An Obsession of Youth Revisited

Robert Schumann and his lovely 1840s hair.

I first became passionate about classical music around Grade 6, spurred on by my study of the violin.  My initial likes were Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and Handel.  I read up on their lives and checked records out from the library to hear their music on my tiny, tinny record player, buying those I liked most with the limited funds available.  Records were always on my Christmas and birthday lists.  When my parents gave me their stereo, I began to explore music past Beethoven.  And when you’re an eighth grader, nothing catches your attention like a story of  creative talent, love, angst, and illness before a romantic early demise.  First it was Chopin, with his epic liaison with George Sand and his early death from tuberculosis, and then Robert Schumann.   Schumann was a musical critic, a pianist until he injured his hand, and, of course, a composer.  His wife Clara was arguably more famous than he was as a pianist, and a composer in her own right.  He had married her over the opposition of her father, who had been his mentor.

For a decade and a half they worked musically side by side, even as she had eight children.  He expanded out from his early works for piano only, writing many songs (or lieder) inspired by his love for Clara and the furtive romance they had been forced to pursue.  He also began writing symphonies, an opera, other choral works, chamber music, and a single concerto each for piano, cello, and violin.   But from the mid 1840s on he increasingly struggled with mental illness.  It is still not known quite what he suffered from (besides persistently hearing the note A)–explanations have included syphillis, mercury poisoning, or some sort of bipolar disorder (given descriptions of manic activity paired with depression), or perhaps even a brain tumor (a particular type of menigioma is known to cause auditory hallucinations). He also reported experiencing visions.  His compositional output did not wane during this period and in fact became more and more varied, although critics have often suggested their quality declined along with his mental health.

In 1854 his symptoms worsened to the point that he worried he would harm his wife, and he attempted suicide by throwing himself from a bridge.  Afterwards he voluntarily committed himself to an asylum, where he died two years later.

The concert I am attending tomorrow features Schumann’s only piano concerto, which dates to 1845 , but is an expansion of an earlier work dating to 1841.  His wife Clara premiered the work.  It is a marvelous work, definitely in my top five piano concertos.  It was one of a handful of Schumann’s works I owned in my youth, along with all four of his symphonies and his violin concerto–this despite my obsession with his story.

Thinking about this has made me ponder how much things have changed when it comes to being able to dive deeply into the works of any composer I might desire.  In my youth, I was limited to whatever records the library might have available to borrow.  Since I didn’t have a lot of money to spend, I had to be sure when buying a particular work that it was one I truly wanted to own.  And then, I had to find somewhere that actually sold a recording (and unless it were one of the Big Guys, good luck finding more than one performance to choose from).  We also had the local classical music station, and my parents were members primarily so we could get the printed guide as to what music would be playing at any given time, which was another way to hear music that the library lacked.  How different this is from today’s world!  Now, I can find recordings of even obscure works by any composer on YouTube to listen to at any time of the day.  I can Google to find out what the best recordings are considered to be, and then either obtain them via iTunes or order them online from Amazon or other sources (including from Europe or Japan).  I can even find extraordinary things–such as a recording of the world premiere of the Shostakovich 13th Symphony–with a little work.   It makes me realize just how much amazing music is out there that I have yet to discover.

This could take awhile.

In the interim, I got to refamiliarize myself with Schumann’s Piano Concerto again ahead of tomorrow’s performance.  You can hear it, too, here.