Fantasy and Schizophrenia

Robert Schumann, Fantasy in C, op. 17, with works by Brahms and Clara Schumann
Alon Goldstein, piano
Thursday, September 30
Engelman Recital Hall, Baruch College, NYC

Oh, Bobby and Clara.

Practically no composer of the Romantic era, that time period of music history when we are told composers literally wrote their lives into their music, is more subjected to the “autobiography in music” charge than Robert Schumann. His life story is custom made for Hollywood. Allow me to pitch it to the studio exec.:

Young composer falls in love with the teenage piano virtuoso daughter of his piano teacher. As she grows up, his love for her grows stronger and more intimate (illicit sex scene opportunity!), bringing about the censure of her father and their estrangement for years. Composer writes hundreds of songs about their love and dramatic separation, and after a legal battle, is finally able to marry his love. Happily ever after, until he starts hearing voices and notes in his head. Eventually overcome by the voices in his head, he throws himself into the Rhine in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. He is committed to an insane asylum where he eventually dies.

So that’s sort of the story of Robert Schumann. But not exactly. Scholars of the past two decades have been trying desperately to fight against the over-romanticizing that has long plagued this most Romantic of composers. Psychoanalytical biographies have been written, explaining Schumann’s entire life and output as the work of a bipolar schizophrenic, and more has been written to counteract that infinitely sexier myth. However, I prefer to listen to music, enjoy it on its own terms, and if there are leaps of faith to be made in connecting a composer’s turbulent life to his music, I prefer to make those connections on my own.

Which is why I was both fascinated and a little shocked by Alon Goldstein’s treatment of his solo piano recital centered around Schumann’s magnificent Fantasie, op. 17. This piece is, first and foremost, a gorgeous part of the 19th-century piano repertoire, full of passion, drama, and the extremes of dynamic, expression, and affect that characterizes much of Schumann’s piano music from the 1830s. Schumann’s letters show that the work, and especially the first movement, was all for Clara.

Goldstein chose to structure his recital with the first two movements of this three-movement work at the head of the program, then interjecting two individual scherzi by Brahms and Clara. Finally, the program ended with the final movement of the Fantasy.

I think it was creative of Goldstein to create this arch to his program, clearly wanting to highlight the Fantasy as the centerpiece by starting and finishing with it, but also wanting to intersperse other works into the program. He created a somewhat symphonic grandiosity in his program, beginning with the epic sonata-allegro movement, following with the moderate march, then two fiery and fast scherzo movements, and finally a slow finale. A perfect Romantic era “piano symphony.”

However, it was Goldstein’s imposition of a narrative utterly outside the realm of this music, using quotes and biographical story telling in between every movement, that bothered me. Although he never explicitly said so, his basic story was “this music will tell the story of Robert and Clara’s courtship, their love, his mental demise, the questionable entrance of Brahms into their lives, and eventually Robert’s death.” Between the first and second movements, Goldstein read entries from the couple’s marriage diaries about their happiness and joy, and so the bright second movement, written while Schumann was still fighting to win Clara, became a celebration of their happy union. In between the third and fourth pieces (the two scherzi), Goldstein read an account of Schumann’s suicide, transforming the ensuing music by Clara into her stormy sadness over his demise. Finally, after reading accounts of Clara’s final meeting with her insane husband and his eventual death, the slow finale to the Fantasy was transformed into an elegy.

I don’t think that’s fair, not to the music (which tells it’s own story perfectly well without an extra-musical source), nor to the composer who wrote this piece years before his marriage, his meeting of Brahms, or his mental breakdown and death. Goldstein reinforced those Romantic myths that beg us to read a psychoanalysis into Schumann’s music, that want us to hear the cries of help of a madman, or the throes of passion of a young Brahms caught between his love for Clara and his sense of duty to the man who famously publicized his early career. In that sense, Goldstein did a disservice to the music and the composer. But in his playing, which is really what matters, he shined, and brought out the fantasy and passion of this music.

The first movement is my favorite of this piece, and from reading Schumann’s letters, I think it was his favorite too. Audio of the whole thing is below, but I want to break it down a bit. Goldstein’s delivery of the opening, swirling piano figure was brilliant, striking just the right mediation between jumbled mass of sound and individual notes (all my musical examples are from a recording by Maurizio Pollini). His command of dynamics and feel for the soft minor section was exceptional, heightened by a very tasteful use of rubato. And his playing of the section during the exposition when Schumann leaves dissonances ringing out over brief silences was tremendously well done, heightening the intensity of those dissonances and prolonging the tension wonderfully. One of my favorite parts was Goldstein’s decision to play the epic “Im Legendenton” middle section, literally “in legendary tones,” as though it were another piece, pausing just enough and changing his articulation so that it felt like he was taking us outside the piece, into another realm (of legends, perhaps?). I found myself on the edge of my seat, even though I know this piece, eagerly anticipating every shift in tempo, dynamics, and affect that this movement brings. Here’s the whole first movement, masterfully played by Richter:

Goldstein’s choice of the Brahms scherzo was excellent, the playful start/stop arabesques and turns of its opening were humorous enough to be called a scherzo, but the passionate fingerwork of the piece aligned it with the virtuosic Fantasy.
His finale of the Fantasy was also quite well done, although he played up the elegiac quality that he chose to fix onto this movement a little too much for my taste, delivering the finale’s slow meditative mood as a funereal tombeau that didn’t work for me. The final movement should be transcendent, not dirge-like. It might reflect my taste more than anything, but I found the first movement to be my favorite of the concert. Goldstein milked the tension, the dissonance, and patiently let his fermatas hold on, highlighting the music’s ability to recount its own drama. I just wish he had let the music do all the talking.

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~ by Jake on October 2, 2010.

4 Responses to “Fantasy and Schizophrenia”

  1. I’ve never really “gotten” Schumann, so I am always interested to read an enthusiastic critique, esp. just after breakfast. I still cannot hear him with the same “rete mirabile” response as i do with Schubert and Chopin, Scriabin, Roger Sessions, etc. But then, Brahms piano music still eludes me, too. While we’re on the subject, the Dead and Phish bore me, but I love Chili Peppers, Steely Dan, Talking Heads, Robert Fripp, among others. Any advice?

    • Richard – have you listened to Schumann’s Carnaval or Davidsbundlertanze? Those are 2 of my favorites, as is his first piano sonata in F# minor. Brahms eludes me as well, all Brahms in fact; it just doesn’t really do it for me. I seem to find myself constantly seeing Philharmonic programs that insist on only programming interesting modern orchestral pieces alongside Brahms symphonies. At least he only has 4 of them…

      I think you probably haven’t listened to the right Phish, I’ll have some posts on here soon about them. If you like the Talking Heads, Steely Dan, and King Crimson, well, those are some of Phish’s main influences, and a lot of their music comes directly out of those bands’ styles. Phish even covered the Heads’ Remain in Light album in its entirety back in ’96, and it profoundly changed their sound afterwards. Anyway, some posts on them soon…

      You should check out Umphrey’s McGee, you’d probably like them. Listen to this show with Joshua Redman on saxophone, specifically listen to the second set: http://www.archive.org/details/UM2004-02-18. These guys are from Chicago, and they’re a jamband that draws really heavily on British prog rock traditions (Yes, ELP, Crimson, etc.).

  2. I agree with your complaints about him inserting the misaligned biographical elements to color the music. If he had interjected historically-synchronous biographical elements, it would have been perfectly excusable as an artistic decision (blending musicology and performance, brilliant, right?) However, the asynchronicity in what he did was pretty much akin to just making up a story about the music.

    • As a counterexample, I did find it to be useful when he read Clara and Robert’s account of their first meeting with Brahms, when he basically showed up on their doorstep and then played them a number of pieces, including his Scherzo op. 4. Then, Goldstein played the Brahms op. 4. That worked for me – tell a piece of history directly related to the piece you’re about to play, rather than extrapolating a myth out of disparate music.

      That said, his playing of the whole concert was quite good, and there’s something to be said for making the music exciting, even if it is through distorting the history, to an audience of neophytes. Did you like my play on Deleuze and Guattari in the title, by the way? I tried to think of something relevant to Schumann that could be “A Thousand _________: Fantasy and Schizophrenia,” but I couldn’t think of anything witty…

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