John C. Tibbetts interviews Eric Sams
© John C. Tibbetts, 2004 (In The World of Robert Schumann Series)
[I’m much obliged to Dr. Tibbetts for the kind permission to reprint from his web-site www.johnctibbetts.com and to reproduce the unabridged audio file (with Eric Sams playing music examples at the piano) which sometimes differs from the transcript]
This interview transpired on 2 October 1988 at Dr. Sams’ home in Sanderstead, Surrey.
Q-Tibbetts—First, locate us geographically. Where are we from London?
A-Sams—Okay, well we live here in Sanderstead, Surrey which is near Croydon, which really counts as London. It’s really part of greater London and I’ve lived here for some time. I was a civil servant, a career civil servant for my working life, but I took the opportunity of early retirement and have spent ten happy years doing the kind of things that I really like to do.
Q—Located here, are you in proximity to some of the important library resources that you need?
A—Yes, I mean the essential thing for the researcher is to belong both to the British Library, the Library of the British Museum and the Students’ Room where they have all the great manuscripts including some Schumann and Schubert and Mozart and in many ways, best of all, the London Library which has a million books and is well stocked in music and the German nineteenth century which I try to specialize in and gives you access to the shelves which is the main thing. You don’t have to wait for your books.
Q—You must have had occasion then to travel as well. Where have you gone to research outside of London?
A—Well, I haven’t done much research outside of London. I actually had most of the time to earn a living. I’ve taught in North America and Canada and I’ve recently come back from a trip to Virginia.
Q—Although we will talk about Schumann presently, could you briefly recount some of your other projects, and especially the recent ones?
Shakespeare And Various Projects
A—Yes, well at the moment I’m deeply concerned with Shakespeare, the early Shakespeare plays. The point being that Shakespeare is alleged not to have written any major or known work until he was twenty-seven which strikes me as somehow inherently implausible. He’s not mentioned in the literature until 1592, that’s his twenty-seventh year and he must have written plays or something before then just as Mozart must have written music before he was twenty-seven. This much is manifest. And the question is, where are these plays now so one can cheerfully spend a long lifetime or two considering the literature and identifying the plays. I’ve recently edited one which I believe to be Shakespeare’s called Edmund Ironside which was produced at the Virginia Shakespeare Festival, Virginia Beach Shakespeare-by-the-Sea and was warmly received, I’m happy to say, by that community.
Q—It’s remarkable how an endeavor like this would seem to be so completely separated from your musical studies.
A—Well, I think that there are various interconnections. There are bound to be connections in all one’s fields of interests and they may be more apparent to other people than they are to one’s self. But I’m essentially, I think, a sort of small scale student of the small scale motif—the image and the motif in music and the image in poetry and, at the same time, concerned, perhaps for that very reason, though I haven’t thought about it, with the union of words and music, the actual point or root where these two great disciplines intermingle, mate and marry and produce interesting offspring.
Q—For those of us who associate you, musically speaking, with Schumann in our first breath, tell us what else you’ve been doing.
A—Well, a lot of the time I’ve been researching the byways of musical experience, illness and health in musicians. I’ve done some work on the diseases of Schumann and Schubert. I’ve published work on that and I’ve looked at the work of Elgar, as well as Schumann, and the link there is my interest in historical cipher and shorthand of all kinds. I began my working career as a cryptographer in the English Army Intelligence Corps in wartime and that interest has never left me. I mean it was a passionate boyhood interest about codes and ciphers generally and I find that sort of thing in music, and I find it also, actually, in the archives all over the world if you consider the world as a kind of ‘collection of archives’ a great deal of it is still hidden in darkness, shorthand people can’t read, codes and ciphers that people can’t read. The English Civil War, the American Civil War, The American War of Independence, and all manner of shorthand diaries like Pepys and Cromwell’s secretary in Scotland, William Clark, and so on. A great many of these things are unread and virtually unreadable.
Q—I was wondering about Dickens’ shorthand. Would you call that a kind of code?
A—No. I think Dickens wrote shorthand as a kind of speedwriting. His mind was so alert and active to the point in incoherence quite often that he simply had to get everything down on paper at a very great speed. The same is true of Bernard Shaw. They both learnt the same shorthand for the same reason. I think in the first place getting everything down out of their heads as soon as possible onto paper for reference purposes and also in Dickens’ case, it was working as a shorthand reporter in the House of Commons. That was profession on his part, but other shorthands are used for, like Pepys, for private diary entries and those are the ones that I find interesting. John Thompson, the Prime Minister of Canada, whose diaries were left in comprehensive form in booklet form and were unreadable, but actually the shorthand involved, once you start counting and classifying it, is quite easily retrievable if you’re interested in that kind of thing, so now all those shorthand diaries and records can be read and have been transcribed and are used by historians for biographies.
Q—Help me separate now your interest in the codes and Schumann’s music or did the interest in the music come first and was it fueled then by your interest in codes? Let’s begin with where you began.
A—Well, I think, in a sense, these things are aspects of one basic similar impulse, and I have some reason for thinking that because when I was young and interested in cipher, and volunteered for the intelligence corps—this happened to be, I discovered later, at a time when Churchill had decreed that secondary schools and young persons generally be combed and groomed and, if possible, be recruited for this very purpose—and the interviewer had certain questions to ask, and one of them was, “Can you play chess?” as you might imagine and the second was, “Do you like crosswords, and are you good at them?” and so on, but the third was, “Do you like music and can you read a musical score?” and it seemed to me then and it seemed to me every since that a clear correlation between interest in music and interest in cryptology. One point being, for what it’s worth, that generations of composers, whether they’re interested in cipher, or not, have thought of music as a kind of communication and, in particular, a secret language which is accessible only to the initiated. It’s often thought of like that exactly and that I think clear structural resemblances also exist between music and cipher.
Ciphers In Schumann
Q—And when did you begin to arrive at the impression that Schumann represents a significant figure in this regard?
A—Well, I heard that in the music. I heard it when one’s interested in Schumann of course, because, in my case, because I began as a linguist in the intelligence corps when I had to know a bit of German, and I offered that, and then if you’re interested in music and in German, well you’re bound to be interested in Lieder. So I was interested in that, but I didn’t hear cipher in Schumann until I heard the D Minor Symphony and what you hear in that is what everyone had heard in different generations. You hear monothematicism, to use one word for it. You hear the same thing and the same theme and almost in the same meaningful sense over and over again repeated almost obsessively. It’s not obtrusive when you first hear the Symphony, but when you get to hear this motif in your mind, this main theme that goes all through the work, you can’t get it out of your head that it is saying something and you wish to know what it is saying.
Q—And what was that pattern of notes?
A—Well, I think it is something like—well, you hear it in the Romance and you hear it at the beginning of the Symphony most clearly, and what it says is C, B, A, G#, A—in other words, C, something, A, something, A, and it’s perfectly clear that what it’s actually saying is Clara. I don’t mean that it’s actually depicting her in her various moods, but I mean that Schumann throughout the length of the Symphony had his wife and his relationship to her and his own feelings of guilt and unworthiness in that connection and his hope for later triumph and future happiness all go into the Symphony, and I think they all come to the ears of the listener through an awareness of that theme.
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Q—Now the movements are interconnected, of course, but can you find four separate manifestations then of that motto?
A—I think that motto occurs well over a hundred times. I’m speaking now of the first version of the Symphony. Well over a hundred times in the first movement alone, and it is the opening statement of the theme, and if I can just say to you—well, as you know, it begins with this theme (Sams plays) many times repeated and that’s a slow introduction to a later idea which goes like this (Sams plays)—and those last five notes are insistently repeated. And then, when the main theme begins (Sams plays), you hear it again and so on. Now I’m exaggerating the effect by just bringing out those notes, but if you listen with those notes in mind, you hear things like this (Sams plays) and what you’re hearing there with the last note omitted. When you next move to the Romance—and this is more overtly affectionate and tender music of the kind one might specifically consider to be love music—you hear this (Sams plays), and very beautiful it is too. And what that theme is, if you listen to it closely, is simply this (Sams plays) decorated. (Sams plays). And just as if to confirm that, as soon as that theme is completed, you hear the opening theme which you heard at the very beginning stated again on the strings (Sams plays). Then you say to yourself at this point and even earlier, something’s going on here. What is this theme that keeps going C, something, A, something, A? You can’t help saying to yourself, this must be an incitement on some method or other, perhaps arbitrary, perhaps on some predesigned plan but it’s an incitement of the name Clara and then you have that idea in your mind and you later come to read Schumann’s diaries and letters, and you see that in 1841, he says, “I will call my next symphonie ‘Clara’”—and really nothing could be clearer than even before reading that; and that is what happened. I’m quoting here from the second version, which is the first version heavily rescored and reorchestrated. Another thing you’ll find about the first version is Schumann referred to it as the “Clara Symphony.” It was his birthday present to her on the thirteenth of September, 1841. It was in connection with her birthday that he returned to it in 1853 and rescored it and added other interesting counterpoints, but generally thickened the textures. But what he also did was add additional Clara themes to reaffirm his devotion and loyalty and to reemphasize the meaning of the Symphony but also, in a way, to say it’s all right to do this now, because I’ve been doing this for the last thirty years, and no one has noticed. So we can make free with this idea, and it can be well used as a compositional device. And when he comes to the end to see the theme again in the major—the last movement is kind of a triumphant finale—and what it seems to say is in the musical language of the manic-depressive, that he has been—and I’m sure he had good reason for thinking this—that he has been guilty and unworthy of Clara and had all manner of Psychic problems and distress. But in the future, the music seems to say, all is going to be happiness, radiance, and light, and “I will prove worthy of her.” In thinking of the Clara Symphony, he isn’t just saying things about her; he’s saying things about himself and their relationship and making a programatic type of music pattern. That’s as I hear the music.
Q—It’s the only symphony that he revised—
A—Well, that’s true. This symphony bridges the years from 1841 to 1853. The First Symphony, the Spring Symphony is very similar in many ways, an autobiographical work, I’m sure, but it deliberately quotes a poem, a spring poem, and describes a kind of tonal analogue. It doesn’t overtly describe anything, but it makes a musical tonal symbol of the inner life of the composer, and it also tells you why those thoughts are worth having. Not just anyone’s thoughts, but they’re so deeply felt in structure that they become significant to him and for future generations. And the Third Symphony and the Second and Third Symphonies also are programatic, I’m sure, and they deal with life’s experiences and autobiographical material and I dare say they’re organized in much the same way.
Q—Do you see a unifying motif in the Third Symphony? A motto, say a rising arpeggio?
A—Yes, I think that in all these symphonies there is some basic motif, a kind of seed, a musical seed from which the entire work grows, and this was in many ways a novel method of composition. And it’s absolutely characteristic of Schumann, it seems to me, because he begins with the word in his songs; certainly, the seed is the word. Everything grows from that, and from the poem. You can hear it. Hugo Wolf heard that, and it was an inspiration to him, and what you hear in Schumann is a word or name, a basic central idea from which the whole marvelous music evolves; and I daresay, in many cases the first idea was just such an incitement as this in the D minor.
Q—And of course we can’t leave this without noting briefly that the literary background which Schumann had came to him via a very natural source, his father. Any comments on the extent of that exposure through his father that he had?
A—Well, it’s quite profoundly said, “Like father, like son.” There can be no clearer case than Schumann, whose father was certainly among the most literary persons of his generation. Not especially creatively gifted, but the most bookish person it is possible to imagine, someone who actually had his own lending library, his own bookshop, who edited, who wrote a bit, who contributed to gazetteers, who produced in Zwickau near Leipzieg a personal one-man revolution in the history of German publishing which is not to this day been sufficiently documented or studied. He was exceedingly influential, not only through his son, but at the production at an early informative stage of German literary studies in cheap pocket editions for the ordinary persons. The social significance of this was far-reaching.But let’s not forget also that Schubert, his immediate predecessor, was in much the same position. His father was a schoolmaster and, though not as active as Schumann’s father in the literary field, was an exceedingly well-read man; and it’s hard for me to believe that any person, any German-speaking person of the nineteenth century was better read and better equipped than Schubert, who actually had read the poetic sources that his songs derive from. And he had read all the works, apart from the songs that he actually selected to use. Not only that but he read all the journals of the time in which poems were printed in all manner of languages, Hebrew, English. All these he studied. He was an amazingly comprehensively literary figure. And exactly the same is true for Wolf for exactly the same reason. That he was brought up in a bookish household and his father was a well-read literary person.This did not apply to Brahms, whose father was much more a musician than any kind of verbal or literary mind.
Q—Is it safe to say that when Schumann first began his own journeys as a young man, from Heidelburg—he went to Switzerland and Italy and all that—that maybe in his head was echoing the words chronicling the adventures of Franz Sternbald? Do you think he may have consciously have seen himself as following in that “wunderlust?”
A—Well, two or three things really: First of all, the young German of the time traveled extensively. That was the way of the young German cultivated artist ever since Goethe. As in the earlier centuries, the young Englishmen have done the Grand Tour. Since Goethe, everyone had to go to Italy and everyone had to travel and see the world. And secondly, this was in any case a young man’s natural impulse—to see the world a bit, to create, to receive impressions; and then, if one’s an artist, to recreate those impressions in one’s own way. And the more boundaries one could extend and the more horizons one can perceive, why the more finished and complete an artist one is. And thirdly, Schumann as a composer in the Romantic tradition naturally takes an interest in the whole known physical world, including world geography, because nothing less than the universal is his declared aim. When Schumann started to write songs, he chose not only the German language but translations from English, Greek, French, etc. He wanted to master the literature of every known country and visit it if at all possible with his own person. It’s just a general aspect of exploration, mental and aesthetic exploration, where you have to cover as much ground as possible, literally as well as metaphorically, and then come back and tell people what you’ve seen and experienced.
Schumann’s Dual Nature
Q—Before we get to the songs specifically, you mentioned manic depression a moment ago. We think of the Florestan-Eusebius-Raro triumvirate there. What is this telling us about Schumann, specifically, that he would adopt a strategy like this in his writing and in his music?
A—Well, I think what the Romantic artist does is to relate himself directly to the world. Not merely in a trivial romantic way by his telling us all about his life and loves and so on, but in a serious romantic way because it’s a music of the brain as well as the heart. He ought to tell us about his intellectual experience and the way he conceives the world philosophically; to see the world through his own eyes and his own personality. And in Schumann’s case, that personality, perhaps not by chance, happened to be dual. It is a feature of the German Nineteenth Century that its songwriters certainly had cyclic tendencies, to put the thing mildly. In extreme cases they were manic-depressive psychotics. One could put it that way.
Q—And then when you say manic-depressive, you mean Florestan as the former and Eusebius as the latter…?
A—Well, I think that’s a useful general equivalent. Those ideas, I’m sure, were borrowed from the German novelist Jean Paul Richter, especially in a book called Die Flegeljahre, which is about two brothers, Walt and Vult, who indeed show these characteristics—but in Richter, particularly and in the German Romantic Movement generally. Everything stems from, as it were, two different poles of our perception. It’s like stellar parallax—if you have your two observatories a long way away from each other, you can see stars that are much farther away. It’s like that, and if you understand the heights of exultation and the depths of despair through personal experience, you’re that much better equipped as an artist, I reckon, to interpret and describe.
Q—Does this dichotomy have anything to do with incipient signs of mental illness, in your opinion?
A—Well, I think not. I’ve never heard Schumann’s music or his personality or his psychology as one reads it in his notebooks and diaries as anything other than basically sound, sane, human and, if in any way unusual, unusual only in its genius not in any way neurotic or, least of all, psychotic.
Q—Let me state it another way. Might it have been a way for him to heal himself at maybe a critical point in his youth?
A—That may well be the case. He, as we know, had a difficult youth. He was fatherless in his formative years and spent many years undisciplined in a kind of mental chaos, but this is regular routine for Romantic artists. Nothing is special or unusual in that. It’s the way the world of art had evolved. It was then an emphasis not on society as an ordered structure, but society and human aspiration as perceived through the prism of the individuals. That was his real function as an artist, to join in that movement and express it thus and his psychological difficulties were, I’m sure, expressed in a way, the way, his way of dealing with them is as of two personalities. He started a novel, after all, on the same lines as Richter in which there are these two contrasting characters which were his own, but I think he was saying, telling us no more than something rather deep and significant about the human artistic creative personality in general. That it is indeed bipolar. That it does consist of two different aspects and two different ways of looking at the world, and those two together make a great truth. It’s perspective.
Q—Nonetheless, you see this as more than mere imitation of Jean Paul. This is a significantly Schumannian thing to do?
A—It is a significantly a Schumannian thing, but within the context of the Romantic Movement of the nineteenth century. Schumann is not alone in this regard. There are many, many parallels in music and in other arts, and in England the great composer Edward Elgar had almost exactly the same kind of personality, if I hear and interpret it right. In both cases, they take such varied and surprising forms like being interested in the language of flowers. Schumann was very interested in the language of flowers and wrote a piano piece called “Blumenstuck.” One of Elgar’s earliest songs is called "The Language of Flowers," and so on. Both of them discovered how to write the name Bach—Bb, A, C, B natural, which is in German on four different staves, one note on four different staves. This idea occurred to Elgar when he was eight years old. It is a remarkable enigmatic kind of mind and it is, in its way, arcane, but it is the artistic way of expressing, I think, some deep and significant truth about human personality which is you see things better if you see them from different points of view.
Schumann As Critic
Q—Is it significant for you that Schumann would also use these persona, not just for musical utterance, but for speech utterance in his music criticism?
A—Well, I think that’s a very sound point. What you’re hearing in the best kind of Romantic music is not just the composer but the whole man. He’s speaking as an artist, as a musician, certainly, but also in his capacity as writer. He was a great prose writer, and reader, the kind of words he uses, the kind of music he prefers, all his utterances in any art form whatever, and, I’m sure, also, in his ordinary daily social intercourse made up of this same pattern, this same genetic pattern which, in a way, one can’t choose. It’s part of his endowment, also significantly part of his artistic development, the expressive genius. Not only of Schumann, but of Elgar. I’m sure he was heavily under Schumann’s influence.
Q—Among the three persona we’ve mentioned, however, I’m most perplexed by Raro. R-A-R-0. Now as a cryptographer, you must make a great deal of that.
A—Oh, I can make something of it straight away, and that is, it is simply the end of Clara and the beginning of Robert, and where the two join. It’s symbolic of their marriage and their union and it was Schumann’s name.
Q—So now whenever we hear utterances like the poet speaks or the epilogues to some of the song cycles, there are those who would suggest this is a “Raro voice” speaking, a mediator, an assessor of things.
A—Well, for one thing, I think we can be fairly sure that is one aspect of Schumann wearing one or another of his magic robes and perhaps his Raro is his incantatory, Prospero-like persona; but I think it would be also true to say that all these appearances and apparitions are, first of all, aspects of Schumann but most of all, above all, aspects of the human situation, the human personality, the human problem as he saw these things. He wished to be a universal artist, not merely autobiographical, but to record the whole of human experience, and I think he did so with great success.
Q—Which brings us inevitably, to the “Davidsbundler Dances,” one of the most remarkable works of this time, certainly. Is this music that you’ve ever studied in this regard? What impressions might you offer on it?
A—Well, I think the “Davidsbundler Dances” is one of a series of—it’s very hard to describe these ideas because no one else has ever had them quite so clearly as Schumann did—but essentially, it’s conceiving the world, the universe, the cosmos as a kind of dance, especially one’s own personal circle. The personal circle begins as a dance, and you imagine in it all one’s friends, all one’s acquaintances, all those who one has loved, living or dead, are suddenly present as musical entities and are dancing and delighting us in their dancing but also the same time saying something significant about human life and circumstance. “Davidsbündler,” as the name implies, are about his various friends and allies in the new German music that he was driving towards and did so much to establish in reality. And they’re also notable, I think, for a Clara theme which unifies them and which is the theme I’ve drawn attention to in the D Minor Symphony, but reversed simply. One can’t, after all, over and over use the same theme, but “Davidsbundler” has that theme in retrograde form, that is to say, B, A#, B, C#. Well, the whole work begins with what’s called a motto from Clara Wieck—her initials again. Schumann liked to be as mystifying as possible, even when the thing was entirely clear and simple.And it begins (Sams plays), and that is a quotation from a mazurka that the young Clara had written; but it’s also reminiscent of a German folksong, (Sams plays). It’s about a new dawn in Schumann’s life, as much of his music is. Each of his ideas takes on new and novel turns, and he’s writing music which predicts himself into the future, (Sams plays), which is the Clara motif transposed and simply reversed. This kind of motif makes a great deal of the music, and you hear it throughout, just at the opening of various pieces like this—(Sams plays several simple five-note themes). There are others here (Sams plays). These are the beginnings of various pieces. Here’s another. (Sams plays).
And this all begins, I think, in “Papillons.” Schumann has discovered a kind of theme which joins his name to Clara’s. He calls himself “Florestan” and “Eusebius,” and these are F, F#, actually, and E. And then we have a Clara theme (Sams plays), and then you come back again. And you can play that in any way you like. You can invert it. Instead of having (plays) it going down and then up, you can go up and then down (plays). “Papillon,” of course, was one of his very first piano pieces, and the idea is the same— that here we have partners, friends, and lovers, allies in the great struggle, all dancing together and appreciating each other’s life and art. It’s a “papillon” because it’s the same backwards and forwards, and if you imagine to yourself what a butterfly looks like (Sams plays) and draw that piece on a modern piece of manuscript paper, you can see that the idea that it’s a butterfly’s wings. And there’s another tie-up, which is this: In German, “larva” means the larva of a butterfly, but it also means a mask. Every time he writes these pieces, the idea is presenting a masked entity projecting onto music paper the personality of a friend, exactly as Elgar was to do later in the "Enigma Variations."
And he comes to write “Carnaval” which is another exactly similar set of pieces—a dance, as a carnival would imply. They’re carnival dances and each one of them has a different title including “Florestan and Eusebius,” it’s himself in all his various guises. It’s Clara in all her various guises and disguises, dancing at a masked ball; and the notes used are the musical notes in Schumann’s own name, that is to say the note A, the note S (which happens to be Es in German, pronounced S, but which is German for E), C (which is C and H, which in German means the note B). So (Sams plays) that makes straightaway a theme you can use.And another thing he does, which I’m sure, no one has done before or thought of doing, is to play these notes A-S-C-H. AS in German means the note A; C is the note C; and H, as we saw, is the note B. And what he does is to play them together, as a chord (plays), and a very nasty noise it makes! That would occur to him really quite naturally and simply as a way of writing a word or an idea.
When he comes to write the “Abegg Variations,” his first piano piece, he invents a name “Abegg.” It was actually someone’s name but that’s not the main point. It’s a character drawn in music. A, B—which is B is German, ABEGG. And there you use the same idea a little lower (plays) and and then you have a very sweet tune which you can improvise on. But later on that same tune disappears. We have Abegg—A, and then the three notes together as a chord, (plays) and slowly each one of them is taken off and this happens again in “Papillons” and it means the idea of disappearance. The imaginary figure is as if in a dream, and it disappears in front of your very eyes. The whole music is meant to symbolize a vanishing, which is a very strange thought, but then Schumann in many ways had a very strange mind.
Q—And might I also propose that Keats’ line, “music heard is sweet, music unheard is sweeter?”
A—Well, that’s a very good example of it, isn’t it?
Q—Does it also indicate an interest in pure sound at this point?
A—Yes, and I think that Schumann’s interest in pure sound, as you say, in pure sonority and what could be done with veils of sound, veils being withdrawn or veils being added, had a great influence on the later French school who, I’m sure, were very strongly influenced by Schumann in that regard as in many others.
Whither Florestan and Eusebius?
Q—As follow-up to this issue of personalities and their translation into notes—in his later music Florestan and Eusebius seem to disappear. At least they disappear in terms of his employment of the names. In your opinion, do the characteristics of both continue in the later music?
A—Well, I think two things happened. I think first of all the idea, perhaps, was arguably overworked. It never became outworn. It retained its freshness to the last. The musical differentiating in “Florestan” and “Eusebius” in all the piano works, including the sonatas, is always very effective. But two things happened. First of all one tired of it a bit as an idea; secondly, the personality became better integrated. I don’t mean by that that the dual personality was in any way, in any serious way, neurotic. It’s simply that with advancing age, the two halves or the two different aspects of one’s personality, as in that respect as in others, alas, do begin to foreclose. One gets a kind of foreshortening of the personality so that it seems it may even be a kind of deterioration that age brings, but it can be represented also as a better integrated personality.
Q—Would that be part and parcel of the suggestion that once he’s a married man and father that a greater conventionality would then reduce his reliance on such devices?
A—Well, it’s partly, isn’t it, the orderly progression from youth to maturity to middle age and later life? One does begin, as a young person, full of amazing notions, including various rebellions, revolutionary ideas, quite original ideas which are to change the world. And later on one discovers the world is on the whole very much the same place, though enriched by it, in Schumann’s case, to a very great extent. But he would have certainly seen there was no longer the need for him to have such amazingly original and unusual notions. In the first place, it would be true to say they would not be well-received in the Germany of his time and it may well by the case as one has heard said that his wife Clara was more Biedermeier, more bourgeois in her attitudes, and would have suggested to him that it was really time to settle down musically as well as domestically. But I think I hear such remarks as calumnies against Clara who was, it seems to me, in many ways the ideal musician, and who was really never, never opposed to invention or originality on any kind of basic principle, but really speaking always from her musical heart and saying sincerely what she felt. And she was herself no mean composer, so it’s hard for me to believe that she would have chided Schumann for originality. I think it’s just the ordinary progression of a composer’s development. In many ways youth is the time for experimentation, and maturity is the time for retrenchment, and I think Schumann in that respect, as in so many, was typical of his age and indeed of great art generally.
Researching Schumann—The “Hand” Controversy
Q—Let’s do change the course a bit. Place in time when you began to research relatively non-musical problems, like that of Schumann’s hand.
A—Well, what happens is that one begins to research Schumann, and then, when you do that, you move into every known area of his life and work. Of course, the big problem about him, one problem everyone comes up against straightaway, is what happened to his hand. There have been various theories about that, but it was always clear to me that there was something very mysterious about it. For example, Clara Schumann, in later life, when asked which finger he had done absolutely could not remember, and it strikes me that there’s something very strange indeed about that. If one actually has damaged a finger because of, as has often been suggested, injudicious over-exercise at the keyboard, Clara Schumann (who knew him well at this time) would surely know what the cause of it was, what damage had been done, and how and what finger was affected. But these things she did not know and the conclusion from that is, it seems to me, that no such thing had actually occurred; that he had not damaged his finger in the course of ordinary overexertion at the keyboard.Another reason for thinking that is almost nobody else has done that. There have been many pianists and many assiduous practicers, but records of people who have practiced so assiduously as to cripple or disable themselves at the keyboard are very rare. It would be a very peculiar and odd thing to do so. One has to look for some other explanation. One can’t help noticing that the German biographies say pretty clearly or hint rather extensively that Schumann suffered from syphilis, as a great many poets and composers did in the nineteenth century. And this was the reason for his later insanity, as in many other cases—Baudelaire instantly comes to mind, and many others, like Hölderlin, a German poet of the period. And then one has to have regard to principles of economy in reasoning. Is it possible to suggest that there is some one cause which unites all these three things and explains the whole of Schumann’s medical history, including the damage to his finger? I daresay that he did damage his arm or his finger mechanically by a fall or something, and the medical evidence seems to suggest that that is the case. Not by practicing, but simply by falling over, perhaps in one of his tipsy fits because he drank very heavily in his youth, in his university days at the time when this injury occurred.
Q—And at this moment, I might ask what your reaction is to Dr. Ostwald’s supposition that it is the trigger finger of the right hand that is affected—at the very moment that he’s eligible for military service?
A—Well, I happen to think that no doubt it was the trigger finger that was affected because there was damage to the hand and it did last, and I think the archive evidence that I turned up does really rather suggest that there was genuine, actual damage to the hand and the actual incidence was not in any way what is called psychosomatic. I find that very hard to believe that there was actually nothing wrong with his hand. Clearly something was wrong with his hand.
Q—So the exemption from the military service was just a by-product of this. It was not the stimulating cause?
A—I wouldn’t have thought so. I think that the evidence in the notebooks and in the letters, in absolutely manifest and clear. Something was wrong with the hand. But what caused it? I think not piano playing or piano practice. That would really be too absurd for Schumann who was not only a great composer but also a pianist of potentially world-class, according to Friedrich Wieck, who was well placed to judge. He was going to make Schumann into a pianist of the capabilities of Franz Liszt, and turn him into a touring virtuoso. And indeed so much of the Schumann piano music does suggest that his technical abilities were of the off-the-list category, and he was able to play and write music even when his hand was damaged. Although something was wrong with it, one has to wonder what it was and whether it had remissions and so on. And I happened to see in a German medical encyclopedia what kind of treatments were recommended for the kind of condition that Schumann had, and I discovered that the treatments that he was prescribed by his doctors were treatments for, according to this encyclopedia, damage to the nerves, peripheral neuritis or palsy caused by metal poisonings. You know, mercury was used by other professions, like hatters in the nineteenth century, hence the expression “mad as a hatter,” because it gives you the shakes and the palsy. And I reflected, might not Schumann’s hand injury been caused by mercury medication, mercurical medication, which he would have been given in the ordinary course of his syphilis? That seems a plausible explanation to me.
The Syphilis Theories
Q—Now, there are then those who say it would be unusual that a symptom of syphilis would be confined to the hand.
A—Perhaps I haven’t made myself clear. I think that the hand injury was caused by mercury poisoning, and he was given the mercury for his syphilis. Now the syphilis hypothesis explains all the manifestations of illness that Schumann had from the initial contraction, the expansion of the pupils to the final general paralysis of the insane. The whole case history is a classic case of nineteenth century syphilis, of which there is a great deal of medical record and expert testimony. All the illnesses and symptoms, including a genital lesion, which he describes in his diaries, are explained very simply. From that first genital lesion to the final death by general paralysis, the history of nineteenth century syphilis could not be more classical or characteristic.
Q—When did you first publish this research?
A—Well, I think I would have to consult my records for that. It was first published in December, 1971, and later taken up by a great authority on both psychiatry and general medicine, Dr. Elliot Slater. He is notable in this country for his work, and in an article published in the Schumann Symposium, argued that this was a plausible explanation of the hand injury, of the aggravation of the hand injury.
Q—How long did it take people to respond to the article after it was published?
A—The article about the hand injury? Well, I’ve had almost no reaction to any of these articles. I mean, one doesn’t expect—one or two people might write in and make points, make contributions, offer comments, new information, new ideas, which is interesting. There’s a certain amount of correspondence, which develops with people over the years; but I would very surprised if, in this field there were any striking reactions. It hasn’t been the case.
Q—The 1985 biography by Dr. Peter Ostwald does present a counter response, however.
A—Well, I haven’t read his book for some little time. I did review it for the Sunday Times when it first appeared. My impression was that it doesn’t rely as much as it should on actual hard evidence. What one has to do, I’m sure, in considering this or any other question, is to begin by soberly setting out the facts, and on that basis, offering some kind of general hypothesis on the basis, purely, of the facts as they are recorded and documented in archives. And one begins by setting out on a piece of paper what those facts are and what their sources are. If one does that, I think one comes to the kind of conclusion that music historians have come to about Schumann throughout the ages, namely that he was, alas, a syphilitic. It seems sensible to explain all his physical ailments and symptoms, and indeed some of his psychic ailments and symptoms, as well on those grounds and those grounds alone, unless one has clear evidence or proof of other intercollated conditions.
Q—The fact that in Schumann’s life and work there is a sporadic returning to creative exuberance in no way minimizes your theory, then?
A—Well, I think on the contrary. It’s entirely consistent with the theory that Schumann was a sane, ordinary, generally a rather happy human being who was prone occasionally to melancholy as many people are who happen to suffer from syphilis; and therefore, was transformed into a hypochondriac as well as a very ill person because he knew, you see, because knowing the study of the textbooks of the time, he knew where that road led. He knew that it would lead to his madness and general paralysis of the insane which is exactly where it did lead. A person who knows his fate that far ahead may be forgiven for occasionally having certain misgivings and indeed exhibiting psychic symptoms of one kind or another. Anyone would do that, any ordinary, normal person with that sort of Damocles hanging over their heads would respond in exactly the same way. Now I think that if Schumann had been a schizophrenic in the clinical sense, his creativity would certainly have been damaged. Creative schizophrenics, so far as I’m aware, who are at a very high level of artistic genius have not been observed. The fact is that schizophrenia damages creativity, and Schumann’s creativity was not damaged. It’s perfectly clear to me, therefore, that he was not a schizophrenic in any sensible sense of that term, certainly not in your accredited clinical sense of that term.
Q—Is there anything about the subsequent treatment and aftermath of Schumann’s incarceration that bothers you, frustrates you, leaves you full of questions?
A—No, I think that the Schumann story is, alas, in many ways too clear. It is the classic syphilitic syndrome of its time leading to madness, attempted suicide—exactly as in the case of Hugo Wolf, who was also syphilitic and attempted death by drowning. The clinical picture seems to me absolutely clear, and many distinguished philologists and venereologists have said exactly the same, and I think they’re right.
Q—So, in short, nothing that has been suggested by other biographers that has changed your mind?
A—Put like that, it sounds just a little hidebound. My position is that one has to have regard to the evidence, and the evidence and the consensus is absolutely, certainly, beyond any possible doubt that Schumann was a syphilitic. Everyone’s been saying this ever since he first went into the hospital at Endenich about 150 years ago, but I see no further actual evidence from the archive to dispose anyone to change that view.
The Schumann Children
Q—What about the children that came after? Anything about their lives that either supports or denies that idea?
A—Well, the Schumann children had a very unfortunate medical history. Some of the girls were quite long-lived and presumably they weren’t touched by the illness at all. It is something, after all, that has its effects in rather unpredictable ways. But it is worth noting that Ludwig spent all his days in an asylum, and he suffered from some disease of the spinal marrow which is consistent with a syphilitic parentage. There were various miscarriages, and other of the Schumann children died young—Felix from tuberculosis, I think at a very early age, and Julie, also, early. The clinical picture is, again, consistent with the history of syphilis.
Q—Does this include Clara, then?
A—Well, I think Schumann as a proper citizen with special probity would have made absolutely sure that in accordance with the medical knowledge at the time at least, that he was healed before he married.
Q—Now, when you say healed, that is to say, the ongoing illness could not be arrested, but the immediate problem was healed. Is that what you mean?
A—I think that he was not infectious.
Q—Would Father Wieck have known anything about this or suspected?
A—I’m sure. And I’m sure that’s why he objected so strenuously to the marriage. He objected strenuously really beyond the bounds of all reason and conscience. He’d made incredible efforts. He was determined to stop that marriage, and if your prospective son-in-law had syphilis, wouldn’t you?
Q—Would he then, have been justified in saying so straight out? I don’t think he ever really did.
A—It was the kind of thing that wasn’t said, and perhaps he wasn’t in a position to say so. However, when Schumann first consulted a doctor, it was Wieck who went with him because Schumann’s father had died and Wieck was in loco parentis. He was the only father that Schumann had, and they went together to consult the doctor.
Q—Does it bother you, however, that there’s not a single reference to it in anything we know that Wieck wrote or said?
A—In the first place, I think these things were unmentionable. In the second place, Wieck was not in a position wholly to be sure. Everything he could conceivably accuse Schumann of, like drunkenness, he did. But Drunkenness was comparatively respectable. Syphilis was, I suppose, the equivalent to AIDS now. One would be reluctant to make precise accusations if one wasn’t actually medically sure oneself.
Q—Dr. Ostwald suggests that the immediate cause of Schumann’s death was self-starvation. Does that in any way invalidate or confirm your own theory?
A—I don’t know of any reason for thinking that. I think it’s quite common of cases of paresis, that during the ultimate stages of general paralysis the patient stops taking food. But that Schumann deliberately did so in order to starve himself to death seems to me merely theoretical, not to say hallucinatory.
Research and “Detection”
Q—Whether we talk about music or the biography, we seem to be employing a kind of detective inquiry, don’t we?
A—Well, I think that’s the right way to approach all problems. It’s not coincidence that people like Sherlock Holmes and other detectives in fiction, or Hercules Poirot, are notorious for approaching the problem always in the same kind of way which is to set down the facts. In many of the stories, part of the novel, part of the actual fiction is taken up by telling the reader certain lists of suspects, motives and so on and the actual facts of the case, especially times and dates and alibis, where were certain people on certain dates and so on. I think you have to begin with a meticulous survey of the actual dates and facts, in so far as they’re known. Of course, the process of inductive inference is dependent on getting, if possible, all the facts and getting the right facts. And you might by unfortunate mischance get the wrong facts or the facts might lead you to a mistaken conclusion, but there’s no cure for that,. The process is ineluctable. You have to follow these steps in the solving crossword puzzles. You have certain conditions you have to comply with. You can’t just write in anything that comes into your head. It has to be the right number of letters long and so on, and chess problems are faced with the same predicament that you actually have a design or pattern on the board which is there, which is given. So, yes, you have to begin with the data. And the only way from the data to conclusion is by means of these accredited processes of inductive inference.
The Song Research
Q—Does that mean that I can suggest that you approach the body of songs with something of that spirit?
A—Well, I would like to think so. I mean one of the things one is doing for better or for worse, in discussing any kind of art form, is saying what one likes personally; and the fact of personal liking or affinity gives one a certain reason at least, if not a certain right, for talking about a particular thing with enthusiasm and love so that one’s very favorite things are discoursed upon with hopefully as much pleasure as they have given. So there’s first of all the aesthetic affinity of pleasure or love, to find no better word. But then having said that, there are also certain problems to solve if you’re talking about any corpus or body or work. Some question arises like what is the date of this work? Is it late or early? Some of the Schumann songs have late dates, but they look remarkably like the early style, so it’s possible to say in some cases by applying what seem to be the right principles of research, to give reasons for saying this is an early work and then later on, if a manuscript, an early draft turns up with an early date, well, that’s very gratifying.
Q—Among all of your works about all kinds of subjects, your book on the songs may not be the most widely disseminated, even though it’s the work that most identifies you in the minds of so many with a particular subject. Is it one of your significant products?
A—Well, I would like to think that the main works are the books on the songs. Wolf was my first love. The first love of any songwriter who’s any critic, who’s also a musician and a poet is bound to be Schubert because that’s where song as I understand it really begins and ends. It happens to be, not by any coincidence, a nineteenth century art form. The birth of Schubert to the death of Wolf is the nineteenth century minus or plus three years. This is not coincidence. It is a romantic and individualized art form. But what you’re attending to is the significant marriage of music and words so that at every turn, one is confronted by problems which one tries to resolve, like the question of dating. Another thing I’ve done is to try to establish the worklist for Schubert and Wolf and Schumann in Groves Dictionary. But one has to begin with Wolf because he’s much more manageable than Schubert. Schubert wrote well over 600 songs, and one feels one will never know them all. It’s taken me about as long to compile a card index of them as it did for him to write them.So Hugo Wolf is more manageable, so one has to begin with him. And then Schumann. So those are the two things that I really set out to do, to try to write books which would serve the purpose of informing people, telling them something about what the German means and so on and what the song is all about; and hopefully, making a few converts. I’ve tried to do that with Schumann and Wolf, and if I’m spared, I shall try to do the same with Brahms.
Q—For a person who is confronted with a bookshelf of treatments of the Schubert and Schumann songs, how then does yours assume an identity separate from those?
A—Well, the identity offered—I mean the persona offered—is one of a perceiving person who has the basic qualification for discourse on these topics—that is to say, in the first place, loving most of them and liking, or at least respecting all of them. I heard my very first Schubert song sung fifty-two years ago, so I’m quite familiar with these masterpieces now and have been familiar with them for some time. So the first qualification is love and respect and knowledge. And then the second impulse is to say something about them to people who might not have had the chance I have had to know them quite so well. So it’s two things really. First of all, having received from Schubert, or whoever it may be, some impulse and then one wishes to just propagate that wave like a radio wave in others and, if possible, to make converts to this great music which I have no doubt at all enriches and enhances life beyond measure for those fortunate enough to participate in it.
Q—How could we even begin to be able to sum up? The wealth of wonders, especially communicable ones, that you find in the Schumann songs. You’ve talked about one motif of Clara being in the D Minor Symphony. Have you smelted down a collection of motifs into one or is there a multitude of them?
Songs and Language Motifs
A—There are a multitude of them. What I’ve tried to do in the Schumann book and in the Wolf book is to compile a kind of breviary, a vocabulary of meaningful motifs. Wagnerians know that there are motifs in the various operas and they have the great advantage of having them classified alphabetically at the beginning of the vocal scores. If you want to know what the “Swan” motif is in Parsifal, look it up under “Swan.” And that’s a kind of code, incidentally, the purpose of which is to symbolize, almost in a codified way, the ideas you’re supposed to have when you hear this music. Well, the relationship of opera to song is something like this—that an opera is a much more public thing, and a song is a much more private thing. The motivic elements of song, are much less public, much less overt, much less deliberate than they are in Wagner, and some might say for that very reason more interesting. They operate at the purely intuitive, subconscious level where, for many people, great art is at its most effective. It’s worth it, I think, to try to register and classify the motivic ideas of Hugo Wolf when he wanted to express such notion as the increasing effects or intensities of light. He has a musical way of doing that which one can hear, but which might not be obvious to everyone. It is, therefore, worth noting this so that when you hear it or see it in the words and listen to it in the music, you get an extra added idea. Music, especially the song, is greatly enhanced by approaching it with one’s own personal imagination, right or wrong. One actually has to contribute something to the music as well as having it contribute to one’s own psyche and pleasure. You have to bring something to it as if it were a person. The idea is to establish a kind of lexicon or breviary of motifs in Schumann and Wolf. I can help towards the appreciation of those masters. And I have ready, more or less ready, for when the time comes, a comparable lexicon of motific writing in Brahms and in Schubert. But that’ll take a few more years yet.
Q—In your book then, how do you communicate this to the reader? Do you give them some of these motifs or motto in a simplified form?
A—Yes, well, I’ve thought about this a great deal. In broadcasting or discourse you can actually play the examples on the piano or you can do an excerpt from the song and you can relate that to the words of the song. Thus, one makes one’s meaning clear. In the form of the printed word, I think the only possible device is to give a musical example. So the idea in the Schumann and Wolf books is to illustrate with actual musical examples in given context with given meanings what the music actually sounds like—whether in direct quotation or in a simplified form—from the actual score on the page and rely on the reader to read music.
Q—I’ve been struck by the fact that the conversation I’ve had with pianist Joerg Demus some time ago seems to be following a parallel track. He talked about the importance of the piano writing, for example, in the Schumann songs. He finds lots of figurations and things that you can trace back into the solo piano works where you see parallels and consistencies.
A—Well, I entirely agree with it. In the song-writing of great masters, especially Schumann, you can certainly find parallels in the piano music. Indeed, I would be prepared to argue this quite strenuously. What the German lied is, in its essence, is a keyboard art form. This fact is usually withheld from singers because it’s bad for their morale. But pianists know and musicologists know that it is a keyboard art form. It develops from piano music.Well, one of the more obvious motifs throughout German music are the various of depicting nature. And the German art song takes a great deal of its inspiration from poetry which is drawn directly from descriptions of nature so you have to have a musical palette, so to speak, like an artist has. You can dip in your brush and musically, you can depict such ideas as the movement of leaves or the movement of waves, the ripple of waves, the lisp of leaves and so on. And Schumann has all these very typical associations. A song for example, the famous "Der Nussbaum", has to depict the idea of waving foliage (Sams plays) like this. Simple arpeggios throughout the piece which are entirely unobtrusive, but which heard in conjunction with the melodic line and the words conjure up in your mind, and are deliberately intended to, the picture of waving foliage. And there are all sorts of movements of waves like this (Sams plays) in a song called “Die Lorelei.” Now these movements are enhanced by further pictures which are derived from the heart of the German woodland, and the main thing here is the so-called “horn passage” (Sams plays). Anything like that means the hunt. And this can appear in any sort of guise. In a song, for example, called “Im Walde,” there’s a description of a hunting party that suddenly passes by and the music has (Sams plays) the same kind of music that would be written for horns in couples or in quartets. This helps to create atmosphere in songs that mere words don’t actually tell you. And the music begins in a prelude and it is only later that you hear the words and know what the music is about. When it begins like this (Sams plays), that passage tells you that the scene is set in a woodland. So that when the words begin, “It is already latest, it is already cold, why are you riding lonely through the woodland?”, you know something before that word is sung. You know already what the song is about. The scene is set. The ideal Schumann song prepares the listener in various ways for the musical ideas that are going to be expressed in the poem. It also enhances those ideas in quite unexpected ways.Here, for example, is the famous song called “Mondnacht,” just the piano part; and the repeated chords here are about the stillness of the night. The harmony doesn’t move (Sams plays) and you are to understand when you hear that music as you would hear a long note in music often means or stands for the moonlight, as in the Overture to Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream or Debussy’s Clair de Lune. A long held note means Moonlight, and in Schumann’s songs repeated chords mean the stillness of the night. At the same time as you hear that, you hear in the left hand the notes, E,H,E —“H” being “B” in German. And Schumann has written to his fiance, Clara Wieck, that an idea has just occurred to him. What a musical word marriage this is. Now this song is about the sleeping landscape and the beauty of the moonlit night, but the words happen to begin with a metaphor: “It was as if the sky had silently kissed the earth”; and in Schumann’s mind, this music moves into a dream of married love. And he actually sets the scene and creates the mood by writing in music the word, “ehe,” in the left hand like this (Sams plays). Really it could hardly be more clear or explicit.
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Q—You tell me. What is a negative criticism you’ve received for this kind of work, and how do you respond to that?
A—It’s quite often said, and I have a certain sympathy for this asseveration, that music is after all, music and cipher is cipher, and never the twain shall meet (or at least they never meet in any significant measure). And I can see why that’s said, but it seems to me to rest on a misapprehension. What cipher is when it turns into music is music and that’s really all you hear. One might say, for example, there can’t really be a Clara theme because the letter “B” isn’t really “L” and thus can’t really mean “L.” On the other hand, the letter “C” isn’t really the note “C,” either. It isn’t really that. All these things are symbols and music itself is a symbol. Schumann did that, and Brahms did it too, and Elgar certainly beyond any question. It can’t be any coincidence that great composers happen to have minds that work in that way. It’s not a very common characteristic among the populace at large. I should be surprised if more than a tiny fraction of 1% of people were interested in such ideas, but a very high proportion of great composers are interested in such ideas and they’re musical and once you’ve translated the cipher notes or the idea into music, then what you have is music. I’ve heard people who can actually read music in this rather unusual sense. There’s quite a well known musical manuscript in which the composer, John Field, thanks his hostess of the previous evening for the delightful supper she had given him. He said it consisted of—(Sams plays); and I’ve known people when that was played to them who heard in their heads straight away, “B,E,E,F” and “C,A,B,B,A,G,E.” And what he was thinking of was beef and cabbage. (And he said that he would be very grateful for a second helping of either!). So to some people with really musical minds who are listening to the notes at absolute pitch and are familiar with the letter names as of course one is, when you hear this (plays), they just say beef. It spells beef.
Q—Are there some questions yet to be answered?
A—I haven’t studied them in depth for ten years. I’m waiting with interest when I resume these studies as I propose shortly to do with a book on Brahms and that will take the same form. I can’t think of any way of improving on these, the simple textbook form that I have tried to adopt from the beginning—essentially text and commentary and notes. Admittedly a didactic form, but the simplest way of seeking to expound these masterpieces. And I want to do that for Brahms and Schubert, if that’s possible. And in doing so, I want to say what their motivic language is, also. And I’m looking forward to establishing, if this is possible, if I have time, a complete breviary of motific writing—even to considering the possibility of translating, let’s say, Schumann into Wolf or Schubert into Brahms, as one might translate from one language into the other. Each is a separate language. They all have a great deal in common. They all use the horn passage, for example, to connote the open air, but they all have their individual musical expressions as well, which have to be learned. So what I would then like to do, if one had time to round off the whole study, is to do a complete conspectus of musical language in the Lied, from Schubert to Wolf—in effect spanning the whole German nineteenth century.
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Q—Which is to say they all belong to—say they’re the equivalent of the Romance languages. They are languages that are interrelated.
A—Yes, I think they are languages that are interrelated, precisely that; and interrelated because in the same way that other languages, non-musical languages are, they all stem from the same root. They all directly derive from the earlier, the eighteenth century German tradition, from Bach through Haydn. It’s amazing how many of these ideas you hear in the “Creation.” In the beginning was Haydn’s motivic writing, which everybody heard and incorporated into the Lied, so what you hear in the German nineteenth century is a bit of musical history. You hear the initial sources of the eighteenth century broadening and deepening and then, mystically, dwindling and ceasing altogether. What I think happened to the German song after Wolf was that it became essentially popular music. It became Gershwin and musical comedy and has broadened still further into pop music nowadays.
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Q—As a kind of a nutshell thing, this Schumann body of songs—there are those who say that maybe it’s the quintessence of his musical expression. How might you generalize about your linguistic researches here?
A—Well, it would be a very separate study to take each of the great songwriters, and there are others we haven’t mentioned at all. I’m also interested in Mendelssohn and Franz in Germany and Fauré and Massenet in France. Each is a lively and separately fascinating study, and it would be then good to relate in each case the songwriter’s simple song output to the totality of his work. I rather think that there could be parallels drawn in each case.I think that Schumann’s songs relate to the orchestral and chamber music for example, much as Schubert’s songs relate to his work and other genres and the piano music as well. Now exactly how that relationship could be described and be profitably explored would take, I think, another day or so discussion.
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Q—Do you think maybe—these are my words and not yours—they do represent a musical distillation of Schumann’s best efforts?
A—I think there are other things, other aspects of each composer which ought not to be neglected if one’s interested in the composers as a whole. But what I’m very sure of is this—if you’re looking for a way into their works, it helps, particularly if you know some German. But that’s not essential, and in many ways it’s better to approach German as a foreign language, as a native English-speaking person would naturally do, because it has to sound like magic. It must not sound like an everyday language so you have to know a bit of that; but given that knowledge, the song approach is the direct and immediate way into the heart of each writer’s creative output. Of this I’m very sure, and once you’ve attained that central position, you can then look out and explore all their other multifarious and fascinating facets.
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Q—We’re going to talk about the tradition of the “haunted landscape” in the sensibilities of the time.
A—Well, there are two sorts of German landscape, I think, in the nineteenth century. One derives essentially from the poet Eichendorff, and he is of course a part of a continuing German tradition. He didn’t invent these things, but it was him for whom twilight scenes became a living and vivid actuality. In this way, he inspired, I’m sure, all the French poets of the later nineteenth century. Any poem about a formal garden illuminated by moonlight where peacocks walk, where there are great extensive vistas like the garden of the Tuilleries. Poems of that kind come from Eichendorff sources, and they also derive in part from “des Knaben Wunderhorn”—that sensibility connected with the idea of Germany as a national, living, almost religious force. The power of the past, the power of the great castle, the power of the twilight scene, the Schloss, and these pictures which Schumann set to music, especially in “Liederkreis,” Opus 39, and in some Wolf songs also from the Eichendorff songbook. These, I think, are the definitive clear statements of the mystery and the magic of night in German Romanticism—the starry night, late bird song, but above all, immense vistas of bygone splendor which we are to understand these days are to be renewed and Germany is to be great again. That’s one powerful force, the nationalistic force; and the other part of it is the personal relationship with nature.If you look at the pictures of Caspar David Friedrich, who is, par excellance, the preeminent painter of the Romantic Movement, what you see usually is some isolated figure, whether a tree or a person; and it is usually isolated in some kind of splendid romantic exultation on the top of a handy mountain surveying the local scene. This person is, as it were, the German Romantic soul on its upward path, the bourgeoisie ever improving its lot in the world, making its way upwards literally and metaphorically. (Was there ever a time when the bourgeoisie was not rising?) Well, this is when it actually takes its rise, in the mid-nineteenth century; and what you see normally is a picture of a person on a handy mountaintop who has reached that exalted pinnacle as the result of a journey, notionally life’s journey, and is surveying the landscape from that exalted point of view. There’s nowhere to go after that but down again; but that’s why you’re shown that scene in that magic moment of time when total dominance is achieved: The Romantic figure alone in the landscape, a bit puzzled, a bit worried, a bit perplexed about life and things and maybe wondering where one’s road leads and where one’s goal is to be found—but on the whole content with the idea of dominating a total landscape. And in Wolf’s songs particularly in the later Romantic Era, you hear exactly such songs turned into music and usually finishing with a kind of hymn of patriotism in the postlude.
© John C. Tibbetts 2004