Clara Schumann – A Look Behind the Veil

Dieter Kühn: Clara Schumann, Klavier. ISBN 978-3-596-14203-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Before I read this book, I didn’t know much about Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann’s wife, born as Clara Wieck. On my music blog I exclusively refer to her under her maiden name; I will proceed in the same manner here. Having been married to a famous composer tends to obscure the fact that this woman had a fascinating life before she married Robert Schumann and even more so after her husband’s tragic death in an asylum.

Dieter Kühn’s biography is an excellent book. The amount and variety of sources he has consulted is impressive. The testimonies from the 19th century he has chosen to illustrate Clara Wieck’s world, how it changed, its highlights and the uncertainties, are remarkable and often hilarious. His narrative style is a little special: He interrupts the long list of biographical facts by interjecting personal speculations and philosophical musings. This makes the rather voluminous book fairly easy to read and entertaining, but I could imagine that this us not to everybody’s taste. I enjoyed it however, so I will not dwell upon this any longer.

The most extraordinary quality of the book lies in Kühn’s talent to let himself be fascinated by Clara Wieck’s person without losing his objectivity. He makes a point of not writing a hagiography and wants tp do away with many myths that surround Clara and her husband. Myths that Clara has partly created herself. Kühn maintains a considerable distance to his subject and is very critical of Clara Wieck. For Clara Wieck was a very complex person. A duplicitous person.

Appearances greatly mattered. Clara Wieck presented herself as a loving and true wife, a loving and tender mother, as a pianist devoted to her art and the composers whose works she performed: Chopin, Beethoven, Schumann. She presented herself as a good friend of Johannes Brahms and as the guardian of Robert Schumann’s heritage. All of this was true. But there’s was a dark side to all these aspects.

Robert Schumann had contracted syphilis as a young man; this illness lead over time to mental disorder. When he gradually become more and more confused, depressed, irate, Clara told him at some point she could not deal with the situation any longer and that she would like to hand his care over to professionals i.e. to transfer him to an asylum. This triggered Schumann’s suicide attempt. During the two years her husband spent at the asylum she visit him only once, shortly before he died. Three of the Schumann’s children suffered from severe ailements: Ludwig was schizophrenic and had been “burie aluve”, as Clara put it, while Julie and Felix had tuberculosis. Clara never visited Ludwig in the asylum, and when the other two died, she was too busy to attend the funerals and to mourn. She had concerts to give.

While Clara did occasionally compose, she felt no inner voice that wanted to express itself in a piece of music. She had to be pushed, by her father, by her husband. She had an excellent pianistic technique, she exercised a lot and sometimes against medical advice, but her style did not please all. Masterful yes, but too dry, too academic – those are the judgments of experts of her time.

Clara Wieck was obsessed by her career as a pianist. She had been trained by an ambitious father, she had been held back by an ambitious husband, but once Robert Schumann was dead, Clara Wieck’s career took of. She earned fame all over Europe and quickly became a very rich woman. At the same time her excuse for devoting very little to her children was that she had to give concerts to feed the family. A blatant lie, one of many.

Here is another one. Clara Wieck and Johannes Brahms – the story of a truly legendary friendship? Brahms had fallen in love with her and courted her for years. She gladly accepted his devotion while her husband was still alive. After his death, her initial friendship to the young composer evolved into real love and a romance. It did not last however, and somehow both settled for long-lasting friendship. The details are unknown, Clara erased most traces and spread a narrative that suited her best. Appearances mattered.

Clara Wieck – since I have read Kühn’s biography, her name triggers in me ambiguous feelings. I like her compositions, I find her career as a female pianist in a reactionary Germany impressive, but I judge her tendency to run away from painful moments and truths appalling. Her many efforts to spread myths glorifying her husband and her relationship to him, her insistence that it was her duty as a mother to give hundreds of concerts over decades when it was pure vanity repulse me.

I am glad I read this book. I might have fallen for the embellished picture that Clara Wieck has spread about herself. When she was a very young girl and did not yet think of manipulating people, she wrote a wonderful work, her Piano Concerto in A minor:

Un air de Chopin signed Clara Wieck

Music and the freedom of expression in Nazi Germany

Hans Hinterkeuser: Elly Ney und Karlrobert Kreiten. Zwei Musiker unterm Hakenkreuz. ISBN 978-3-929386-53-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ This interesting book presents two outstanding German musician whose lives took radically different directions under the Nazi reign over Germany: The pianist Elly Ney, an unconditional admirer of Adolf Hitler, embarked on a glorious career, supported by Hitler’s regime. The pianist Karlrobert Kreiten, as such an unpolitical man, was condemned and hanged by the Nazis after he had in private voiced the opinion that Germany was losing World War II after the defeat in Stalingrad.

By juxtaposing not only the professional evolution of both musicians but also their ideas about art and aesthetics, Hans Hinterkeuser shows that arts were intimately linked to politics in Nazi Germany, and that no musician could pretend to be exclusively concerned by music. If politics threaten the existence of large parts of the population, humanitarian obligations take precedence over artistic considerations. Music had to serve the glorification of the Führer, of Nazi Germany, of the Aryan race and the will to be the strongest. Elly Ney was an enthusiastic supporter of these ideas. Kreiten wasn’t.

Ney was obsessed by Ludwig van Beethoven’s music and sincerely believed that only someone with a pure German soul could correctly perform Beethoven’s compositions. She saw herself as such a person and developed a real, or rather a surreal, cult around Beethoven where playing Beethoven’s music became a holy act with rituals codified for eternity. This fit very well into the Nazi propaganda emphasizing the superiority of the German race.

Karlrobert Kreiten was different. He played works from a large variety of composers: Mozart, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Debussy and Prokofiev. He had no hesitation to recognize the genius of foreign composers and he would not have questioned that any piece of art is interpreted at two levels: at the level of the performing artist and at the level of the audience. The idea that there could only be one way two perform a piece would have sounded absurd to him.

Kreiten was a bright mind and refused to stop thinking during the Nazi era. Ney was a narrow-minded believer who did never question the official truth. While she must have known about the forced exile of many of her Jewish colleagues and while she could not possibly have ignored the rumours about the genocide in the East, she chose to support the Nazis. Kreiten however identified the news of the glorious battles on the Eastern front as propaganda and did not hide his opinion. He was betrayed, arrested and executed, despite a courageous protest from the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, while Ney was unrepentant and embarked on a second career after 1945. Her allegiance to Hitler was passed under silence.

In my opinion, the use of classical music as a propaganda tool by Communists or Nazis is an important subject. Identifying the underlying rationale my help us today recognize current instances where arts are misused to propagate racist or undemocratic ideas. In this respect, Hinterkeuser wrote an important book. It would however benefited his message if he had been able to deliver it in a neutral, less emotional way. His indignation about Ney’s career is understandable, however his personal judgment is irrelevant in a scientific publication. The case against Ney is sufficiently strong already.

Music is about creativity and creativity requires freedom of expression, freedom that cannot be total, but must be limited by other people’s freedom to live without being discriminated in their fundamental rights. Beethoven was an enthusiastic supporter of modern civic rights and the freedom of expression as you may hear in his incidental music “Egmont”, Op. 81:

Liberty, sacrifice and charming madness

Controversial Notes About an Embattled Composer

shosta

Solomon Volkov (Ed.): Testimony. The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich. ISBN 978-0-571-22792 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Such a thrilling book! Brimfull with interesting details and funny anecdotes. Written in a riveting style. My insight into the motives and emotions, my understanding of the brilliant mind of one of my favourite composers grew in leaps. A fascinating life, full of contradictions, marked by sorrow and joy, desperation and optimism, narrated by Dmitry Shostakovich himself. If only I could be sure that these memoirs are authentic.

Since the book was published by Solomon Volkov in 1979, the discussion has been raging. Is the story, as Volkov renders it, true? Volkov claimed it all happened very quickly, since the composer wanted to give his version of the story as he sensed hus own death. He and Shostakovich would have met between 1972 and 1973 for several lengthy interview sessions, and Volkov claimed to have scrupulously noted the composers memories, explanations etc. The manuscript apparently was smuggled into the West, and was to be published after the composer’s death. Volkov has been challenged by musicologists to share the original notes, which he refused to do.

So did Volkov make it all up? He and Shostakovich were well acquainted, and several witnesses confirmed that the two met several times to write Shostakovich’s memoirs. The common project’s goal was to portray composer caught between party loyality and creativity. To shed some light on the ideological constraints that Shostakovich sometimes accepted and sometimes overcame, at great personal risks, at least as long as Stalin lived.

Volkov shows the composer as a clandestine opponent to the Soviet system, his music being full of hidden allusions about Stalin’s tyranny. He casts Shostakovich as an implaccable accuser of Soviet (un)cultural policies, an eyewitness of the destruction of Russia’s artistic heritage in the name of “Socialist Realism”, the official cultural ideology. A riskless endeavour once Shostakovich was dead – he died in 1975 – and Volkov safely lived in the United States.

But is this Shostakovich narrating his life or Volkov narrating Shostakovich’s life? The New York musicologist Laurel Fay identified eight passages in the book which she asserts had been copied by Volkov from articles or speeches previously published by Shostakovich. This casts a shadow over the authenticity of the whole book. Volkov’s refusal to share the original notes, apparently reviewed by the composer, makes it hard to tell where Shostakovich ends and Volkov begins.

In 1990, the biographer Ian MacDonald published “The New Shostakovich” explaining the composer’s life and work within the context of Soviet history. The picture painted by Volkov gains some credibility, but it doesn’t mean Shostakovich said what Volkov wrote. MacDonald pointed out that the composer’s son Maxim, who had repudiated Volkov’s account while he still lived in the Soviet Union, had endorsed “Testimony” after his emigration.

Testimony, pitching the personal memory of an embattled individual against the official memory of an all-powerful state, is contentious to the last full stop”, MacDonald writes. He recommends to approach it with caution. The Soviet Union officially denounced Volkov’s book as a fabrication, MacDonald sees it as a provoking piece of counter-propaganda. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle and remains fuzzy. That was the state of play then, and it will remain so for the near future, I guess. It doesn’t matter actually. Reading this book gave me a lot of pleasure, and, as they say in Italy: Se non e vero, e ben trovato.

Since Shostakovich’s memoirs are such a controversial issue, let’s see, here is a controversial piece, Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77:

Shostakovich crosses the desert of solitude

Putting Man at the Centre of Music

Michael Heinemann: Claudio Monteverdi. Die Entdeckung der Leidenschaft. ISBN 978-3-7957-1213-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I read this book with interest, no doubt. The Dresden based music scholar Michael Heinemann explains in great detail how Claudio Monteverdi’s music presented a radical shift from past compositional techniques, whose limitation were linked to dogmas of the Catholic Church. Compositions were to reflect the cosmic order as it had been created by God, and Monteverdi was the first to systematically deviate from this practice. It is needless to say that he made himself a couple of enemies inside the composers’ guild and inside the Vatican. However he freed music at the beginning of the 17th century and by putting the individual man with his often conflicting emotions at the centre of his music, he allowed for an increase in expressivity unheard of up to then.

While Monteverdi’s early compositions like the Books of Madrigals I to III lack these revolutionary compositional pattern, his later Books of Madrigals, his operas and his masses show a high degree of innovation, which Heinemann explains with scores at hand. If contemporary classical music features since the ascent of György Ligeti basic building blicks like sound clouds or sound surfaces, it was highly amusing to learn that Monteverdi had used these elements already some 350 years earlier by having separate choirs positioned in different parts of the St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice to produce similar effects without electronics.

Heinemann excels also in giving the reader a lot of historical context which demonstrates how Monteverdi’s style evolved and became more and more daring, and how his new ideas radiated through northern Europe. One of the long-term consequences of Monteverdi’s innovation was the sharper differenciation between secular music and church music, the first finding its apogee with Richard Wagner’s operas, the latter remaining anchored in the tradition of Palestrina.

I read this book with increasing irritation too. Heinemann’s style – he seems to be obsessed by short sentences, sentences without verbs or without a subject – makes the reading extremly tiresome, needlessly tiresome, to a degree that makes me think it has a lot to do with self-aggrandizement and much less with transmitting Heinemann’s passion with Monteverdi’s music. Too bad. By his deep understanding of Baroque music, the author has already demonstrated that he deserves scientific and public recognition and is in no need for self-aggrantizement.

All the drama you can get in Monteverdi’s music is encapsulated in his “Il Combattimento di Tancredi et Clorida”, a section of the Book of Madrigals VIII:

Liberating Jerusalem with pizzicato and tremolo

Life and Works of an Avant-Garde Composer

faure-Nectoux

Jean-Michel Nectoux: Fauré. ISBN 978-2020234887 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I recently fell in love. With the music of a composer I had chosen to ignore for reasons I can’t quite understand. Gabriel Fauré. An outstanding composer. A man who most of the time underrated himself and his music. A man, trained as a church musician dared to fuse the compositional traditions of Renaissance and Baroque music with modern symphonic or chamber music.

The discovery of Fauré led me to buy a number of recordings – and on my music blog you will soon see more about that – and to look for a short introduction into the life and works of this man. I found this short book (256 pages) by Jean-Michel Nectoux, a condensed version of a more substantial biography (847 pages) he wrote. An excellent choice. I read it in one stretch, over a weekend. Worth the money for anyone interested in this avant-garde composer.

To get a feeling for Fauré’s music I suggest you try his Cello Sonata No. 2 in G minor:

Fauré builts a bridge into musical modernity