That word 'Romantic'. We associate it with candlelit dinners, an unexpected marriage proposal on a beach in Bali, the magic of an evening walk along a Venetian canal. Attach it to the creative output of writers, artists and musicians of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and the meaning of the word changes only slightly. In reaction to the reason-worshipping ethos of the Enlightenment and the shrinking area of mystery upon which the scientific revolution increasingly encroached, writers such as Wordsworth and artists such as
J M W Turner attempted to find a way back from the mind to the heart. The great 17th c French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal had forecast this growing dissatisfaction with reason in his famous aphorism: The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of... We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart."
Robert Schumann, who was born nearly 200 years after Pascal, shared with the philosopher an incredibly active imagination, facility with words and, sadly, an emotional instability that led eventually to his untimely and tragic death. As a young man of 20, he came to study with one of Germany's most sought-after piano teachers, Friedrich Wieck, whose young daughter Clara, 9 years Robert's junior, was already showing signs of the mastery which would lead her to become one of the greatest pianists of her day. Almost inevitably, Robert found in the young girl, a kinship and understanding that blossomed into love and passion. They married, despite Wieck's intense opposition, and eventually produced 8 children (7 of whom survived) through a stormy and difficult association, riddled by Robert's increasing emotional instability.
Four years before this marriage, in 1838 Robert produced his
Fantasie op 17, a work that combines the heart and the mind, the improvised and spontaneous outpouring of fantasy with the premeditated and tightly-constructed form of the sonata (even as a young man Schumann had bemoaned the conflict he experienced between poetry and prose). Its title is an ode to the zeitgeist.
The work is prefaced by a quotation from the German philosopher
Through all the notes
In earth’s many-coloured dream
There sounds one soft long-drawn note
For the one who listens in secret.
‘Are not you really the “note” in the motto? I almost believe you are’, wrote Schumann to Clara in June 1839.
This breaking down of formalism in music, the idea that music might convey something beyond itself and might vividly appeal to the imagination and the feelings was steadily growing in the musical world in the early part of the 19th c at a slight lag to similar directions in writing and in art. Schumann's Fantasie is a surging, passionate pianistic masterpiece.
By contrast, Johannes Brahms wrote near the very end of his life, 7 Intermezzi and Capriccios which he entitled Fantasien op 116. They are short, clearly structured gems, sometimes powerful, sometimes heart-renderingly beguiling. Brahms was a very different sort of man than Schumann. He had suffered something of a chaotic childhood in the slums of Hamburg and at a young age was forced to supplement the family income by playing in the local brothels. He seems to have spent the rest of his life cultivating a sanguinity and groundedness that had always eluded Robert Schumann. Perhaps the only time his guard was seriously threatened was in the first years of knowing Clara Schumann.
Brahms first met the Schumanns in 1853 at their home in Leipzig, only a year before Robert attempted suicide and was subsequently incarcerated in a mental institution in Endenich near Bonn. During the remaining year of Robert's life, Brahms became Clara's mainstay. She was 14 years older than he was and he claimed that for him she eclipsed any other woman. The letters he wrote to her at that time describe a heartbreaking devotion, a sort of melting that he never again allowed himself.
My Beloved Clara,
I wish I could write to you as tenderly as I love you and tell you all the good things that I wish you. You are so infinitely dear to me, dearer than I can say. I should like to spend the whole day calling you endearing names and paying you compliments without ever being satisfied.
And though their mutual devotion was, as far as we can tell, never consummated, its intimacy endured for the rest of both their lives in the form of a close and supportive friendship. Brahms' well-regulated, well-reasoned heart was also the heart of a Romantic and his music has stirred passion in the stoniest of us for more than 150 years. Perhaps it might even be said that it was through his music, though carefully and formally structured, that Brahms was able to relax the grip of reason and listen to his heart.
And then there was Clara. Raised, after her mother abandoned the family, to win her father's controlling love through her pianistic prowess, she lived to see her adored husband descend into madness and death and to care for and support her brood of children amongst whom mental and physical ailments were rife. She supported her family with an arduous schedule of concertising and teaching and found time to give advice and support to her much-loved Brahms in every one of his musical endeavours. Hers was a strong and giving heart much tempered by the practicalities of her situation. Flights of fantasy could only find a place in her compositions and her performances. The struggle she experienced between these two opposing forces (as had her husband Robert in his conflict between poetry and prose) was one she never resolved. She stands alone as a powerful musical force and yet remains at the centre of this Romantic triangle, a woman who inspired a great passion in two very different men both visited by genius.
Ismena will be performing the piano quintets of both Robert Schumann and Brahms on the 17th and 18th of May, 2018.