Sunday, March 4, 2007

Madness through Music

Robert Schumann died in a mental asylum in 1856. Since the nineteenth-century understanding of the mind, particularly its pathologies, was not particularly extensive, we have little hard evidence about the nature of his malady other than his attempted suicide. Students of Schumann's life and work like to point to his personal construction of self through the two fictitious voices of Florestan and Eusebius, who appear not only in his texts but also in "Carnaval," and argue that he was bipolar. I even once heard a paper delivered by a musicologist who combined text records with her interpretation of "Carnaval" to conclude that he was a transvestite (or at least fantasized about it). Whatever the facts may be, there is a general consensus that Schumann did not always fit very well with the "real world;" and this would lead to erratic behavior.

This consensus also sees "Kreisleriana" as Schumann's identification with E. T. A. Hoffmann's fictional character, the Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler. I first encountered Kreisler in my college days. A mathematics professor I knew had pointed me in the direction of Hoffmann's Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr nebst Fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler. This purported to be an autobiography of a cat (Murr), who was kept by Kreisler. Unable to find blank sheets of paper, Murr decided to write this autobiography on the opposite side of pages that Kreisler had used to document his own life. The resulting text is an oscillation of disconnected fragments as the "editor" (Hoffmann) reproduces both sides of each sheet of paper in the order in which he found them. Those fragments were enough to convince me that Kreisler was one scary character, so it did not surprise me that one of Hoffmann's working titles for his Kreisler material was Lucid Intervals of an Insane Musician.

Turning now to Schumann, we see that "Kreisleriana" was composed in 1838. He was madly in love with Clara Wieck, and Clara's father was doing all he could to prevent her from marrying Robert. This was a very prolific time for Schumann. One might even get away with saying that he was composing like one possessed, and much of his composition work was pushing the envelopes of both structural expectations and technical demands. The result is an embodiment of madness in music that is as scary as Hoffmann's text-based efforts. They not only challenge the pianist to come to terms with the notes that need to be executed but also challenge the listener to "make sense" of what ensues. In other words the work resides on the brink between the order of musical structure and the chaos of total mental breakdown.

A pianist has to have both confidence and guts to pull off a performance that immediately situates us on that brink and never provides a breath of security through the duration of the eight fantasies that serve as the "movements" of "Kreisleriana." After last night I am happy to report that Jonathan Biss has both the confidence and the guts. I went to his recital with high hopes, having enjoyed his interpretation of Beethoven's fourth piano concerto with the San Francisco Symphony; and I was not disappointed. It was not just the manic energy that drove forward all of the allegro passages or even the retrospective mood swings that would interrupt these bursts of energy. There was also this uneasy sense that every pause for reflection was settling on German idioms that would begin as practically banal and then gradually deteriorate as more and more notes were shoveled into the musical texture. Even many of the boldest pianists tend to focus on getting the technique right and letting the results speak for themselves. Biss, on the other hand, found the "subtext" that supported all that technique and would neither hide it nor smooth it over with an elegantly polished reading. It is hard to write about this in the context of music as it is generally performed. One gets a better sense of what this all felt like by thinking over Shakespeare at his most horrific in Lear and then turning up the volume a couple of notches.

"Kreisleriana" was the only piece Biss played after his intermission. In retrospect one realizes that he used the first half of his recital to prepare our ears, so to speak. Just before the intermission, his reading of Beethoven's "Pastoral" sonata honored the fragmented nature of that text. His reading was fitful but not an any exaggerated way, just enough to make sure we were all aware of the "gaps" that impeded the sort of "garden variety" continuity we tend to expect from our classical music. His opening the recital with Mozart took a similar tack. In this case the work was fragmented: the synthesis of the allegro and andante sonata movements of K. 533 with the rondo of K. 494. However, the sense of separation of the two parts was almost violent. The K. 533 movements almost sounded like Schumann, and only the final movement left us with some sense of the comfort that we usually associate with listening to Mozart piano sonatas. When I first heard this performance, I had no idea what to think about it; but it makes a lot more sense in the context of the entire evening.

Between the Mozart and the Beethoven Biss played the Webern "Variations for Piano." This is the sort of piece from which we tend to expect fragmentation. Fortunately, the latter half of the twentieth century saw the successful migration of Webern out of the hands of the (most amateur) mathematicians and into the hands of those who could find the music in the notes. While no one could accuse this of being a standard theme-and-variations composition, Biss had a clear sense of how Webern has segmented the work in such a way that the resulting gestures feel like a series of variations. It may be that this particular approach to reading was the same one that he brought to the K. 533 movements, but this was not apparent until we heard its application to the Webern.

At the beginning of last month, I wrote about how the Artemis Quartet had taken an integrated approach to the program for their recital. It would appear that Biss has done the same with his recital. I hope this is a trend that will continue. It can make us all better listeners.

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