Robert Schumann

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Robert Schumann: Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (1853), performed on April 9, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Robert Schumann was perhaps the first in a long line of great nineteenth- and twentieth-century composers whose ambitions were as much literary as they were musical. One might count in that group such diverse personalities as Wagner, Berlioz, and Prokofiev. Indeed Schumann’s ambition to become a writer, fueled in part by his father’s status as a bookseller, publisher, and translator of Sir Walter Scott, was influenced by the work of Jean-Paul Richter and E.T.A. Hoffmann. The influence of Jean-Paul lasted throughout Schumann’s life; Schumann was alleged to have said that he learned as much about musical composition from Jean-Paul as he had from any formal musical training.

The literary in Schumann’s musical imagination first took shape as an attachment to the miniature piano piece. Schumann’s early reputation was based on short, characteristic piano pieces that took literary figures and scenes as their inspiration. Schumann was able to translate not only the poetic impulse into music, but also the effect of prose. For the solitary pianist and the listener, the relation between the literary text and music became one of reminiscence, an act of nostalgia. Music stimulated the imagination just as reading did. This indirect connection between the literary and instrumental music led Schumann to experiment with the formal structure of music, the logic of musical narration. Consider “Träumerei” from the cycle Scenes of Childhood (1838). As famously analyzed by Alban Berg, this brief, beautiful piece has asymmetrical phrase lengths and harmonic surprises motivated by the sensibilities created by Romantic prose and poetry. Schumann’s innovation was to create a new expressive vocabulary for instrumental forms including extended musical fantasy that utilized a rhetoric that exceeded the conventions of sonata writing and other classical forms.

Schumann’s reputation as a pioneer was confined, however, to the varieties of domestic music making, including chamber music and the writing of Lieder that set texts, particularly those by Heine, brilliantly. Schumann solidified his position in the musical world before 1840 not only by such musical compositions but by the use of his literary talents to master the art of criticism. He set the terms of the long nineteenth-century critical debate that sought to separate the superficial from the profound and distinguish between true art and philistinism in music. He was an early advocate of Chopin and Berlioz. He took on the fashions of the day including the taste for athletic virtuosity and ear-catching sentimentality characteristic of French opera. For Schumann, Beethoven was the ideal and terrifying genius in whose shadow all future generation of composers seemed condemned to remain.

It was through the friendship and support of Felix Mendelssohn that Schumann developed the courage to challenge Beethoven in the arena of large-scale musical works. Although Schumann wrote four symphonies, it was not a form with which he was entirely comfortable. Instead Schumann followed the example of Mendelssohn and indeed the fashion of the times by turning his attention to the oratorio form. Once again Schumann’s literary gifts served him well. His first great success in the larger public arena was with his masterpiece Das Paradies und die Peri (1843). An immensely popular poem, Moore’s Lalla Rookh (1817), was at the core of the oratorio, and the composer’s skill in the setting of text and the evocation of ideas gave him the tools to construct a persuasive dramatic argument.

Schumann’s work habits were always hampered by his psychological fragility and his tendency to waver between manic and depressed moods. The early and mid-1840s were a good period for him. With his confidence bolstered by success in using secular literary texts for large-scale compositions, Schumann turned to an area in which Mendelssohn never succeeded: opera. Ultimately he would complete one opera that truly deserves a regular presence on the stage, Genoveva (1847). Ironically, although based on works by such notables as Ludwig Tieck and Friedrich Hebbel, it is hampered by a relatively unpersuasive libretto by the composer and Robert Reinick.

But in 1844 Schumann’s ambition focused on tackling the most significant German literary text not only of his own time but in all of German history: Goethe’s drama, Faust. This monumental play was written in two parts, distant from each other both in years and in form. The first part was published in 1808 and already had attracted the attention of composers in the generation before Schumann. Beethoven toyed with the idea of setting Part I to music, but that project faltered. For all Beethoven’s admiration for Schiller, the figure of Goethe presented an even more daunting challenge, even though the two once came together in a much-anticipated meeting and supposedly had little to say to each other. Goethe was without question the most prominent cultural personage of his time, and would remain, through the age of Thomas Mann, the equivalent of Shakespeare in the German literary tradition. Ludwig Spohr was another who set Faust to music, one of many subsequent efforts to capture the poetry and dramatic spirit of Part I in music.

Goethe took a long time to complete Part II, which he finally finished in 1832, the year of his death. If Part I became an icon of early Romantic sensibility, Part II became its polar opposite. The first part of Goethe’s treatment follows, with interpolation, the traditional story of the man who signs a pact with the devil in order to learn the secrets of the universe, and destroys the first woman he learns to love in the process. It is an iconic Romantic conceit. But after 1809 Goethe became increasingly suspicious of literary Romanticism, and in Part II he invented a new kind of neoclassicism in diction and the use of the theater to explore the spiritual and mystical with a disciplined formal approach, using a somewhat elaborate adherence to classical models. Part II moves into deeply symbolic and philosophical territory in its allegorical depiction of Faust’s redemption as representing the fundamental struggle of the human soul. For all his evident betrayal of Romantic precepts, the older Goethe (not the Goethe of 1774’s The Sorrows of Young Werther) became an object of derision for younger Romantic writers including Schumann’s beloved Jean-Paul. But the literary controversies of the 1820s subsided after Goethe’s death as veneration for the great man rose above all partisanship. In comparison to Part I, Part II seems resistant to the conventions of the theater, and therefore an unlikely subject for opera. At the same time, however, the conclusion of Part II suggests that music is possibly the only language to express properly the profound truths encountered by the soul in its final encounter with mortality. The tempting challenge to composers of setting Part II to music, despite its lack of a conventional narrative, is understandable. But throughout the nineteenth century, composers would have only fragmentary success in rendering Part II in music. For most concert-goers the most memorable attempt is that of Gustav Mahler, who chose the same text that Schumann did as the basis of the second part of his Eighth Symphony.

Schumann’s courage and ambition in taking on this formidable challenge may have had personal resonance for him. In Part II Goethe, despite his apparent rejection of Romantic principles, actually expands on one of the most enduring conceits of Romanticism: the obsession with the feminine personality. In Part I, Gretchen is the innocent beauty responsive to and corrupted by sensuality. She dies as the ideal object of desire. In Part II she becomes the ethereal instrument of redemptive love. Part II ends with a celebration of what Goethe calls the Eternal Feminine, the highest expression of the human capacity for love and forgiveness. This idea also expresses Schumann’s own life-long personal, philosophical, and ultimately ambivalent relationship to women and love.

No doubt, Schumann’s initial ambition was to write a successful operatic treatment of both parts of Faust. Ultimately, he retreated, perhaps out of respect for Goethe’s text, towards the form of an oratorio. This accounts for the very selective structure of Schumann’s work. In fact it is not clear that this work was ever completed. Like so many after him, Schumann found Faust just too daunting, perhaps because of the implied music of Part II. Goethe’s poetry is its own music. Schumann was sensitive to this on account of his own literary instincts. These instincts that explain why in his setting of Byron’s Manfred, he left a good deal of the text unset, to be spoken, not sung. Byron’s poetry was simply too beautiful in its own right to require music. Music might seem superfluous. The results in Scenes from Goethe’s Faust is consequently a remarkable act of editing by Schumann, resulting in a mix of songwriting, dramatic scene painting, and choral grandeur. At every moment Schumann never gets in the way of the drama and lyricism of the text. As Paul Griffiths points out, Schumann selected from both Parts I and II in order to highlight in the complex drama the centrality of the lead female character, the object of love.

In the long history of musical settings of Goethe’s Faust, including the best known example, Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust and Liszt’s Faust Symphony (which also uses the end of Part II) Schumann’s effort is certainly among the most compelling. The nineteenth-century obsession with Faust never resulted in a work that combined popularity with profundity. The only one that became a staple of the repertoire was Gounod’s opera, which most German critics and opera lovers have held in contempt. Although Schumann succeeded, this work has undeservedly remained a rarity.

Ironically, the friend and supporter who encouraged Schumann to widen his musical ambitions, Mendelssohn, had a privilege that Schumann never did—the opportunity to spend time with the great poet himself. Goethe adored the young prodigy, a protégé of Goethe’s closest musician friend, Zelter. Richard Wagner (who was also obsessed with the idea of setting Faust) helped to popularize the view that it was Mendelssohn who ruined Schumann by encouraging him to abandon his experiments in combining the literary with the musical in shorter forms. But as was often the case with Wagner’s criticism, his motivations for making this claim were suspect. It was after all Mendelssohn’s influence that led Schumann to set as much of Faust as he did. Through Mendelssohn’s influence, Schumann succeeded where Wagner himself failed. Schumann gave much of Goethe’s masterpiece its most eloquent, intense, and profound musical incarnation.