Friday, September 6, 2013

Was Schumann a genius?

The above is a book review written by George Stauffer of Martin Geck’s biography of Schumann.  We learn that Schumann had every needed encouragement and benefit as a child:  “His father published and sold books, and Schumann demonstrated both literary and musical gifts at an early age. From adolescence onward, he consciously strove to become an “artist of genius,” writing his first curriculum vitae at age 14 and starting the lifelong habit of documenting the intimate details of his day-to-day activities through journals . . .”

Schumann’s symphonies fall short of Beethoven’s and his opera was no match for Wagner’s, but is that fair?  “His symphonies lacked the force and focus of Beethoven’s, and his chamber works seemed too formal. Impatient with Leipzig audiences and tired of the Neue Zeitschrift (he gave up the editorship in 1844), Schumann moved with his growing family to Dresden, where he fought escalating emotional problems by writing a series of contrapuntal piano works. In Dresden, Wagner held sway, however, and Schumann’s great effort at opera . . .  was no match for Lohengrin, which premiered in Dresden two months later. Must you beat out all the competition to be declared a genius? 

Also, Schumann guessed wrong about what the listening public wanted.  Must you guess right in order to be a genius? “The progressive composers—the “New German School”—advocated a more expressive, encompassing approach. Passions, moods, ethical attitudes, and even political stances were conveyed by extra-musical means (texts, programs, scenery, lighting) in amorphous structures shaped by the emotion of the moment. Brahms emerged as the standard-bearer of the conservatives; Liszt and Wagner led the New German School.

Ironically, both camps looked to Beethoven as their founder. His First, Second, Fourth, Seventh, and Eighth Symphonies, with their clear-cut formal plans, served as the model for conservatives. His Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth, with their programmatic slants (the life of Napoleon, fate knocking at the door, country scenes, universal brotherhood), set the precedent for the progressives. Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann sought a middle ground. Schubert pursued a lyrical solution to the symphony, filling his works with gorgeous melodies that kept the structures afloat. Mendelssohn relied on a more formal approach, even turning to Bach-inspired chorales to hold his symphonies together.

“Like Liszt and Wagner, Schumann believed in the tone poem. But whereas Liszt and Wagner anchored their works in Teutonic myth, using music as a means to an end, Schumann grounded his pieces in everyday life, using inspiration as a means to music. Whether or not the quotidian translates into a compelling listening experience remains unclear, as Geck admits.

And like so many geniuses, or near geniuses, Schumann was psychotic; which Geck describes as being probably genetic.  But I here recall Joseph Epstein’s definition of Genius from his article “I dream of Genius ( ):  “Be he a genius of thought, art, science, or politics, a genius changes the way the rest of us hear or see or think about the world.”    Who better to change the way we see the world than someone who is nuts?  Consider also Nietzsche in Philosophy and Blake in poetry?  They are both excellent examples of the way they look at the world, but they were also mad.  I suppose one can argue that Nietzsche did his major work before he was incapacitated by his madness.  One can’t make that same argument about Blake. 

Perhaps this means, I speculate, that the whole idea of “genius” is mistaken and that it is really madness – related to normality but different in the same way that less talented mad people are.  Except these folk are routinely incarcerated or drugged to keep them from interfering with the rest of us.  But if one is talented enough we listen to his music, read his or her poetry and marvel at his geniuses.  I recall the day I read Sylvia Plath’s Ariel.  I read a review and rushed from work one noon hour to buy it from a local bookstore.  I read it in my car like an explosion.  But Sylvia wasn’t normal either.  So if we are perfectly sane – or nearly so – it may make no difference whether we are ever so smart, we can never be geniuses.



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