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Schumann: a story that transcends the music

Stewart Oksenhorn

In instituting its series of mini-festivals this summer, the Aspen Music Festival and School is promoting the idea that a grasp of the context in which classical music was composed leads to a fuller appreciation of the music itself. So the mini-festivals – Beethoven: From Rebel to Icon in the first week of the festival; Schumann: Musical Supernova? which occupies much of this week’s schedule; and Forbidden Music: Silenced Voices, in the festival’s final week – immerse audiences not only in multiple concerts but also in discussions and innovative programs that give listeners a historical perspective on the music.The foundation on which the mini-fests are built seems a given: the more biographical, social and stylistic information one has about a composer, the richer the listening experience.J.D. Landis, whose 1991 historical novel about composer Robert Schumann and his wife, pianist Clara, is at the center of the Schumann mini-festival, says he’s not so sure about that premise. “If you’re not going to like the music anyway, reading the book isn’t going to make you like it,” he said. But Landis quickly subverts his own view and buttresses the philosophy beneath the mini-festivals. When Landis gave readings from “Longing,” he would play a three-minute excerpt from Schumann’s first sonata (written, like much of his music, for Clara and titled “A Cry of My Heart for You”). “And more people would ask where they could get the CD than the book,” he quipped. Landis also notes that when his literary agent began reading “Longing,” out of nowhere he started taking piano lessons.Those two bits of anecdotal evidence go a ways toward supporting the point of the mini-festivals: Give the audience a comfortable entryway to the music – say, the story of an uncommonly passionate romance between a composer and a pianist – and the listener may find herself more receptive to the music.Landis himself is a good example. Since his childhood days in Massachusetts, Landis – who goes by Jim (that’s what I called him anyway, and he didn’t correct me) – was vastly interested in music. He took classical piano lessons as a kid. But it was jazz that captivated him; he played clarinet in his high school’s Dixieland band and longed to be a great saxophonist. When he entered the New York publishing world in the mid-’60s, Landis became what he calls “the first rock ‘n’ roll editor.” He edited the 1970 Janis Joplin biography “Buried Alive,” which stunned Landis when it was reviewed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review.

Classical music wasn’t foremost in the mix. “Classical, though it was the first I played, it was the last I came to as an editor,” said Landis, who will make his first trip to Aspen this week to participate in the mini-festival. And while he did go on to work on several books revolving around classical music, the subject did not lead him to his novel about the Schumanns. “I came to this book not because of music,” he said.Instead, it was the romance between Robert Schumann and Clara Weick that captivated Landis. Both were fascinating on their own: Schumann was a brilliant composer and noted writer and poet whose later mental breakdowns were foretold in his bouts of loneliness and insecurity as a teenager. Largely abandoned by her mother, the silent Clara was thought mute by her father, a noted piano instructor. But guided by him, Clara demonstrated astonishing musical talent at a young age and impressed the artistic heavyweights of the day – Mendelssohn, Liszt – with her recitals.More striking to Landis than these individual stories was the magnetic attraction between the two. Robert, a student of Friedrich Weick and thus a resident in the Weick household, fell in love with Clara, even though she was nine years his junior. Clara was equally smitten with the budding composer. Over the objection of Friedrich, the two married. Though both had less than glittering careers in their time – Schumann’s work was considered immensely difficult to play or listen to, unusually fragmented and unhinged from the music of the Classical era; Clara sacrificed her career to the demands of her husband’s illness – they were major celebrities in the German Romantic period of the early 19th century. Most profoundly, the Schumanns had a cosmic bond.”Somewhere, many years ago, I read that the Schumanns as a couple were highly regarded in the annals of love,” said Landis, a New Hampshire resident for the last 10 years who has written nonfiction, memoirs, children’s poems and novels for adults and young readers, as well as edited “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” “I now realize they are the greatest couple that’s ever been – two more accomplished people have never been married to one another and certainly not with this drama.”The drama – especially Robert’s manic-depression, perhaps brought on by the early death of his mother and his sister’s subsequent suicide – piqued Landis’ interest further. And one inexplicable quirk in their relationship sealed the writer’s desire to tackle the subject.”I had read at some point that Robert Schumann was committed to an asylum and that Clara never visited him there,” said Landis, who began writing “Longing” in the mid-’70s. “That’s all it took. I thought, how could this be? What’s the story behind this? With a couple as close as they were, how could she not visit him for two and a half years?”Landis originally conceived the story as a play, set in Endenich, the asylum in which Robert died. When the manuscript reached several hundred pages, Landis knew he had a different sort of beast in hand. When Napoleon appeared in the text, invading Schumann’s hometown of Zwickau, Landis says he “realized it was not going to be a short novel about two people in love but about the first half of the 19th century.”

Apart from the Schumanns themselves, the Romantic period that surrounded them, and of which they were a critical part, gets a thorough examination in “Longing.” Landis calls the time, spanning the late 18th and early 19th centuries, “the greatest movement in human history.” Landis’ book includes references to such figures as E.T.A. Hoffman and Goethe, but it is the musicians – Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Liszt – who are most prominent, because music itself became the prominent art form during the Romantic period.”The Romantic movement was the first time music was celebrated for its appeal to the senses,” said Landis. “Music became considered the greatest of the arts in the late 18th and early 19th century mostly because of German Romanticism. Until then, it was disdained in a way, because it didn’t appeal to the intellect. The Classicists weren’t interested in emotion; they were interested in the mind. With the Romantics, it became a celebration of the emotion, the irrational, the imagination, the transcendental.”And Schumann is often considered the finest example of the era. His music parted to a large degree with previous structures. His work was highly programmatic, the music directly referencing other things and persons, especially his beloved Clara.Delving into the romance between Robert and Clara has given Landis – who is working on a new Schumann novel, “Endenich” – a profound appreciation of Schumann’s music. But he is not certain that everyone exposed to his book will get the same fondness for the music. Schumann’s work is notoriously thorny and peculiar. And sometimes, it doesn’t matter how much context is provided, the music just isn’t capturing certain people.”Even today, a conservative audience would find his piano music difficult to listen to,” said Landis. “I’ve been to a lot of concerts where people would leave during his music.”This week’s lineup

Landis will join Aspen Music Festival artistic advisor Asadour Santourian in presenting a High Notes discussion about the Schumanns on Wednesday, Aug. 11.Other events in the mini-festival: The Distinguished Artist Master Class on Tuesday, Aug. 10, will feature pianist Joseph Kalichstein in a performance of Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat major. That night, Dr. Richard Kogan will present the lecture/performance, “Schumann: Music, Mood Swings and Madness”; the program includes Schumann’s noted Carnaval and Fantasie in C major.A special event on Wednesday, Aug. 11, teams violinist Robert McDuffie and pianist Christopher Taylor in performances of Schumann sonatas and the Piano Quartet in E-flat major again. Kalichstein will be featured in a piano master class on Thursday, Aug. 12, also focused on the Piano Quartet. That night, pianists and married couple Cipa and Misha Dichter will perform an all-Schumann program. On Friday, Festival music director David Zinman leads pianist Yefim Bronfman and the Aspen Chamber Symphony in a performance that includes Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony, as well as works by Mendelssohn and Beethoven. The 1947 film “Song of Love,” about the Schumanns and starring Katharine Hepburn, will be screened that night at Paepcke Auditorium.Landis will narrate the chamber music concert on Saturday, Aug. 14, featuring works by Robert and Clara Schumann. That night, the recital by the American String Quartet features Schumann’s String Quartet in A major, titled “Clara,” as well as works by Shostakovich and Brahms. Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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