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On Hope

It was in early 1841 that the 31 year old Robert Schumann composed his first symphony. He had, the previous year, married 21 year old Clara Wieck, the young woman he ardently loved and whose father had created almost insurmountable opposition to the union. Clara attributed the work's title, Spring Symphony, to the last line of 'Spring Poem' by Adolf Böttger:

You spirit of the cloud, dreary and grave,

You fly threateningly over land and sea.

In no time at all your grey veil covers

The clear gaze of the heavens,

Your fog rolls in from afar

And night shrouds the star of love:

You spirit of the cloud, dreary and damp,

Why have you driven away all my happiness,

Why do you call tears to my face,

And shadows into the soul’s light?

Oh, turn, turn your course,

In the valley spring is blossoming!

That description of the bleakness and inexplicable miasma of hopelessness that sometimes engulfs us, blown away by the fresh breeze of hope, a lifting familiar to us all, must have appealed particularly to Schumann who had experienced his fair share of 'the spirit of the cloud'. Having suffered from severe melancholy in his early twenties, he continued throughout his relatively brief life, to swing between periods of elation and of extreme despair in a manner now associated with bipolar disease. Fantasy was a beguiling inspiration for him; he borrowed the writer ETA Hoffmann's title, 'Fantasiestücke' for an early set of piano pieces op 12 and a later 3 movement set for clarinet/cello and piano, op 73. So perhaps it is not too fanciful to imagine that the Spring Symphony, its first movement an ebullient outcry, is a result of the elation he must have felt on his marriage and that we all feel when what we hope for and despaired of ever attaining, is suddenly granted us.

On Palm Sunday, Ismena will be performing Schumann's op 73 Fantasiestücke in a programme of music and words celebrating the blossoming of spring and the renewal of hope. Palm Sunday is, of course, the day that Jesus was said to have made a 'triumphal entry into Jerusalem'. Why triumphal? The Jewish disciples, moved by a prophecy that had been made by Zechariah five centuries earlier, believed that Jesus was the 'king coming unto you; he is just, and having salvation'. (Zech 9:9). Zechariah, writing in 536 BC was one of about 50,000 Jews who had been released from captivity in Babylon and who wished to kindle hope in the heart of his people. The Gospellers similarly recounted the hope of the disciples that this prophet, Jesus, would deliver them from their Roman oppressors.

Christ rode, on a humble donkey, to the Temple where his people were gathered to celebrate Passover. What followed and what has been commemorated ever since is therefore intimately bound to the Jewish Old Testament celebration of hope and renewal, of the Jew's miraculous escape from Egypt. This notion of hope is a very powerful one. We yearn for a better time, a better place, the return of some Golden age, a Golden age which is constantly redefined and renamed, whether it be Zion or 'Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land'.

But hopes fulfilled can easily turn to hopes dashed. 'April is the cruellest month'. The cancer patient is subject to a series of predictions which leads him or her to seesaw between hope and despair (désespoir – to be without hope... interesting that hope deserves it's own word but it's opposite is only expressed by a negative or absence!). So is the young man or woman in love, the job-seeker, the aspiring MP, the woman desperate to become pregnant. At every stage of life and in every circumstance we experience the turbulence of opening ourselves to the idea that all might 'work out', 'be okay', that we might get what we so ardently wish for, only to find ourselves in a place of fear and denial and then suddenly to see the light again. A veritable merry-go-round. Even the story of Easter contains that oscillation from triumph to crucifixion to resurrection.

It was TS Eliot in his Four Quartets (East Coker III) who said:

'I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.'

Eliot admits the emptiness of specific hopes but avers that in the waiting there is light and love. So maybe both the Easter and the Passover stories teach us that cultivating the Hope of which Paul spoke in his famous letter to the Corinthians is not a simple matter of putting yourself in an emotional place where you wish for what you think you want with a childlike belief that you will get it. Perhaps Hope is more the warmth, light and goodwill that fill the heart and the burgeoning sense of possibility, of energy and appreciation of and gratitude for one's time in this world that I thinkwe all aspire to. That the washing over us of joy when we first notice the unfurling of new silver-green spring leaves, or breathe in sweet-scented spring air is almost a physical renewal of our spirit. And that without the dreariness of winter, 'without (the) grey veil (that) covers the clear gaze of the heavens', we would never appreciate or value 'the valley (where) spring is blossoming' nor have compassion for others in a dark place.

Schumann was not to stay long in a place of hope. He eventually succumbed to the fears and demons that had for so long plagued him and he died at the age of 46 at Endenich in a mental asylum. And yet those fears and strange imaginings, those fantasies, were intimately connected with a brilliant imagination which had given pen to so many masterpieces, great works of Art that still move and enlighten us today.

Clara, who had been advised not to visit him during the two years he was incarcerated at Endenich, was at last able to see him at the very end. She wrote:

“When I entered I hardly knew him, so much had he changed... He turned suddenly toward me, and his glance brightened strangely. ‘Ah! my well beloved one,’ he cried, and he clasped me in his arms... He consented... to take some food from my hand. While I remained in the room he followed every movement of mine with his eyes. I felt myself almost happy in spite of my affliction to have had again a token of his great affection and love.”

Perhaps in those moments both Clara and Robert were able to live in 'the valley where spring blossoms.'

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