Saturday, December 18, 2010

Robert Schumann Got Rhythm!

I had a lot of fun reading “Happy Birthday, Robert Schumann!” in the latest issue of The New York Review.  This was Charles Rosen’s essay written to honor the bicentennial of Schumann’s birth, and my only real disappointment was that it did not appear earlier in the year.  Of particular interest were the ways in which Rosen compared Schumann’s music to the work of Frédéric Chopin, who was born in the same year as Schumann.

The distinction that most appealed to Rosen involved the use of rhythmic patterns.  His basic argument was that Schumann could invoke polyrhythmic effects, while Chopin would maintain a single rhythm, which might be more elegantly embellished.  For Rosen one could best appreciate Schumann’s effects in his song settings, in which the vocal line would summon rhythms of colloquial speech against a more well-defined metrical pattern in the accompaniment.  Among other things, this enabled the piano accompaniment to provide “commentary” on the text being sung, a technique that Schumann also pursued by giving the piano extended coda passages after the text setting had been completed.  (I recently observed the critical role of such codas in an review of a performance of the Opus 42 song cycle Frauenliebe und –leben.)

Rosen further addresses the extent to which Schumann’s approach to his songs also surfaces in his solo pieces (including works composed before any of his song settings).  One of the best examples can be found in the Opus 17 fantasy in C major.  In an preview piece I wrote for András Schiff’s recital earlier this year, I made the following observation about the first movement of this composition:

The first of these has a "tempo indication" that has more to do with poetic expression than with the pace indicated by the metronome marking: Durchaus phastastisch und leidenschaftlich vorzutragen (completely fantastic and passionately immediate). To the extent that the verb zutragen can be applied to relating a story, the rhetoric of this movement bears a striking resemblance that of the German Lied; and, indeed, the entire composition has four lines of verse by Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel as its motto.

Rosen reinforces this perspective by observing that the dynamic emphasis must be confined to the “vocal line,” leaving the “accompaniment” as a “blur” in the background.

Looking back on this year, I realize that there were quite a few times when I emerged from a concert I was covering for with a clear sense of “Chopin fatigue.”  Schumann could often be problematic;  and he could also be highly enigmatic (not to mention both at the same time).  However, I do not think I have ever felt fatigue from Schumann’s presence in a recital.  To the contrary, now that the year has elapsed, I find myself numbering the Schumann compositions that I never encountered in performance since this past January.

No comments: