If Robert Schumann (1810-1856) had not existed, we'd almost have to invent him‹so closely has he come, in our historical imagination, to play and replay the role of a certain brand of romantic artist. Schumann's life story covers the familiar bases all too well: the rejection of a secure but prosaic lifestyle in favor of art; the obstacles faced in courting his soul mate, Clara Wieck, before winning her as a wife; the overwhelming, triumphant bursts of creativity; the sharp decline into madness; and the premature, tragic death.
So much so, indeed, that Schumann has become a virtual prisoner of this archetype. It tempts us to misread an easy alliance between the life and the work, as if the latter were simply the lyric confessional for an overcharged emotionalism. What's more, the romantic archetype encourages us to accept uncritically many of the clichéd judgments about Schumann. The most persistent ones are that he was really at home only with the piano, that he was in essence a miniaturist with a gift for melody best suited to the short character piece or song, and that premonitions of insanity tended to undermine his later work.
But Schumann's legacy, which Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin will salute next month with a week of all-Schumann programs, resists such preconceived patterns. Central to Schumann's vision as a composer is his close affinity with literary pursuits, particularly as essayed by such exponents of German Romanticism as Jean Paul, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Novalis. The son of a bookseller, Schumann always harbored an alter ego as a poet, producing verse throughout his life. His work as a music critic‹especially as editor of the groundbreaking Neue Zeitschrift für Musik‹was probing and prophetic.
He is among the first of the great composers (Berlioz also comes to mind) whose literary and musical sensibilities are on a par. "Because of his literary inclinations and also because of his musical idiom," says Barenboim, "Schumann is absolutely essential for the development of music after him." The composer's synthetic outlook on the arts would climax in Wagner.
This literary aspect of Schumann's creative drive doesn't mean the music can be neatly "decoded" as illustrating some narrative program. To be sure, extramusical points of reference abound: the calls of spring awakening in the First Symphony, the reverential majesty of Cologne Cathedral in the Third ("Rhenish") Symphony, the implied spelling out of Clara's name in the central motif of the Piano Concerto. Yet Schumann also expressed unease with the potential distraction that picturesque images could engender.
Schumann's orchestral music, just as much as his composition in the more intimate genres of lied and piano character piece, is bound up with an ambition to serve‹in Schumann biographer John Daverio's phrase‹as "an agent for the transmission of transcendental ideas." However, because of the orchestral music's large-scale, public stature, the risks are perhaps even greater. There had been numerous but abandoned forays into the symphony and the concerto in Schumann's first years as a serious composer. But the year after his marriage to Clara marked a breakthrough, and he concentrated much of his energy on orchestral composition: the First Symphony (sketched in an incredible four days); the first version (which will be heard in the Staatskapelle Berlin's cycle of concerts) of what would become the Fourth Symphony; and a one-movement work for piano and orchestra that formed the nucleus for the Piano Concerto.
The symphonies are a map across Schumann's career. They reach from this early moment of confidence at tackling the genre through the epic ambition of the Second Symphony‹the least known, but favored by Schumann connoisseurs and containing the single most beautiful slow movement in the entire cycle‹written after a major nervous breakdown. Still later came the exuberantly extroverted and populist Third Symphony followed by the rescored version of the Fourth.
Barenboim attributes the originality of Schumann's symphonies to "a certain awkwardness, which is also part of his piano music. Awkwardness in the sense of nervousness, anguish, unpeacefulness, which is miles away from Brahms. It shows itself in Schumann's harmonic thinking, the tempos that keep changing, the shifting moods and constant syncopation, which create an inner agitation."
Schumann's symphonic works indeed glisten with an almost eccentric "awkwardness," incorporating patterns from Beethoven, gestures from Schubert, and later harking back in a richer polyphonic vein to Bach. Yet they also strive toward a new kind of integral unity‹the apex, no doubt, in the design of the Fourth Symphony. And, prophetically looking ahead to Brahms and Mahler, Schumann's symphonies contain rhapsodic moments of epiphany to which the old forms serve as but a prelude.
An orchestra can exaggerate the romanticism of Schumann, or, as often in Berlioz, foreground the neoclassical aspects. But in the hands of the second oldest orchestra in the world, the Staatskapelle Berlin‹with its "very round sound," observes Barenboim, "based on the harmonic foundation, not on instrumental brilliance and less brittle"‹Schumann's music will be served to great advantage.
Thomas May, senior editor at Amazon.com, writes about music and the arts for the San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera, Andante.com, and elsewhere.