Monday, October 1, 2012

Schumann's Rhine Journey

The opening concert of the season is this weekend – Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum – with the Harrisburg Symphony and Stuart Malina opening the program with Richard Strauss’ Don Juan and ending with Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony. In between, Israeli pianist Alon Goldstein plays Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

For some reason, Schumann's "Rhenish" hasn't been played by the Harrisburg Symphony since George King Raudenbush, the orchestra's first music director, conducted it in May of 1944. Considering it's regarded as the best of Schumann's four completed symphonies, you have to wonder what took it so long to return?

Robert Schumann’s Third Symphony may have been inspired by a trip on the Rhine River but it doesn’t really tell a story. It’s inspired more by Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony with its “Pleasant Impressions Upon Arriving in the Countryside” and even Beethoven implies more of a program or story behind the music than Schumann does. He uses no titles like “Happy Gathering of Country Folk” though his second movement is based on a folk-dance rhythm. Like Beethoven, he uses five instead of the usual four movements and the added movement – in 4th place (in Beethoven, it’s the storm) – is the only one where Schumann said anything about its inspiration: while visiting the city of Cologne, they were impressed by its great cathedral and witnessed the installation of its cardinal archbishop there with all its pomp and solemnity. (See below for some information about Germany's Rhineland.)

Here’s a performance of the complete Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major by Robert Schumann, the “Rhenish” Symphony with David Zinman conducting the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra.

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There's a typical Schumann finger-print in that opening theme which has a kind of rhythmic swing to it that shifts from one pulse to another pulse as the phrase progresses. What we hear - what we would automatically start tapping our foot to - is not always what's written on the page and Schumann tricks us into thinking we're hearing something in a slower three-beat pulse (starting at 0:30)  that suddenly changes (at 0:36) to a quicker pulse - or at least doesn't seem to fit what our toe's already started tapping. He does this quite often in and out of this theme.

Technically, he's using a common denominator of 3/4 time or meter (like a waltz as opposed to a march) but the melody is phrased rhythmically so it accents every other beat so that it takes 2 measures of "written time" to equal 1 measure of "heard time" (putting it in non-technical terms). Like this, where the pink highlighter is the beat pattern you hear, superimposed over the written time that keeps the musicians playing together.

So what Schumann writes in the first 6 measures only sounds like 3 measures in this "slower" beat pattern that our toe starts tapping. Then it shifts (at measure 7) to the "quicker"-sounding pulse which turns out to be the actual 3/4 meter of the music - and affecting how we perceive the music's tempo. There are also other subtle rhythmic ideas that help blur the distinction so we keep shifting back and forth from "perceived" time to "actual" time quite easily.

While this is (technically) more a metrical trick than a rhythmic trick, the even more technical term is "hemiola" (hee-mee-OH-luh) which has nothing to do with a blood disorder but refers to the ability to subdivide rhythmic or metric units into groups of 2s or 3s.

On a different note, think the song "America" from Bernstein's West Side Story as an example:

It alternates between 6/8 and 3/4 where 6/8 divides 6 eighth notes into 2 pulses of 3 eighth notes and then 3/4 which divides 6 eighth notes into 3 pulses of 2 eighth notes: 1-2-3  1-2-3/ 1-2 1-2 1-2 / It's still hemiola even though the style is very different.

Dvořák uses similar tricks in his Slavonic Dances, inspired by the folk-dances of his native Bohemia.

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Schumann wrote four symphonies but technically his Symphony No. 3 is the last symphony he composed. Probably inspired by its success, he went back and revised what had been his second symphony written ten years earlier (and which he never published) - he didn’t care for after it had been performed and set it aside. So in 1851, it officially became his Fourth Symphony.

It’s kind of a trick question: why is Schumann’s Third Symphony not his third symphony?

A bridge in Düsseldorf overlooking the Rhine
In 1850, Robert Schumann – who’d been living in Dresden since 1844 – accepted a job as the music director of the city of Düsseldorf, a not very exciting city on the Rhine, considered a backward provincial place compared to Dresden and Leipzig, much less Vienna, but it was home to an important music festival where his responsibilities would include conducting the city’s orchestra and choral society. Though on their payroll since early May, the Schumanns didn’t arrive until late August.

The arrival was well-received but it was a short-lived honeymoon.

Cologne's Cathedral
At the end of September, the Schumanns travelled to Cologne and were greatly impressed by its magnificent cathedral where they witnessed the installation of its new cardinal archbishop. Returning to Düsseldorf, Schumann suddenly felt like composing again and on October 10th began the Cello Concerto which he sketched over the next six days and completed (in full score) on the 24th, the same day he conducted his first concert as the city’s music director.

His wife, Clara, regarded as one of the greatest pianists of the day, was the soloist (I haven’t found any indication what was on the program). It was well-received but at the reception afterward there was an awkward moment when Ferdinand Hiller, the previous music director proposed a toast first to the soloist (perhaps being chivalrous) rather than to their new music director. This angered Robert who was always sensitive about being "Mr. Clara Schumann."

Nonetheless, nine days later, Schumann began sketching a new symphony, finishing the sketch of the first movement (despite taking another trip to Cologne) on November 9th and completing the full score of the entire symphony on December 9th.

During his first season there, Schumann conducted eight subscription concerts and premiered five new works of his on four of the programs. The symphony was first heard on February 6th, 1851.

The results were mixed, “ranging from praise without qualification to bewilderment,” though other accounts mention members of the audience applauding between every movement, and especially at the end of the work when the orchestra joined them in congratulating Schumann by shouting “hurrah!”

Geographically Speaking:

Robert Schumann’s Third Symphony is subtitled “Rhenish,” meaning “of the Rhine,” that region of western Germany along the great river associated with so much Germanic history. It rises in the Swiss mountains and flows eventually northeast into the North Sea in the Netherlands. Along its course, it forms Germany’s present-day boundaries with Switzerland and France. In ancient days, it formed (along with the Danube which flows east toward the Black Sea) the northern limits of the Roman Empire. It became a major transportation route during the Middle Ages and one of the most significant aspects of what defined German Culture (at a time when, quite often, there was no political entity called “Germany”). Following the dissolution of the medieval Holy Roman Empire, finally, in 1806, courtesy of Napoleon, a collection of small German states was called “The Confederation of the Rhine” as opposed to larger states like the kingdoms of Prussia, Bavaria and Saxony – or, for that matter, Austria or Österreich, which in German is “Eastern Kingdom” (not that the area along the Rhine ever became Westria…).

The region it flows through once both banks are located in Germany is generally called “The Rhineland” and many important German cities are located here, having grown up as river ports during the medieval era a thousand years ago. From the Swiss border to the town of Bingen (famous for its 12th Century abbess, Hildegard of Bingen), the Rhine is known as the Upper Rhine. Heading north, the region between Bingen and Bonn (famous for its native son, Ludwig van Beethoven) is called the Middle Rhine. Then, though you’re looking at the map and seeing it in the northern region of the river’s course, it’s called the Lower Rhine.

Because the river basically flows north, by going downstream (down the river) you’re heading north which, as you look at the map, makes you think you’re going “up” the river… well, anyway, enough of that.

In Dresden, one of the great Saxon cities (and located on another famous river, the Moldau), Richard Wagner had finished Lohengrin in 1849 just before all that nastiness began with the May uprising after which he was cited for treason and forced to flee “Germany” for Switzerland. But the year before, he began sketching a new opera which, when he realized it would need several prequels to explain, eventually became a four-opera cycle called The Ring of the Nibelung which takes place along the Rhine and actually begins IN it, with the famous water-sprites, the Rhine Maidens, swimming around singing about the Rhinegold and its magic powers. And of course, near the beginning of the last opera, the hero Siegfried makes a famous Rhine Journey of his own which sets the drama on its final collision course.

A Matter of Health: Life after the “Rhenish”

In the long list of great composers who have suffered greatly during their lives, many of them dying young (Schubert at 31, Mozart at 35, Mendelssohn at 38 just a few years before Schumann wrote the “Rhenish”), Robert Schumann’s mental health was his cross to bear. Symptoms of what would now be called bipolar disorder (previously called “manic-depressive disorder”) appeared early in his life but many of these ‘manifestations’ might only be the artistic expression of the two natures of creativity: on the one hand, there’s the “romantic” spirit which focuses on the emotional side of our responses to art; on the other, there’s the “classical” spirit which deals more with the abstract craft and our intellectual response to art. We can all do this – look at a painting and admire it for its architectural structure and placement of material while responding to it on a purely emotional level.

His creative history is a perfect example of “manic-depression.” He would compose furiously for a period of time, focusing on songs on year, or chamber music another, writing furiously and completing sizable works in a few days or a week before going on to another. Then, at the end of this creative spurt, he would be exhausted and suffer symptoms of depression that made him difficult to deal with as it was difficult for him to deal with reality. When they arrived in Dresden in 1844, he was unable to sleep for nearly a week, spent much of his time “swimming in tears” and often unable to walk. The convalescence was slow but six months later he wrote what became the last two movements of the Piano Concerto.

When Schumann was studying to become a concert pianist with the father of the woman who would eventually become his wife, Clara – that in itself is a long story – he injured his hand with a mechanical device that was supposed to facilitate his technique but instead ruined it. This forced him to concentrate on becoming a composer and also a music journalist (not just a critic). In his writings, he often engaged two “guests” who – like the old Greek dialogues – might argue or at least describe the different viewpoints one might have to the same topic. Among these were Florestan (representing Schumann’s “passionate, voluble side”) and Eusebius (his “dreamy, introspective side”) along with others as needed. Whether this is sign of “schizophrenia” as some modern writers assume or not, it seems unlikely they were any different from an author who creates literary characters of different and often opposing natures who might contain some autobiographical details confusing anyone incapable of understanding the distance that exists between a creator and his creations – or, sometimes, doesn’t.

After I’d given a talk about Clara Schumann’s life as a concert pianist and composer dealing with her famous husband and his career in addition to being the mother of eight children (a son was born the year before they arrived in Düsseldorf and a daughter was born the year after their arrival – there was also a miscarriage a year later), a woman came up to me and thanked me for giving her some insight in Schumann’s history. She too suffered from “bi-polar disorder” but was able to keep it under control with medication. We wondered what it might have been like if Schumann had had access to the kind of treatment she had – or what her life would’ve been like without it – which of course is the same kind of speculation about what Beethoven’s music might have been like if he weren’t deaf or what another forty-three years of music from Mozart might have been like if he’d lived to be as old as his sister.

Life in Düsseldorf went downhill quickly for the Schumanns. If the “Rhenish” Symphony’s premiere had met with some success, the next concert was a failure – the chorus sang badly, two new, smaller works were coldly received, and there were growing concerns about Schumann’s abilities as a conductor.

One thing, certainly, was his introspective nature or introverted personality making it difficult for him to deal with musicians in an authoritative capacity. He did not have the power of personality or the technique of a master to impress his performers and keep them in line. Schumann’s predecessor, Ferdinand Hiller, had been a detail-oriented, disciplined conductor, something Schumann was not. He often found himself getting lost during a rehearsal because he would start thinking how better certain passages could be written, for instance. Judging from contemporaries said of him, it’s quite possible he might have been an adequate conductor but didn’t know how to rehearse, a very important aspect of being a conductor (it’s not all just waving your arms around to keep everybody in tempo).

Since Robert could no longer play the piano, he brought Clara in to accompany the choir’s rehearsals and she often found herself explaining to the musicians what her husband was trying to do, musically.

It was in the years after the “Rhenish,” then, that Schumann’s final symptoms took control of his life. Whether he was depressed following the year-long manic creative spell that the symphony inaugurated or whether it was the political in-fighting that started to go on between the musicians in the orchestra and chorus, their boards, and the Schumanns is almost immaterial. He began having auditory hallucinations, spending long hours staring into space, exhibited fears of things like keys and so forth. Clara, of course, was working hard to protect her husband from the problems around him which others didn’t seem to understand.

On September 30th, 1853, Clara, long despairing of resuming her old career as a concert pianist sacrificing herself for her husband, wrote in her journal, "My last good years are passing, my strength, too... I am more discouraged than I can possibly say." Robert wrote in his journal, "Herr Brahms from Hamburg," mentioning a 20-year-old composer who showed up on their doorstep, unexpectedly, with a bunch of scores to show him. But at the time Brahms arrived, the Schumanns weren’t at home so the actual meeting, hearing Brahms play some of his piano pieces, didn’t happen till the next day.

Schumann hailed Brahms as the “heir to Beethoven,” not the first young composer saddled with such a comment, but he did not have much time to serve as Brahms’ mentor.

Brahms stayed in Düsseldorf until early November. A few days after he left, a committee from the orchestra arrived at the Schumanns’ house announcing that they were going to curtail Robert’s duties: he would no longer conduct the choir and he would only conduct his own works with the orchestra, his responsibilities now being taken over his assistant, Julius Tausch.

What had been a good month during Brahms’ visit quickly soured.

On February 27th, 1854, Robert Schumann, who was so ill, his condition so worrisome at the time he had to be locked in and watched every minute, got away from his daughter who was supposed to keep an eye on him, and wandered the streets of Düsseldorf before coming to a bridge over the Rhine where he jumped into the river. Some passing people and some boatmen were able to rescue him and take him back to the house where he was immediately taken by carriage to an insane asylum near Bonn. Clara never saw him again until a few days before he died in 1856.

It’s more likely the symptoms of the illness that caused his insanity and lead to his death were the results of an early infection with syphilis and the mercury treatment that was supposed to cure it but often was just as much a killer. Whether this had anything to do with his manic/depression or bipolar disorder is another issue.

Regardless, we should be glad for the brilliant moments he experienced and was able to share with us through his music. It is quite a journey.

- Dick Strawser

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You can read more about the final years of Robert Schumann’s life and about the life of Clara Schumann in posts at my other blog, Thoughts on a Train.