Well, that took me by surprise.
A month ago, I blogged about the possibility of a major shift in emphasis in my Schumann Trilogy. And now I’m on the other end.
When I first accepted this commission (notice I use the passive “accepted,” as though it hadn’t all been my idea in the first place, as though I hadn’t lifted a finger to make this happen, as though I just sit in an armchair waiting for my phone to sing) to compose a piece for Robert Schumann’s bicentennial almost three years ago, I figured it would be easier to write three pieces than one, which I still think is true as a general rule. A friend mentioned the Marriage Diary, a journal Robert and Clara kept for their first four years together. Having read quotes from the diary, I put that down as one of the three pieces I would write, figuring I could either adapt some passages from the diary or make something up that would be even better.
I didn’t get around to actually reading the Schumann Marriage Diary until about a year ago. Fascinating stuff, but painfully uninteresting from a compositional point of view. The piece would have needed a ridiculous number of footnotes to be coherent. And the only ideas I came up with for a fictionalized diary fell too comfortably into clichÃ©. But I figured I would eventually come up with something workable, so I turned my attention to more pressing pieces.
Fall 2009 (deadline: January 2010) rolled around and I still didn’t have a lead on where to take this piece. I wasn’t quite in a panic yet, but I was well beyond my comfort zone. Searching for something I could hang a composition on, I ordered a copy of Eugenie Schumann’s Memoirs, written in the early 1920s. Eugenie was the Schumanns’ seventh child.
Some people like stories with hefty plot lines; some prefer stories with what I call the “gee whiz” factor – magic, or technology, or exoticism — something out of the ordinary. I tend to like character stories – stories that take me inside of someone else’s head.
Eugenie’s book gave me a powerful sense of her character – clear-sighted, yet challenged by self-doubt – and I found it and her very appealing.
Then I found a 1921 NY Times article about the Schumann children, written by Times critic Richard Aldrich. The article was both touching and condescending. It begins:
Two unmarried daughters of Robert and Clara Schumann, Marie and Eugenie, now old ladies, are living in Switzerland in poverty, due in large measure to the results of the war. Friends in England have discovered their plight and wish to help them and hope that American friends will join in doing so. It will need only a comparatively few five-dollar bills to put these aged daughters of two great artists beyond want for the short remainder of their lives.
And there I had my piece, the third part of the trilogy. I wove together spoken excerpts from this article with sung excerpts from the Marriage Diary and passages from Eugenie’s Memoirs. The result was Genealogie – a rather weak play on Eugenie’s name, I suppose, but a good title for this piece.
From the Marriage Diary, I took an exchange that I found appealingly clumsy in its youthful profession of devotion:
ROBERT: Ich bin es wahrhaftig Dein Dich herzlich liebender Mann Robert, und Du?
[I am truly your sincerely loving husband Robert, and you?]
CLARA: Auch ich, Dein Dir von ganzer Seele ergebenes Weib Clara.
[I, too, your wife, Clara, who is devoted to you with her entire soul.]
This exchange recurs at several points throughout Genealogie, gradually splintering into ever less coherent shards. Meanwhile, the Times article relates the mostly sad fates of the Schumann children, while Eugenie describes each one in loving detail. The final third of the piece is an aria adapted from Eugenie’s epilogue, which (in Marie Busch’s translation and my condensation) starts like this:
I will reckon up the sum of my experiences and balance light and shade as they fell on my path. Many were the hopeful auguries at our birth, yet life for us children has not been easy. In saying this I don’t refer to the hard decrees of fate. I am thinking of us as children of parents of genius. Our lives, bound up with theirs, involved certain suppositions from the outset. Although none of us daughters had eminent musical gifts, it was taken for granted that we would choose music as a profession. So far as I was concerned my own musical achievements have satisfied me so little that they have been a lifelong martyrdom.
Pursuing music as a “lifelong martyrdom” seems like a case of tragic regret — but then she flips it around:
Yet, on the other hand, the constant occupation with music has enriched and deepened my life as nothing else could have done. Only my attempts enabled me to enter into the nature of my parents’ art and to make it my own. I was content to love and admire; and truly, it was the great privilege of my life that I could give love and admiration to those who were nearest to me.
Then after admonishing the world for misunderstanding her, and thanking the world for treating her so well regardless, she concludes with this ode to motherhood:
I could say that light and shade had been equally distributed on the path of our lives, if not for one great light that with its brightness gilded even the clouds. This was the light shed by my mother’s personality. No one on whom the sun of her eyes has shone, who has been wrapped in the warmth of her heart, has lived a life in shadow, but feels deep gratitude to Providence which revealed itself in divine mother love, thereby planting in us belief in love eternal and immortal.
Thus a rich, thoughtful human being, a far cry from the helpless old lady referenced at the outset in the newspaper article, emerges over the course of the piece. Eugenie, incidentally, lived just about her entire adult life with her lover, the soprano Marie Fillunger, whom she referred to as “my better half.” They are buried next to one another in Gsteig.
The music for Genealogie was clear to me from the outset. Or rather, I should say I knew exactly how I wanted the piece to sound, but I was mystified as to why it should sound that way. I only realized when it was almost done that I was bringing together musical worlds reflected in the texts: combining a 19th century lyricism with a 1920s approach to harmony and meter, unified by an early 21st – century sensibility regarding overall expression, form and scoring. If I had consciously tried to put all those things together, it would have turned into a hopeless mishmash, but, again, this was the sound I heard for the piece from the outset – I was only able to identify its components in retrospect. And that’s why the Luc Tuyman’s quote I posted last week – “It’s like I don’t know what I’m doing but I know how to do it, and it’s very strange.” – had such relevance for me.
Genealogie also ended up passing what I considered an important test – how to make a meaningful artistic experience for the listener who knows nothing about Robert Schumann, or, perhaps more importantly, didn’t care to know anything about Schumann. Coping with parental standards and expectations is a common, not to say universal, experience, and the Schumann children had the unusual challenge, especially for their time, of having a father and mother who were both at the top of their field, a field their children, or at least their daughters, were obliged to follow.
Eugenie’s gift for expressing these challenges allows us to peer into her thoughts and make our own connections. I’m so glad I got this chance to get to know her.