity. Schumann wrote most of his piano compositions with her in mind, either implicitly or explicitly, and dedicated a number of them to her. The A Minor Concerto, one of the works on these recordings, is merely the most famous of those pieces. Apart from their shared musical life, Clara was selfless in support of her husband. She clearly cared deeply for his welfare and did what she could to help him through his illness. She bore Robert seven children and proved a dutiful and loving mother.

 Many biographers and musicologists have speculated about Clara’s relationship with Johannes Brahms, who became acquainted with the Schumanns shortly before Robert’s final breakdown. It is clear that she and the younger composer cherished each other dearly, though it remains uncertain whether their affection had a physical dimension. In any case, the two remained close, writing to each other and sharing musical opinions throughout the rest of Clara’s life.

 Regardless of what intimacies she may have shared with Brahms, Clara remained essentially faithful to her husband and his spirit, though she outlived him by 40 years. She continued to promote his music after his death and eventually supervised the publication of a complete edition of his works.

 

Piano Concerto in A Minor, Opus 54


 
Schumann began thinking of writing a piano concerto as early as 1833, but half a decade passed without it materializing. In 1839 he promised Clara Wieck, then his fiancee, the dedication of this work. Two years passed before one movement was finished, which Schumann titled Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra and tried to publish as an independent piece. Not until 1845 did he write the remaining two movements to finish the Concerto as we know it today.

 Although composed by a man whose first ambition was to become a virtuoso pianist and who was married to one of the greatest keyboard artists of the nineteenth century, this work is not a showcase for bravura technique in the way that the concertos of Liszt or Rachmaninov are. Lacking not only the attraction of technical brilliance but also the sweeping grandeur that characterizes the most memorable Romantic concertos – those of Brahms or Tchaikovsky, for example – it nevertheless has become one of the most popular pieces of its kind in the repertory. Most remarkably, it is a work of strong formal unity despite being composed in stages over a period of years. Schumann links its three movements with subtle cross references – and a few obvious ones, too. The entire first movement is built on a single theme, and this subject reappears late in the second movement also. The main theme of the finale also is related to the first movement’s subject. Schumann adds to this a bountiful series of complimentary subjects and weaves his thematic material into one of the most satisfying concerto finales in the literature.

Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major, Opus 97, “Rhenish”


 Schumann composed his final symphony in the autumn of 1850, shortly after arriving in
Dusseldorf as director of the municipal orchestra and chorus there. It was actually composed later than his Symphony in D Minor, now known as the Fourth Symphony, which Schumann wrote in 1841 but released for publication a decade later.

 Although it is not a program symphony – that is, one with specifically descriptive music – this work is connected with the Rhine river, which flows through Dusseldorf. Schumann conceived the work during a trip on the river in September 1850. Moreover, he originally thought to call its second movement “Morning on the Rhine”, and the solemn grandeur of the fourth movement stems from a ceremony the composer and his wife witnessed at the Cologne cathedral, which lies downstream from Dusseldorf. For these and other references to the Rhine, the work is known as the “Rhenish” Symphony.

 The symphony unfolds in five movements, thus departing from the conventional four-movement format that Schumann normally employed. Its opening could be more arresting. Schumann launches immediately into an exultant theme that sets the tone of the first movement. Schumann calls the second movement “Scherzo”, though its initial theme seems more relaxed, in the character of a Rhineland folk dance, than this designation usually implies. The centerpiece of the symphony comes in a beautiful slow movement that shows Schumann’s gift for attractive melodic invention.

 The fourth movement is marked by an austere splendor and contrapuntal textures recalling music of an earlier era. In the wake of its grave music, the final sounds all the more radiant. This portion of the score reveals Schumann’s characteristic rhythmic vitality and, at its climactic moment, recalls the sequentially rising motive of the fourth movement.