Brahms and Schumann

25 September 2012 § Leave a comment

Last Saturday, I went to a Brahms and Schumann study day at The Sage Gateshead in preparation for Northern Sinfonia’s new season, in which they’re doing all the symphonies, paired together, and a good chunk of chamber music by both composers. I went along expecting some sort of lecture, either a long talk about lives and influences, or a lot of in-depth musical analysis, or both. What we actually got was quite different, and far more fun. Yes, a day spent examining German Romanticism is definitely my idea of fun.

We were a small group – about fifteen of us, and all, I think regular concert-goers, and the day was led by Sean McMenamin, a music PhD student from Newcastle University. Although Sean’s programme was structured around the composers’ lives and some of their symphonic work, he acted more as a guide than a teacher, using Schumann and Brahms to prompt us towards broader discussions about how we listen to music, and fortunately we had the sort of group where everyone was willing to pitch in and contribute.  To start us off, we pondered whether it’s important to know about a composer’s life in order to appreciate his music, although we agreed that the very fact we had turned up to the study day implied that this was important to us.

In the case of Schumann, I concluded, the life really is important, because he puts so much of himself into his music. In fact, his selves-plural, because he saw in himself two figures, who he named Florestan (a passionate extrovert) and Eusebius (subdued, and introspective). He wrote music about both characters, and even articles under both names. The idea of the Double will, of course, be familiar to everyone who reads Dostoevsky (Hurrah! A tenuous gossamer-thread of connection to my favourite topic), and I’d forgotten that this was a wider feature of German Romanticism.

In the case of the Schumann’s First Symphony, the “Spring”, it also struck me that what we think about a piece can be coloured so much by which bits of information happen to reach us. Unless we’re scholars, with access to every biographical source, the way we look at a piece of music is affected by what gets filtered through. In 1839, Schumann wrote: ‘Oh, Clara! I have been in paradise today! They played at the rehearsal a symphony by Franz Schubert. How I wish you had been there … It is a whole four-volume novel … I was supremely happy, and had nothing left to wish for, except that you were my wife, and that I could write such symphonies myself!’
A year later, Schumann had married Clara and in an outpouring of joy was composing his first symphony, so having been given that quote, I couldn’t help but hear in the music an outpouring of delight, and a sense of dreams coming true, and that’s probably how I’ll always hear it now.

We had a broad overview about what Romanticism means – the love of nature, the sense of individualism and self-expression, and a fusion of different artistic forms, and we talked too about the relationship between literature and music. Can literature be musical? I nearly got caught out here by throwing Bakhtin’s idea of polyphony in Dostoevsky into the discussion, because from his response, I suspect Sean has read more Bakhtin than I have… There were also some interesting points made about how this fitted in with the changing role of the composer in society; no longer supported by rich but demanding patrons, composers had the freedom to write more individualistic music, but they also had to write music that would appeal to the educated middle classes who came to their concerts and bought their sheet music. One element of Romanticism was an emphasis on the importance of education and of doing battle against the philistines, so it all seems to have slotted together quite neatly – the ideals of Romanticism drove composers to create music that also happened to be what the public wanted to hear.

Schumann and Brahms between them cover pretty much the entire Romantic period (Schumann was born in 1810, Brahms died in 1897), which gave us the opportunity to discuss the transition between early and late Romanticism, and the differences between the two. Unfortunately all the interesting discussion meant we had to skim over Brahms’ symphonies, but since the hole in my knowledge was more Schumann-shaped, this wasn’t too much of a problem for me. I hadn’t realised though that the great big problem of how to follow Beethoven that famously loomed over Brahms and put him off writing a symphony had come about because of a new general trend to search for heroes in the past. Schumann, writing symphonies before Brahms had no such problem, but by Brahms’s time, this fashion for putting figures from the past on impossibly high pedestals meant that Beethoven’s symphonies were now held up as an ideal to which all other symphonies would be compared.

Late Romanticism seems more grown-up than the youthful fancies of Schumann, and the rather adolescent dream of the alienated, tortured artist. For me, there’s more of a sense of engagement with the rest of the world, and a response to what’s going on around the composer or artist. The rush to the past happened in the face rapid modernisation and industrialisation, whether it be pre-Raphaelite painting,  Gothic revival architecture, folk elements in music or Brahms’s use of old forms like chaconnes and fugues, and it’s not the same as early Romantic escapism, especially as many late Romantic artists also had more concern for social questions than their predecessors (although Brahms isn’t in that category).

After some comparisons between the two schools of German Romantic music (Brahms, Schumann on the one hand, Wagner and Liszt on the other), we then talked about what came after. What was really interesting here was to learn about Arnold Schoenberg’s respect for Brahms, and his sense that in Brahms’s adherence to relatively strict music forms there might be an answer to the bloated excesses of composers like Wagner, who had pushed to the limits of tonal harmony and musical structure. I think one or two of the participants were a bit alarmed when Sean started talking about Schoenberg, and I thought I detected a sense of surprise and discovery among some when he played a bit of Verklaerte Nacht.

Getting from the lonely Romantic soul to the Second Viennese School in one day was quite a journey – hence the unusual length of this post. I was there on a press ticket, but not required to write about it for Bachtrack, but I had such a good day, and was so inspired by it that I wanted to write something. Thanks again to Sean for such a well-presented and stimulating day, and you’ll see my first reviews of the Northern Sinfonia concerts next week on Bachtrack.

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