Concert Pianist Denk Reviews Robert Schumann Book

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lennygoran
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Concert Pianist Denk Reviews Robert Schumann Book

Post by lennygoran » Thu Nov 22, 2018 7:00 am

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Book Review|Robert Schumann: A Hopeless, Brilliant Romantic


By Jeremy Denk

Nov. 19, 2018

SCHUMANN
The Faces and the Masks
By Judith Chernaik
Illustrated. 349 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $30.

It won’t cure your problems, or the world’s, but it can’t hurt to immerse yourself in the music of Robert Schumann, a man who knew how to love. No less an authority than Sting agrees. I know this because Sting once put his hand supportively on my back while I practiced the postlude of Schumann’s song cycle “Dichterliebe,” and I haven’t washed that shirt since.

Robert’s life story comes to a harrowing end — I won’t spoil all the grim details, even more tragic than the median Romantic artist’s. Nonetheless, if you take the time to read Judith Chernaik’s new biography, “Schumann: The Faces and the Masks,” your life outlook may improve. Without hitting you over the head, Chernaik allows you to feel the core of Schumann’s story: his love for his wife, Clara, a great concert pianist and formidable muse. Between this and the battle against his own demons to compose truthful music, Schumann’s spirit comes across as an antidote to all the hate and perverse self-love we are forced to swallow in public affairs, day after day.



Depicting love through music may seem all too easy a job, especially for a composer born in 1810, when brilliant Romantics seemed to be bursting from wombs all over Europe. If you find a good love poem, and write a catchy melody, you might well be done in time for dinner. But as in real life, capturing and prolonging love in music is tricky. Sentiment cloys; melodies repeat; before you know it, instead of the complexity of love-as-felt, you get a greeting card. Schumann was not scientific by nature, but in this respect he was a master cultivator. He was able to distill in small bits of music — usually self-enclosed, like emotive petri dishes — these unbelievable concoctions of frustration, beauty, bitterness, burning need and radiant joy.

One of Schumann’s great discoveries was the power of an underexploited area of the harmonic universe. Imagine a chord Y that “wants” to resolve to another chord, Z. Because music is cleverly recursive, you can always find a third chord (let’s say X) that wants to go to the first: a chord that wants to go to a chord that wants to go to a chord, or — if you will — a desire for a desire. Schumann placed a spotlight on this nook of musical language, back a couple of levels from the thing ultimately craved, deep into the interior of the way harmonies pull at our hearts.

Another musical principle that haunts Schumann’s work, and makes it so ideal for exploration of the kinetic qualities of emotion, is — oddly — syncopation. He’s not after swingy, happy syncopation, the kind you find in ragtime, which lightens a simple tune and makes it feel less foursquare. Schumann’s does quite the opposite: It creates baggage under even his most soaring melodies. He writes pulsating accompaniments, moment after moment determined not to be with the main voice, supplying a kind of constant and urgent in-between-ness, anticipations of the next note or reflections of the last, charging each moment with intensity. But as thrilling as these palpitating accompaniments are — obviously sexual in their throbbing and striving — the most original and profound of Schumann’s syncopations occur when a ghost melody follows the main melody at some distance, an echo blurring the sense of time, making the music seem almost divorced from itself.

This sense of being divorced from the self plays a starring role in Chernaik’s biography, as it must. Schumann’s problems at first are humdrum Romantic complaints: His mother wants him to study law; he has to decide whether to follow his musical heart. He contracts syphilis, alas, and worries about it. But when he is 21, almost as soon as he devotes himself to piano study, two names appear in his diary: Florestan and Eusebius, extrovert and introvert, mascots of Schumann’s internal divisions, the “masks” of the book’s subtitle. Chernaik, the author of “The Lyrics of Shelley,” writes that “Florestan and Eusebius were far more than Romantic doubles. They appeared to him, as real as his student friends.”

Chernaik gets the incredible essence of this: how he offloaded his difficult emotional world onto an imaginary band of alternative identities, partly for survival, to fight the philistine world on better terms. I wish she had dug a bit further into the way he translated them into music. Florestan’s characteristic gesture, for instance, is a surge: a crescendo with no corresponding diminuendo. (Schumann’s music is full of these instructions, all in a row; if you took them literally, you would end up playing louder and louder until you or the piano fell apart.) Eusebius’ gesture is the circle: a phrase that bends back on itself or oscillates around a mysterious center. The difference is not just contrast. Some of Schumann’s most compelling music holds these two forces in tension — centrifugal and centripetal, reaching and enfolding. He’s therefore able to tap into two veins of tenderness, one overtly adult-sensual, the second magically on both ends of the child-parent bond — young wonder plus aged reverie. In other words, the masks allow Schumann to capture love as a spectrum: He gets more of it than his fellow Romantics, even Chopin, with whom love can sometimes feel like a performance.

Chernaik, drawn to this supercharged story and the music, has backed up her affection with solid research. She describes the key family drama with relish: Robert’s initial infatuation with his piano teacher’s daughter Clara, the rage of the father once the romance is discovered, endless separation, legal wrangles and (at last) some reconciliation. (Once he is happily married, the real troubles begin: Schumann’s gifts waging war with the forces tearing him apart.) She narrates plainly, staying far from Schumann’s overeffusive style. It isn’t a gripping book for the person who already knows Schumann’s music and story, but it is perfect for the newcomer, a generous and tremendously useful resource.

Schumann’s elusive genius has allowed for a lot of naysayers. In a recent Wall Street Journal review of this same biography, the writer gives credit to Chernaik’s narrative work but can barely find time to praise Schumann’s music. He refers to Schumann’s spirit as “exhausting,” poking fun at his ardor: “Today’s reader might confront such a person and ask him to calm down.” He lists standard concert works but omits almost all the essential ones: the joyous, meltingly beautiful Piano Quartet; the Violin Sonata in A minor; and the surge of early piano pieces, including “Carnaval,” “Kreisleriana,” the “Fantasie” and — for many pianists the holiest of holies — the “Davidsbündlertänze,” a piece that rewards each listening more than the last.

Though I don’t understand them, Schumann doubters do have rational objections. Unabashed love and rational skepticism are natural companions, even symbiotic enemies. Schumann understood this as well as anyone. The final song of “Dichterliebe,” for instance, gives voice to the bitter, skeptical breakup phase of a relationship: “I’m done with it all.” The music is ironic, marching, strict, pitch perfect in its adopted pose of detachment. But after the singer goes silent, Schumann uses the pianist for an astounding catharsis. First, a hint of melody, syncopated against a hidden beat, ascending to some unknown goal. Then this melody gathers itself, trying to say something in the absence of words, reaching up once, twice, and a third time reaching the top of the arc of loss (while the singer remains mute, listening to his own sorrow). This phrase arrives without arriving, as life often does; when at last it recedes through various painful notes, you get something like comfort, but with all preceding heartbreak folded in. When you contemplate these great Schumann passages, humble, vulnerable and unflinching in the face of human emotions, it feels heartless to doubt.



https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/19/book ... ic-reviews

Ricordanza
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Re: Concert Pianist Denk Reviews Robert Schumann Book

Post by Ricordanza » Thu Nov 22, 2018 7:33 am

In addition to being a superb pianist, Jeremy Denk is a gifted writer.

The book sounds interesting; I'm putting it on my list.

Rach3
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Re: Concert Pianist Denk Reviews Robert Schumann Book

Post by Rach3 » Thu Nov 22, 2018 10:19 am

Thanks for this. I'm reminded I need to hear the Schumann Piano Quartet, again.

Ricordanza is correct about Denk being a superb pianist, one I follow.He is also correct Denk a superb writer.I don't believe Denk blogs anymore as his career has taken off, but here are a couple favs of mine from the past:

http://jeremydenk.net/blog/2009/03/18/a ... -in-doubt/

http://jeremydenk.net/blog/2008/09/19/b ... nny-craig/

http://jeremydenk.net/blog/2009/12/18/whose-brahms/ ( Is the Brahms 2nd PC getting longer ? )

Belle
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Re: Concert Pianist Denk Reviews Robert Schumann Book

Post by Belle » Thu Nov 22, 2018 6:32 pm

Denk is actually "think" in German, which is an appropriate title for his blog. The book sounds interesting and I particularly liked his discussion of X, Y and Z chords which provided points of movement for Schumann (but I think Beethoven was doing that earlier!). I've already read so much about this magnificent Schumann family - and its links to Brahms - that I wonder what more there is to be discovered.

That picture of Robert standing beside the piano where Clara is seated. He must have been balding even then as that hair looks suspiciously like a 'comb over', as we call it in Australia!! Just saying... :roll:

This seems appropriate:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTm8ZEeOgbg

Lance
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Re: Concert Pianist Denk Reviews Robert Schumann Book

Post by Lance » Fri Nov 23, 2018 12:51 am

Looks very interesting. My love for Schumann's music is endless. This looks well researched. I've ordered it.
Lance G. Hill
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When she started to play, Mr. Steinway came down and personally
rubbed his name off the piano. [Speaking about pianist &*$#@+#]

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Lance
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Re: Concert Pianist Denk Reviews Robert Schumann Book

Post by Lance » Fri Nov 30, 2018 1:23 pm

The book arrived a couple days ago and I'm delighted with it. Well researched and written, and some color photographs within. Probably one of the better books on Schumann that I have read. Recommended.
Lance G. Hill
Editor-in-Chief
______________________________________________________

When she started to play, Mr. Steinway came down and personally
rubbed his name off the piano. [Speaking about pianist &*$#@+#]

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