ROBERT SCHUMANN: Herald of a 'New Poetic Age'

ROBERT SCHUMANN: Herald of a 'New Poetic Age'

Sudip K. Bose

By John Daverio. Oxford University Press.624 pp. $45

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2m 7sec

ROBERT SCHUMANN: Herald of a ‘New Poetic Age.’

By John Daverio. Oxford University Press. 624 pp. $45

Although he gave us such indisputably great works as his Piano Quintet (1842) and Cello Concerto (1850), few composers have been subject to as many unfounded charges as has Robert Schumann (1810–56). Scholars claim that he was unable to orchestrate, that he couldn’t handle larger musical forms, and that his later pieces, composed when he was suffering from mental illness, are gloomy failures devoid of the freshness and lyricism found in his earlier work.

The shade of the German romanticist may now rest more easily, thanks to this authoritative new biography. To defend Schumann’s skill in orchestration, Daverio, a musicologist at Boston University, shows how the rich programmatic content of such works as Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (184453) is conveyed through inventive instrumental combinations. And to demonstrate that the composer could handle longer forms, Daverio points to the highly logical architecture of Paradise and the Peri (1843).

By far, though, Daverio is best at reevaluating Schumann’s final works. To be sure, Schumann did descend into psychosis. On February 26, 1854, after several years of depression and two weeks of hearing voices (angelic and demonic), he plunged from a bridge into the icy waters of the Rhine. Rescued by fishermen and carried home amid a crowd of jeering Carnival revelers, he was taken that same day to an asylum, where he died two years later. Eccentric, dark, and often repetitive, the compositions dating from this period have been dismissed as the products of a decaying intelligence. But Daverio finds in them "a heightened intensity of expression" and an inventiveness presaging the music of Anton Bruckner, Max Reger, and Arnold Schönberg. Daverio insists that the economical use of thematic material and masterful handling of form in pieces such as the Fourth Symphony (1851), the Faust overture, and the Violin Concerto (1853) could have come only from an artist "in full command of his or her rational powers."

What Daverio fails to note is that performers, too, have misread these later works. Take the underplayed Violin Concerto. From its first interpreter, Georg Kulenkampff, violinists have disfigured the polonaise finale by speeding it up, reaching for the sort of pyrotechnic display associated with concerto finales. A recent recording by Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer is a more faithful account. Perhaps Daverio’s inspired scholarship will encourage other more authentic interpretations. If so, Schumann’s neglected gems will receive the performances they deserve.

—Sudip K. Bose


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