Two years ago, when I first agreed to compose the Schumann Trilogy, I had a lot of unrelated ideas flitting through my mind about Schumann and his music. Now that I’m diving into the elbow-grease pit of composition, my thoughts have clarified a good deal.
Here are the things I love about Robert Schumann, in no particular order:
- Metrical highjinks. No other composer from before the 20th century did more to disrupt rhythmic expectations. Every major work — and most of the minor ones – has some passage or passages where the pulse becomes unmoored from the barline. Syncopation, polyrhythm, polymeter, shifting meters, hemiola – they are all there in abundance. And when I say hemiola, I’m not talking about the cadential switcheroo one finds in every Bach courante. When Schumann does hemiola, it can last anywhere from several bars to several minutes. And it’s not just a trick with RS, as Harald Krebs’s studies have shown. He composes a kind of metrical consonance and dissonance that keeps the listener leaning.
- Literary skills. Schumann wasn’t one of the great writers of 19th-century literature, but he was an effective and imaginative essayist. That aptitude can be felt in his music, both in his sensitive handling of poetry and in his general sensibility toward form and musical process.
- Miniatures. After Beethoven, many composers displayed an interest in perfecting the musical aphorism, writing brief character pieces that attempted to convey vivid ideas in a few, well-chosen strokes. Everybody was doing it, it seems, but nobody was better than Schumann at building large forms from a sequence, or cycle, of miniatures.
- Endings. I can’t think of another composer before Schumann who made such frequent use of the big finish followed by the quiet coda. He has so many pieces that build up to a bang, then trail off in a whimper. Or, perhaps more accurately, a shout followed by a moment of introspection.
- Arpeggios. Anyone can write a good arpeggio that starts from the bass and ascends; Schumann was a master of writing arpeggios that start from the soprano and descend to the bass – an effect that, in his hands, fosters both metrical and harmonic ambiguity.
- Rational and intuitive pitch patterns. Schumann could spin fantastic webs of notes with the best of them, from rapid filigree to battering storms. Then, unlike some, he could turn around and write the loveliest, most unassuming melodies.
- Career path. Schumann went from being in the vanguard of the 1830s to the rear guard by the end of the 1840s. His trajectory from radical to bourgeois isn’t a straight line, but it’s clear enough to notice. It makes sense in his case, as tens of thousands were tortured and killed in the revolutions of 1848 – a situation that clearly frightened him. And then there was the self-aggrandizing radicalism — and rising popularity — of Wagner, which disgusted him.
At this point, it’s fair to ask if there is anything I don’t like about Robert Schumann. Well, yes, there are a few things. Right now I’m focused on the many positives, though. Maybe when I’m coming to the finish line in this project I’ll take a closer peek at the negatives.