Siege Diaries 10/21/2020


Today’s Daily Stoic writing prompt: Can I do the right thing and not care about credit?

The associated entry in The Daily Stoic adds a little more context, specifically about people so concerned about how they will be remembered in the future, after their death, that they fail to be “the best person they can be in the current moment.”  “No one gets to enjoy their legacy–by definition.”   And this one is hard for me–although, interestingly enough, it actually pushes me to be better in the current moment.  I want to leave a positive mark on society.  I am conscious that I am not a great or famous person, and that my name will likely not be spoken after I am gone–at least not by the general public.  But I want to leave the world a better place than I found it.  I’m not particularly concerned about credit or fame for these actions, although I do love to see the ripple effect of things I have done, and I do enjoy being thanked or credited as an inspiration or source of knowledge, or to be recognized when something I have done has a positive impact.  That kind of thanks or recognition are a nice little ego boost from time to time, but that’s not my motivating factor for doing them…

Evening:  Can I do the right thing if no one is looking?  The thing is–knowing people are looking drives me to be better than I would if I thought no one was looking.  I think a more challenging thing for me is to make sure I’m not doing the wrong thing (or maybe the better term is slacking off) when no one is looking to hold me accountable.  I kind of have a problem with this, particularly when I have a tedious or thankless job that people tend to undervalue;  I often let “good enough” be good enough rather than giving it my best–and then get defensive when called on it (when it’s not quite actually good enough).  Something to think about…

The American Duchess wrap cape pattern (which you can download here ) has generated a bit of a cult following on the Historybounding Facebook group.  (“Historybounding” is a term for wearing historic or historically-inspired clothing from any era as everyday wear.  It is a term that encompasses both historically-accurate impressions and those that take more liberties, including subgenres like cosplay).   Liking the look of the cape, and having spotted some really nice woolen fabrics on sale at Fabricland, I decided about a week ago that I’d make one up.   This required buying a large pad/flip chart of 1″ gridded paper from Staples and drawing out the pattern.  It was sized for a 38″ bust, so I figured it should fit, as I am a bit smaller than that.  As it turned out, I needed to add a bit of length to the crossover straps to get them to do up in the back without binding me.  Since I only discovered this after the fact, and since this section would be hidden, I simply added on extensions to the two pieces.  Otherwise, it fits me quite well.   The original pattern was made up with worsted-weight wool (two layers), while mine had a light coating-weight wool blend for its outer layer;  the results were a little less crisp than the original but still attractive.  

I also went down a musical rabbit hole (one with only a remote connection to Shostakovich this time–but wait for it, it did get there.).   As I’ve discussed before, I had a bit of a teenage fangirl crush on both Frederic Chopin and Robert Schumann, both of whom wrote incredible music and met with early, tragic deaths.  Schumann died in an asylum of pneumonia two years after a suicide attempt.  Back when I first studied him, it was more commonly felt that he was perhaps bipolar or suffering from depression;  those who have studied his case more recently are of the opinion that his insanity was more than likely tertiary syphilis, probably acquired as early as his teens.   His later works have often been viewed in a negative light, carefully scrutinized for signs of mental decline, and seen as too imbued with the fog of his tragic illness.  More often than not they’re written off as tragically inferior, works to be viewed with pity.   Today, I ran across this article, which focuses on two of Schumann’s very last works.   One of them, the Violin Concerto, I recall hearing those many years ago;  I also remember some of the criticism of it–strange, deficient, discordant, not tuneful, repetitive, and “off”, as it were.   The man who it was written for hid it away after Schumann’s death (with the agreement of Schumann’s widow, Clara), apparently telling the archive where he eventually donated it not to publish it until 100 years had passed.  There’s a fascinating story to the rediscovery that has it all, including Nazis and a seance that’s told in a book I’ve just ordered, so that will wait.  But for now, I reacquainted myself with the Violin Concerto, and then I read this article, where Damian Thomas posits, “Does knowing the underlying pathology diminish its artistic value? I don’t think so. For too long, Schumann’s notorious ‘softening of the brain’ has tarnished the violin concerto and therefore deprived listeners of a triumph of the human spirit — and one of the loveliest and saddest pieces of music ever written.”   He also pointed the way to a recording that changed his mind about the concerto, which I’ve ordered.  Meanwhile, the link to the recording from the first article is below.  For me, the Violin Concerto does not really sound “odd” at all.  Perhaps my brain has been altered by listening to Shostakovich’s many permutations of expressing pain, or melancholy, or anger (or Ustvolskaya’s primal screams), but there is nothing in the Violin Concerto that stands out to me as inferior–unless the listener is mourning the loss of the earlier Schumann and the kind of music he wrote before his mind began to darken. 

In that vein, the second work mentioned in the article is the Geistervariationen or “Ghost Variations,” his very last work, composed in February, 1854.  He apparently thought the theme was dictated to him by the ghost of either Mendelssohn or Schubert (it was, in fact, one he had used before) and began composing, although the voices sounded more like “tigers and hyenas” to him at that point.  In the midst of his work, he tried to kill himself by throwing himself into the Rhine River, but he was rescued and returned home to find his wife Clara had moved out on a doctor’s advice.  He “finished” the work and sent it to Clara, and then sent himself to the asylum.  There are five variations on a simple, elegant theme.  It’s not quite clear where Schumann’s breakdown occurred during the composition process, but I’d bet money on it being sometime around the fourth variation, which goes into a minor key and progresses into melancholy.  But it’s the strange fifth variation that stands out–the only one that, to me, reflects any kind of gateway into where Schumann was going–which was a fate where “he drove his fellow residents mad by sitting at the piano and bashing out nonsense-music until he had to be dragged away.”  The video linked below has two performances of the piece.  It’s the second, by Igor Levit, which I think best conveys a sense of slipping sanity.  Altogether, it’s a startling work, one that in a way chronicles the disintegration of Schumann’s mind before he had completely lost his ability to express what was happening in an understandable way.


I did promise a link to Shostakovich–he reorchestrated Schumann’s Cello Concerto at the request of Mstislav Rostropovich. The Cello Concerto is another one of those Schumann works that a lot of scholars saw as “deficient” or showing signs of decline. Schumann’s orchestral compositions, to be perfectly honest, had always been seen as lesser than his piano works and his lieder, even before his mental health went sideways. Most commentators I’ve read seem to be of the opinion that despite Shostakovich’s fame as an orchestrator, this particular work is better in its original version, and that Shostakovich didn’t really completely “get” Schumann. That wouldn’t surprise me, really–nothing I’ve read has ever suggested a deep familiarity with Schumann’s work. But I’ll be hunting down recordings of both in coming days to see what I think.