The Magic of Schumann (again)


I have just spent my annual week at the Open Chamber Music session of IMS Prussia Cove, down in Cornwall. It is lovely (in an intense sort of way) to be surrounded by great chamber music for every waking hour. I worked with fine musicians (most of them very young – well, by my standards) on two pieces new to me: Brahms’ C minor piano trio – a masterpiece, of course – and the ‘find’ of the week for many of us, Bloch’s amazing Piano Quintet no 1. I also listened to much wonderful music, including Britten’s 1st string quartet, and Mendelssohn’s Eb quartet, op 12 – surely Mendelssohn was the greatest teenage composer of all time?

But it was hearing two old favourites of mine, Schumann’s first two piano trios, that has brought me to the computer to write this post. I’m sorry; I know I go on about the man rather too much (as well as programming his music as often as possible, scripting an evening of words and music about him, co-authoring a book with him, etc – ok, it’s a bit of an obsession). But the piano trios are so utterly extraordinary – and so under-appreciated. The first two were written in 1847 (to be followed by a third, equally powerful, four years later). Five years had passed since the so-called ‘chamber-music year’, of 1842, in which he’d composed the piano quintet and piano quartet, as well as several of his shorter duos, and the charming Fantasiestucke op 88, also for piano trio – five years in which Schumann’s music had developed almost beyond recognition.

The piano quintet and piano quartet have always been far more popular than the piano trios; but why? Well, that is easily explained. The quartet and quintet are wonderful concert pieces, the emotions – be they ecstatically happy or deeply tragic – easily accessible and comparatively uncomplicated. Of course the quintet and quartet are in some ways autobiographical – Schumann’s music always is. But still, this is the public Schumann, writing for an audience. In the trios, we enter a different world – the complex inner world of Schumann’s deepest conflicts and affections. The first, the D minor, is as dark, as strange, as anything he ever wrote; the astonishing, stream-of-consciousness slow movement seems to me to be a portrait of the deep depression from which he undoubtedly suffered. The second, in what I think of as Schumann’s ‘womb’ key, F major, is in complete contrast: airborne, full of light and charm. But this is not the sweeping happiness of the quartet and quintet; it is subtle, inward-looking, vulnerable.

As I listened to these two trios in Cornwall, two particular moments (among many) stuck in my mind as perfect examples of Schumann’s unique, heavenly imagination – moments that could not have emerged from the pen, mind or soul of any other composer. The first comes in the development section of the D minor trio’s first movement. The music enters a dark sphere from which it seems that there is no escape; it dwindles into silence. From afar, as it were, the piano sounds a hymn-like chant, accompanied by the weird sound of cello and then violin playing sul ponticello, on the bridge. It is like a dream, a vision of distant redemption. I have a strong feeling that Schumann is actually quoting here from a hymn or chorale; but I have never been able to discover what it is. At any rate, it is an astonishing moment of altered consciousness, which sounds breathtakingly new and experimental even today; how must it have sounded to Schumann’s contemporaries?

The second ‘moment’ comes from the opening movement of the F major trio . The second subject here is actually a quotation from one of Schumann’s own songs, ‘Dein Bildnis wunderselig’, from his Liederkreis, op 39; perhaps Clara particularly loved this song. It is a beautiful descending melody, beginning on a high G, and ending on the C a fifth lower. Having heard it transformed in the development section, ne looks forward to its full reappearance in the recapitulation. But no – Schumann has another idea. When we reach the point at which the theme When we reach the point at which the theme should return, we hear, instead of the whole theme, only isolated notes, beginning with the falling fifth (supposedly his ‘Clara’ interval) that frames the whole melody. It is almost like an early example of minimalism – but the effect is indescribably tender, innocent and touching. Listening to it in Cornwall, I had a sudden fantasy of going up and embracing the man who could produce such a simple, magical stroke of genius. But then I imagined the shy, withdrawn Schumann shrinking in horror from my embrace; and Clara rebuking me disapprovingly: ‘Kindly behave yourself, Herr Isserlis’. Fair enough.