Monday, April 25, 2011

Scenes from childhood

(Schumann awakens my love of music)

From 1958 the BBC introduced a children's radio series featuring "The Lost Noises Office" (created by Desmond Leslie, and narrated by his wife Agnes Bernelle). This strange fictitious establishment kept 'noises' safe until they were claimed by their owners (from whistles, to musical boxes to all manner of curious sounds courtesy of the BBC's sound effects department). When the bossy owner of this store (called Mr Bosseyman) was away the office was the soul charge of a young character called Pickles. My parents had a children's 45 RPM record featuring young Pickles dealing with a visit from a bossy and rather temperamental "Grand Piano" who had lost one of his notes (his middle B). Eventually, after searching through many unrelated noises, young Pickles finds the missing note and as 'Grand Piano' leaves the store he reminds Pickles to tune in to the radio that evening and that if he listens carefully he will hear the piano. At the conclusion of this record Pickles tunes in to the radio in time to hear the closing minute of the Schumann Piano Concerto. I adored this record and without doubt those final bars of the Schumann Piano Concerto, which I listened to over and over again, were the first serious music I ever heard. So you can imagine how emotional I became when eventually, for the first time, I got to play that work as a young concert pianist in May 1983. When I reached that point at the conclusion of the concerto (as heard by Pickles in the Lost Noises Office) I thought of how I had dreamed this music since the age of 4 and now I was truly, and incredibly, living my dream. It's hard for me to remember experiencing a more elated feeling during one of my concerts. I still adore this work and find Schumann a deeply moving and inspiring composer. Interestingly Elgar (one of my musical heros) described Schumann as his ideal. Brahms (who of course had known Robert Schumann and who was very close to Schumann's widow Clara in the years following Schumann's tragic death) thought the same.

Jack Gibbons plays the 3rd movement of Schumann's Piano Concerto Op.54, recorded live in concert, London, May 1983.

It's well known that many composers lived unhappy lives, or had tragic ends, but I think Schumann's is surely, and sadly, one of the most wretched. Ravaged by mental illness he spent the last two and a half years of his life locked away (inititially at his own insistence) in a mental asylum in Endenich, seeing his beloved Clara only once the whole time he was incarcerated, two days before his death (it was considered at the time to be injurious to his recovery to have contact with his family). By the time Clara did see her husband he was so sick he barely recognised those around him, including the hospital staff (Schumann's suffering and the continual deterioration of his mental state while in hospital is meticulously recorded and preserved in the notes of Dr Franz Richarz, the hospital's director, and makes distressing reading today). At that final meeting, two days before his death, Clara offered her husband what had been his only nourishment for weeks - wine and jellied consommé - and for a very brief moment she received a look from him that told her he knew it was her. In her diary she wrote "he took it [his nourishment] with the happiest expression. He licked the wine from my fingers"

Apart from my very early introduction to great music through Schumann's wonderful piano concerto, another seminal moment in my musical awakening took place when I was 12 or 13 years old. I decided to attend, on my own, a piano recital in my hometown of Oxford, England. The pianist (a lady whose name I haven't so far been able to trace) included in her recital Schumann's Kinderszenen. I had never heard these charming, nostalgic and magical pieces before, or any solo piano music of Schumann for that matter. The music had an immediate and powerful impact on me. I rushed out and bought a score and immediately began learning the pieces and in fact included the set in my first full length public solo recital a year later (March 1976) alongside Liszt's B minor Sonata, Beethoven's 32 Variations in C minor, and music by a little known French composer called Alkan. Later, while still a teenager, I fell in love with Schumann's incomparable songs, beginning with Dichterliebe and Frauenliebe und -leben. My love of his music and appreciation of his art only continues to grow with the passing years.

Sadly, Clara Schumann had to endure a further occurence of mental illness in her family after her husband's death when her son Ludwig became sick. Ludwig's tragedy is another sad untold story in the history of mental illness. It's impossible to imagine the suffering poor Ludwig had to endure, in the days when even enlightened doctors had little understanding of his illness. Ludwig Schumann spent the last 29 years of his life incarcerated against his will in the asylum in Colditz (later famous as the German POW camp in WWII), and there are no records of any family visits for the last 23 years of his life. His sister Eugenie Schumann wrote of Ludwig in 1927: "The shadows closed more and more around him, and at last he became, as my mother often said in deep distress, 'buried alive'". Since Robert Schumann's large family is often overlooked I have put together a slide show of photographs of Robert and Clara's seven surviving children, together with the first of Schumann's Scenes from Childhood ("Of Foreign Lands and Peoples") played by the wonderful and much underrated French pianist Jacqueline Blancard, who has made some lovely and intensely musical recordings of Schumann's piano music.

Schumann's children: A slide show of photographs of Robert and Clara Schumann and their 7 surviving children (together with "Of Foreign Lands and Peoples" from Schumann's Kinderszenen played by Jacqueline Blancard): of their 8 children, one (Emil) died in infancy, while 3 others predeceased Clara along with her husband Robert. Most tragic of all is the case of Ludwig, who, like his father, was committed to a mental asylum (the famous Colditz castle) where he was kept against his will for 29 years, dying there in 1899.

Finally, here is a link to an interesting article from the New York Times, January 16 1921, going into detail on the fate of Schumann's children: The children of Schumann. The article starts off on a very sad note, trying to raise money from the readers for two of Schumann's children (Marie and Eugenie) who were, at the very end of their lives, living in desperate poverty in Europe. Though their mother, Clara Schumann, had to cope with more than her fair share of grief in her lifetime she typically once said that she may not have been the best parent for her children because of her devotion to music, her frequent concert tours, and above all her devotion to Robert and the promotion of his music. On her death-bed the very last piece she heard, at her request, played to her by her grandson Ferdinand, was Robert Schumann's Romance in F# Major, Op.28 No.2.

The 1921 New York Times article (a PDF copy of the original New York Times page) also lists concerts of the week, one of which, on January 18th 1921 at Carnegie Hall is a piano recital by Rachmaninoff!! N.B. this article was published one year after Gershwin's Swanee had become a hit and 3 years before the premiere of the Rhapsody in Blue!

Schumann's Romance Op.28 no.2, composed 1839, was the last piece that Clara Schumann ever heard, played to her on her death-bed at her request by her grandson Ferdinand. It is played here by Arthur Rubinstein (recorded 2 April 1937).