The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: During “Schumann Week” at NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog, American pianist Jonathan Biss excelled in exploring and explaining the music and life of the prototypical Romantic composer. | October 21, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s not as if the music of Robert Schumann (1810-1856) hasn’t found a secure place in the repertoire. His piano music, chamber music, songs and orchestral music are all pretty standard fare and are performed and heard often.

And yet Robert Schumann (below, in a photo from 1850), who started out as a music critic and would-be concert pianist before turning to composing, still remains an enigmatic figure whose personal life and musical compositions offer many mysteries to explore. This is especially true of the role of his mental illness and the quality of his late-life compositions.

Two weeks ago, NPR and its terrific blog “Deceptive Cadence” offered a mini-seminar on Schumann. It used many audio samples, including playing and insightful commentary by the contributor Jonathan Biss (below, in a photo by Jillian Edelstein) and others, including Maurizio Pollini, Sviatoslav Richter, Andras Schiff and Radu Lupu.

The young American pianist has recorded several outstanding CDs for EMI of major solo piano works of Schumann. His latest release is a terrific new recording of Schumann’s upbeat and extroverted Piano Quintet, coupled with Dvorak’s Piano Quintet, with the Elias String Quartet for the Onyx label).

Biss has also just published an outstandingly informative and personally revealing e-book on Schumann called “A Pianist Under the Influence” (below, $1.99 at Biss has also launched a season-long major project and international 30-concert tour — called “Schumann: Under the Influence” — of performing Schumann’s works with other instrumentalists and singers.

Biss also played the piano for NPR, which offers samples on its website.


Five Things You Didn’t Know About Schumann, with some audio samples to highlight the discussion:

Pianist and Schumann enthusiast Jonathan Biss Shoots Down Schumann Detractors:

How the Schumann’s  (below) – Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck — used an unusual joint written Journal more than conversation to communicate:

How Schumann created and furthered a Culture of Musical Nostalgia:

I love Schumann’s sense of bittersweet melody and harmony, his sense of longing and search for belonging, and have many favorite pieces.

But perhaps my most favorite work is the second section of “Kreisleriana,” which is about his longing for Clara before they were married and which was dedicated to Chopin. (Chopin dedicated his Ballade No. 2 to Schumann, and Chopin’s career was launched early by published praise from Schumann, who was writing as a critic.)

Perhaps because I heard it early on, I find the performance by Martha Argerich particularly moving. Here is that movement performed by Argerich. (Biss’ outstanding and beautiful recording of the complete “Kreisleriana,” which runs to more than 33 minutes, is also available on YouTube.):


  1. Other people’s blogs aside, Denk and Biss seem also to be writers and musicians. I like to think of myself in the same light.
    Horowitz,s favorite composer to play and hear was Schumann. For all his bravura and showmanship, Horowitz seems to have felt vulnerable as well. this is why I would rather hear him than Richter most of the time. Richter seems completely Invulnerable, personally and musically. This quality of being open, to life, love, happiness, despair, seems the essence of both performing and creativity as a composer.
    As far as what I knew about Schumann, I did NOT know he was the Calvin Coolidge Silent type. Other than that the info was already part of my knowledge of him. The general books about pianism, Harold Schoenberg, etc, all give much good info about Schumann.
    Play the Toccata once, it will really wake up your senses, as the chords are changing every 1/8 note, at a rapid clip! Horowitz and Pogorelich play it like a Hurricane!
    And, The Kreisleriana is available on YouTube, does that not say it all? We ought to have to BUY that to hear and see it, but we do not have to any such THING. income from Art is a thing of the Past, kinda like old-fashioned mental asylums.

    Comment by Michael BB — November 1, 2012 @ 10:11 am

  2. […] Classical music: During “Schumann Week” at NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” b… ( […]

    Pingback by Music « Music — October 31, 2012 @ 8:44 am

  3. Thanks for this great post about Schumann, Jake. I just thought I would mention, mostly for the benefit of your Schumann-loving readers out East, that Jeremy Denk will be performing “Davidsbundlertanze” in Philadelphia on Tuesday, October 30. Every Denk concert is an event, and this one is definitely worth the trip, even if that trip happens to be a few hundred miles.


    Comment by Jeff — October 21, 2012 @ 10:02 am

    • Hi Jeff,
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      Thanks especially for information about Jeremy Denk.
      I would love to hear what he does with Schumann’s music — which seems just made for Jeremy’s always unique approach, although, when it comes to the big pieces, I prefer the Fantasy, “Fantasy Pieces” and “Kreisleriana” to the “Davidsbundlertanze.”
      Thanks for filling us in. If you hear it, let us know what you think.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 21, 2012 @ 11:25 am

  4. First, my thanks for this Robert Schumann story; There is a series on Schumann (heard on radio station WFMT out of Chicago) and which I believe is from an IOWA (Univ?) source which is in several program segments. (I can send you the clip on one of these if you like).  Your article is excellent.

    I have a website and would like to make your Educated Ear available to my readers. Can I do this on a daily bases without their having to subscribe? Or if not, can I cut and paste your daily entry and with your permission?


    Len Sullivan


    Comment by hi2len — October 21, 2012 @ 2:52 am

    • Hi Len,
      As always, thank you for reading and replying.
      I am pleased that you liked the posting about Robert Schumann.
      As for helping your readers: Most or at least many blogs have a permanent link to another blog or to many others; and you can do that by using the URL address in the top line. (It should be easy to provide for your readers, but I don’t know who supports your blog page.) In fact, that is exactly what the NPR blog “Deceptive Cadence” does for my blog. You can check it out on their website.
      Or, as you suggest, they could also subscribe to my blog The Well-Tempered Ear.
      In addition, they just make it FAVORITE on a PC or a BOOKMARK on a MAC.
      I am disinclined to give you permission to copy and paste it into your blog. For one, there is the legal question of intellectual property and copyright and things like Q&A respondents and guest columnists would be affected for their parts.
      Secondly, I am not sure how the formatting would work.
      But more importantly, the entire reason for writing the blog is to attract readers, hits and subscribers to my blog — NOT yours.
      But putting a permanent link on your page and maybe a headline or first paragraph would work to both our benefits by attracting readers to both our sites.
      Let me know what you think and find out what you can do.
      I am sure something can be worked out.
      I hope you understand.
      And please know that I am very flattered that you want to share me and my blog with your readers.
      Jake aka The Ear

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 21, 2012 @ 9:17 am

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