Schumann as critic by Leon B. Plantinga

Yale University Press/Oxford, 72s


Part I explains how the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik was founded, with what aims and resources; Part II discusses Schumann's role as editor and writer, and his style of criticism: Part III is designed to give his views on the history and aesthetics of music; while Part IV reviews his reviews, composer by composer. Appendix I gives the German text of all the many sizeable quotations from Schumann; Appendix II reproduces pieces previously uncollected (not “unrecognized” as the blurb has it).

     Reviewing this book means writing about writing about writing about music; which may mean a vague review. An indefinite article is perhaps what Schumann as critic needs. That title suggests real warm Schumann interest; new light on his music, mind, or life. But much more light is thrown the other way, from Schumann on to the musical life of the early 14th century; while the declared source of all these reflections is Schumann considered as a critic - ie as a writer.

     Views differ about the interest and merit of his prose writings. Bernard Shaw’s Advice to Young Musicians was Don't Take Schumann's. Mr Plantinga believes that Schumann's literary abilities were of “almost a similar magnitude” to his musical talent (p. 268). I doubt if anyone has ever rated them so high before, which may explain why this is the first full-length study. That belief must have been very strong to initiate and (perhaps even more remarkably) to survive the long work of reading, translating, and analysing the original texts. But we are nowhere offered the smallest reason for sharing it.

     So there are the pros and cons; great analytical gifts, prodigious application, independence, and strength of judgment, together with a certain wilfulness. The author brings a quick, fresh mind to his new researches; but he knew all about Schumann before they began. On the one side he marshals his facts: on the other he parades his opinions. The latter form his main task-force; and they are quite often unsupported. For example, Schumann's moonstruck fantasy-world of masks and pseudonyms, puns and riddles, enigmas and charades – the manic phase at the full - finds no place here. For a discussion of the “nature of the Davidsbund and its members Florestan, Eusebius and Raro” we are referred, in a footnote, to a footnote in some other book. “Schumann did not write extravagant and fanciful criticism because of any personal idiosyncrasy”, we are admonished, but “because he thought this kind of criticism would be effective” - as if these two reasons were incompatible.

     Mr Plantinga is similarly decided about another crucial topic, aesthetics. He certainly shows a nodding acquaintance with the work of Mrs Langer. He calls her Miss; complains that she has failed to make her meaning clear; mentions, from among her many publications over the last 30 years, only her New Key (Harvard - too bad it won't fit in Yale); and misdates that. He prefers his own ideas about aesthetics. One is that Schumann had no idea about aesthetics. “In the 1830s Schumann was largely ignorant of what was going on in philosophy” (p.112). How do we know? Well, Bötticher's books about Schumann (which were “badly marred by distortions and suppressions” on p. xiii) contain “little evidence that he read ... aesthetics”. Now watch this escalate: “…his distaste for formal aesthetics…” (p.113) – “The fact is that Schumann paid little attention to aesthetics” as such (p.114). In four brisk paragraphs we proceed from an absence of evidence - in an unreliable source - to a fact; by way, moreover, of overlooking, miscon­struing, or dismissing what actual evidence there is.

     An even faster running jump to a conclusion occurs in a footnote (p.70) which begins “There is little reasonably scientific information on Schumann's illness”, and ends “There is general agree­ment that Schumann's affliction would now be diagnosed as schizophrenia”. Nobody knows much about it; but we all know what it was. Once again the independent mind is in evidence; but what independent evidence is in mind?

     Sometimes we do hear evidence on both sides; and in such cases it takes a little longer to reach a conviction. Hut again we suspect that it was a previous conviction. Take for example the question of how far and in what sense Schumann's op 2 is indebted to the masked ball chapter in Jean-Paul's Die Flegeljahre. One interpretation infers a con­nection from the titles of the two works. Masked ball - Larventanz; Larve (in German as in Latin ) - not only “mask” but also “caterpillar”; whence butterflies; hence Papillons. However that may be, Schumann wrote several letters, from which Mr Plantinga quotes, indicating that his work was composed after a reading of Jean-Paul. But such protestations fail to hoodwink the shrewd investi­gator. It is really “very doubtful”, we are assured, that “Schumann in fact composed the Papillons under the spell of Die Flegeljahre. This time there is some counter-argument; a puzzling passage in a later letter, and the supposed relevance of the fact that some of the themes also occur in supposedly “independent” waltzes or polonaises. But we are left unsure whether this gift of seeing more clearly than Schumann himself into his own music is second sight, hindsight, or just oversight.

     Fortunately much of the book is factual and objective. Then it becomes express and admirable. Thus its first chapter is the first clear and well­documented account of how the journal came to be founded. As a result, some old ideas about the Neue Zeitschrift get short shrift. Schumann was not in full editorial charge from the outset; he assumed direction only after a year, and then “through per­sistent negotiations - some of them tinged with unscrupulousness” (p.15). The story is one of an ambitious, active, and practical young business man with a cause to which he was devoted; a careful planner, a compulsive proof-reader, a tireless propagandist - hardly the dreamy visionary of popular fiction.

     The idea of the journal, as of the League of David, was to smite the Philistines - especially their mass-produced Paris fashion of frilly piano music, and the venal music criticism designed to promote its sales. This first blast of the trumpet against foreign tastes and conventional bourgeois values sounds, in its historical context, some strongly political overtones; but, as Mr Plantinga points out, the journal itself is innocent of social or political commentary. The reason for its appearance was crystal clear: to be the mirror of real music, with Schumann as the focal point. Many of his reflections are still as clean and true as ever; and this full-length view adds new details previously unperceived. Along with Schumann's famous panegyrics on Schubert, Chopin, Mendelssohn there are some less reverent comments on their work. Conversely there is praise for lesser lights, some of whom are still illuminating. Such past masters as Field and Heller, Franz and Löwe, were pastmasters of their genres, about which “no other contemporary observer had so much of value to say”. Even “those who interest nobody but lexicographers” had their moments; it seems that Schumann's op 26 no 3 contains a derivation from a root found in F. W. Grund (see ex 10, p, 148).

     The book is handsomely presented (though the occasional gothic type gives an odd impression), with over 50 music examples from unfamiliar works of the period and notes on many more. Faithful to his thesis, Mr Plantinga modestly regards such material as secondary; his book is intended as a mine of information about Schumann. But many a great extractive industry is especially notable for the interest and value of its by-products.          


The Musical Times, May 1968 (p. 436-437) © the estate of eric sams