Published June 08. 2014 4:00AM
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I don’t necessarily remember what I had for lunch yesterday, but I remember grade school. And for nearly as long as I can remember, Robert Schumann’s music has been part of my life. Few composers (perhaps only Bach) have stayed on my playlist so long.
So, to the sweet and sad man who was born on June 8, 1810, a happy birthday from me.
His life story was complex, but his music was direct. He was an influential music critic who was generous with his praise, helping to launch the careers of both Chopin and Brahms. He was an early piano virtuoso who ruined that career by injuring his hand with a homemade strengthening device, and he married the most renowned woman pianist of his day, Clara Wieck.
After his hand injury, he focused on composition and poured out a stream of Romantic masterpieces, very much an heir to Beethoven in musical character, if not refinement. Schumann was manic-depressive and would write in frenetic bursts, then brood and, eventually, attempt suicide. He died in an asylum.
All that sorrow gets swept aside by his music, music with that heroic air that pervades Beethoven. Last week’s birthday boy who also wrote music of nobility and grandeur, Edward Elgar, called Schumann “my ideal.”
He is renowned for his innovative and endlessly appealing solo piano works and for some of the most beautiful songs ever written, but I will skip those to highlight some of my favorite Schumann moments, some which aren’t well known.
Schumann’s most popular symphony is his third, the “Rhenish Symphony.” But this recording of the original version of his fourth symphony (it was actually his first symphony which he put aside to rescore after writing the other three, publishing it as No. 4) led by John Elliot Gardiner is superb. The long introductory section has a keen sense of direction, as well-crafted as any of the slow introductions made popular by Haydn and emulated for decades.
Schumann’s only piano concerto has always been a favorite, thanks to an old RCA Red Seal recording of Artur Rubinstein performing it. The joyous final movement bursts with themes, none more infectious than the sequence that first appears at 2:23.
Schumann wrote his chamber music in bursts, and his trios, quartets and quintet each have a sense of freshness and immediacy. My favorite of the lot is his Piano Quartet in E Flat, and both of the final two movements reflect his greatest gifts. The slow movement is a direct, heart-tugging cantabile, which translates from Italian as “singable” – and that it is.
The final movement is a mile-a-minute boil of counterpoint and energy, stuffed with fugal feints and, of course, ear-worm motifs. The sizzling counterpoint is relieved by another singable theme in the heart of it, before finally erupting into a fully realized fugue at 6:20. I’ve always admired Schumann for not feeling intimidated by Beethoven (as was Brahms), but by following his lead, and this fugal movement is a delirious celebration of Beethoven’s model. This recording, with Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma, Jaime Laredo and Emanuel Ax, has long been my favorite.
There’s so much great music by Schumann that I’ll simply jump to a sadly under-performed work that I hold dear: his final composition, unpublished and tucked away in a library until 1937, his violin concerto.
The opening movement is an epic struggle between a grand, portentous main theme and a sweetly innocent lyrical theme. Set in D Minor, like the symphony, this is pure Schumann, the big orchestral dramatic theme sweeping back each time like a tidal wave.
The slow movement is coy and delicate, almost fragile. It is a fleeting bridge between the two outer movements, one of Schumann’s most effective orchestral movements. It is written attacca, meaning there is no pause before the next movement.
The final movement that so put off Joseph Joachim, the great violinist for whom Schumann wrote the concerto and who rejected it, is unusual for its use of a polonaise rhythm, the Polish dance that Chopin made famous. I find this final exuberant dance by this sadly troubled composer a moving statement.
I left out so many works by Schumann that were on my list, but time is short and his legacy is rich. Is there a Schumann masterpiece that you love that I omitted?