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On a rain-drenched Monday in February 1854 Germany's foremost living symphonist walked through the carnival streets of Dusseldorf in his flowered dressing gown and, reaching the old town bridge, flung himself into the swollen Rhine. Robert Schumann, 43 at the time, was dredged out, recognised and respectfully escorted home, where his wife Clara, heavily pregnant with their eighth child, dried him off and put him to bed.
Clara refused to leave his side for 16 days until doctors warned that he could harm her and Robert agreed to enter a sanatorium at Endenich. He died there two years later of the cumulative effects of mental illness, tertiary syphilis and the killer doses of mercury that were applied to treat both conditions. Crowds thronged to his funeral in Bonn, 'as if there had been news of a great disaster.' Johannes Brahms, Schumann's protégé and his wife's constant companion, led the procession.
It was a transitional moment in European culture, the end of romantic innocence, a milestone underlined by the death, in the same year and of similar causes, of the poet Heinrich Heine whose verses Schumann set in the effulgent Dichterliebe (A Poet's Love). Schumann, in life as in works, was the wide-eyed woodland child who came into a world of unstoppable railways and industrial urbanisation. He had wooed the child Clara like a medieval suitor, defying her tyrannical father (his own piano teacher) to marry her when she came of age, their devotion enduring in the letters and diaries that flowed between them as Clara went on to make her name as the first female pianist of the age. She sits, to this day, admiringly at his feet on the catafalque in that sombre Bonn cemetery.
Schumann mingled with Wagner, Berlioz, Chopin and Liszt at the crucible of musical romanticism. He published nothing but solo piano yearnings until his marriage in 1840 and then, within a year, the Dichterliebe cycle and the irresistible A minor piano concerto, composed with copious contributions by Clara. Four symphonies followed, along with the first post-classical cello concerto, an opera, a Mass, a Requiem and much else for voice and chamber ensembles.
But the excessive ardour that marked his long courtship was, unknown to Clara, a symptom of a bipolar disorder. Schumann veered from manic episodes to depressive and suffered periods of paralytic inaction. Prone to memory lapses, he was sacked as music director of the orchestra and chorus in Dusseldorf. Clara was pregnant again and he was in frequent pain. A tragic end was inavertable. 'All my happiness was taken with his death,' said Clara.
Although his instrumentation left much to be desired - Gustav Mahler, among others, felt obliged to rescore stretches of his symphonies - there was never a doubt of Schumann's pivotal importance in the history of music. In the growth of the symphony, Schumann is the connective thread between Beethoven and Brahms; in the Lieder form, he spans the chasm of psychological complexity between Schubert and Richard Strauss. Remove Schumann from the story and the whole art grinds to a halt.
Brahms held him in such reverence that, where every other symphonist aimed to match Beethoven's nine, he stopped at Schumann's four and held himself unworthy to wed the widow Clara whom he loved 'more than anything or anyone in the world'. Elgar named Schumann 'my ideal', Rachmaninov acknowledged him as a role model and maestros as antipodal as Furtwangler and Toscanini embraced his symphonies as core repertoire, intrinsically interesting and artistically important.
Which makes it all the more perplexing that amid the universal mush of Mozart's 250th birthday, few are bothering to contemplate the 150th anniversary of Schumann's death, an event that changed the course of music. Apart from a forthcoming weekend at London's Cadogan Hall (Feb 17-19) of concerts interspersed with insights from the media shrink Raj Persaud, and another series from the London Philharmonic at the depleted South Bank in April, I find hardly any Schumann activity outside of Leipzig, the city nearest to his birthplace of Zwickau, and Dusseldorf, his last residence.
Let's not be nave about this. Jowly Robert Schumann with his hangdog eyes is never going to sell as many marzipan boxes as the Wolf Gang, nor does any of his music fall as easily on the ear as the Amadeus soundtrack or the special-offer i-Tunes site. Where Mozart mints money, Schumann hints at suicide.
There is an undercurrent of darkness to everything he wrote, even (perhaps especially) to the Dichterliebe with its 'wonderfully beautiful month of May' when all the buds are bursting and the heart is full of love. In the seventh of 16 verses, 'Ich grolle nicht', the poet declaims that he won't complain when his heart is broken; in the concluding verse he flings the coffin of his love deep into the river Rhine. Like all true romantics, Heine and Schumann could not tell love from death and both are foretold in the sunniest times of their lives.
Among the orchestral works there is stark and naked self-doubt. The piano concerto was conceived as a single-movement short piece, expanded at Clara's gentle urging. The cello concerto, unplayed in his lifetime, required more hints from Clara to reach completion. Of the symphonies, only the third, named after the Rhine, strikes a consistently confident note ö and the Rhine was the river of romantic death.
It is not easy to celebrate a composer who veers so morbidly from love to death. The problem with Schumann is, in a word, madness. We are terrified of creators who cross the line, whether composers like Hugo Wolf, poets like Byron, painters like Van Gogh. We dare not get close. We stand back from the art and think 'there but for the grace of ·' and in standing back we lose any chance of grasping the art for what it is, a unique insight into our unconscious.
I can understand why artists and orchestras who depend on public favour shrink from playing Schumann in the 150th year of his death and will doubtless do so again in 2010, the bicentenary of his birth. I can sympathise with the strategists, the image makers, the ticket counters. But it seems a terrible waste, a missed opportunity to explore the depths of human experience, another triumph for the tinsel of easy tunes over the riches of human civilisation.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]