The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: New book “Schumann: A Chorus of Voices” mixes oral history with musicology to invent an outstanding model of accessible scholarship and criticism

August 12, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Today and tomorrow I will blog about two outstanding contributions – a book and a set of reissued recordings — to celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of composer Robert Schumann, which happened on June 8, 2010 and which will be marked this current season around the world.

If for no other reason, this year’s celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856) should be remembered for one of the best books about a composer and his works I have ever read – and I have read a good number of them.

The book – which was recommended to me by The Music Teacher – is John C. Tibbetts’ “Schumann: A Chorus of Voices” (Amadeus Press, $40). The 495-page volume is particularly distinguished by its unusual, welcome and long overdue approach.

The author, an amateur pianist and a professor of theater and film at the University of Kansas, has combined oral history with serious musicology and music criticism. In essence, he does in print what various radio hosts, including Bill McGlaughlin, Karl Haas and Tibbetts himself, have done on the air.

But Tibbetts goes further, and here is a link to his web site:

Over some 30 years and in a wide variety of venues and settings on a variety of occasions, Tibbetts (below) has interviewed — sometimes more than once — dozens of major and well-known performers, scholars and others about who Schumann was, what his music means to them and how we should appreciate him.

Here is just a partial list of the prominent names who feature in this volume’s “chorus” of 99: Emanuel Ax, Elly Ameling, Garrick Ohlsson, Charles Rosen, Jacques Barzun, Paul Badura-Skoda (who taught at the UW-Madison), Marin Alsop, John Eliot Gardiner, Richard Goode, Heinz Holliger, Steven Isserlis, Jorg Demus, Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, Euegene Istomin, Eugenia Zuckerman, the Guarneri String Quartet — and scholar Elizabeth Paley, who graduated from the UW-Madison.

What emerges from these conversational interviews, which cumulatively have so much professional experience with Schumann’s music, is eminently readable and fully pleasurable. You dip in here or dip in there, and always return to it without losing anything.

I also find it particularly comprehensive, covering everything from the historical, political, social and artistic context of Schumann to detailed discussions of specific works, including those for piano, orchestra, chamber music and songs.

Schumann (below, in a photo from 1850) is a rich subject, perhaps the perfect subject, for this kind of approach. He was fantastical and mentally ill, given to wide mood swings and manic flights of a prolifically productive imagination. His music can have so many different meanings for different performers and listeners.

He wrote in nearly all genres, and in each genre he invariably produced numerous masterpieces. Much more than Liszt or Chopin, Schumann remains the quintessential Romantic who pursued both literature and music with equal passion and mastery.

Do you have a favorite work by Schumann? Despite its lack of a good index (and a selective discography), this book allows you to read detailed and sometimes disputatious discussions of that work by famous performers. Your appreciation of that work will change, and so perhaps will your performances of it if you are an amateur or even professional musician.

You can also explore the career of his piano virtuoso and composer wife Clara Wieck (below) in detail. You can explore current topics in Schumann scholarship including the role of gender in so-called masculine and feminine musical forms; the likely cause of his mental and emotional instability; his possible homosexuality; the ties between literature and his music; the role of classicism and classical counterpoint in Schumann’s music; the myths about his finger injury and his syphilis; the role of musical masks; the role of cycles; Schumann’s influence on later composers including Debussy; questions of editing and  tempi caused by a faulty metronome; and the importance of children’s music to this father of eight.

This illustrated book, in short, is the kind of music history and music analysis we need if classical music is to be rescued from the dry and pedantic academicians who mistakenly think the public cares about whether a certain chord is a diminished seventh or a minor third. For composer, performer and listener alike, this books puts the human element back at the center of the music.

Plus the book something that more publishers should do: Provide a companion CD, this one with Van Cliburn gold medalist Jose Fenghali playing “Carnaval” and Ronald Brautigan playing the complete Novellettes, Op. 21 – one very well-known work and one rarely heard work. Its perfect complement to the words and text.

I would like to see more and similar kinds of volumes written – perhaps by composer (Chopin also 200, the Liszt bicentennial is in 2011), perhaps by work (Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos or selected cantatas, Beethoven’s and Brahms’ symphonies and concertos, Schubert’s songs and piano sonatas).

Have you read “Schumann: A Chorus of Voices”?

Do you intend to?

Does it seem appealing to you from my description and criticism?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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