notes from the past: the letters between robert and clara


(This snippet is interesting not only because of how it adds more depth of detail to the relationship between Robert and Clara, but also because it reminds us what a prestigious performer Clara Schumann was, a fact which is often overlooked/understated.)

“I gave my fourth concert this afternoon, and I played pieces by Liszt and Thalberg to silence those that thought I couldn’t play Thalberg. There were 13 curtain calls, and not even Thalberg experienced that. It was probably because the people in the audience were generally indignant about an article claiming that I didn’t know how to play Beethoven, a rumor started by Mr. Holz, Beethoven’s former shoeshine-boy. You can imagine the hubbub; just wait and see what will happen to him–he offended all who are knowledgeable about music and the entire audiences. You probably won’t understand the public’s enthusiasm here, since you don’t know what I’m accomplishing and since you don’t know me well enough as an artist. But don’t think I am angry with you for this; on the contrary, I am happy to know that you don’t love me because of my talent, but, as you once wrote on a little piece of paper, ‘I don’t love you because you are a great artist; no, I love you, because you are so kind.’ That pleased me immensely, and I have never forgotten it.” – Clara Wieck, to Robert Schumann, January 1838

Source: The Complete Correspondence of Clara and Robert Schumann, edited by Eva Weissweiler (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1994).

da capo: mendelssohn, wagner, and anti-semitism

Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49, performed by Emanuel Ax, Yo-Yo Ma, and Itzhak Perlman

Mendelssohn’s String Octet in E-flat Major, one of his most celebrated pieces, was written when he was just 16 years old. At age 20, he conducted the first St. Matthew’s Passion performed after Bach’s death, and is thus credited as one of the strongest influences in bringing Bach out of the dust and shadows of time and into public light. I don’t know about you, but some of my biggest achievements at age 20 were more like “passing atonal dictation” and “getting enough exercise” and “not waiting till the last moment to finish that extra-credit paper.” It’s obviously safe to say that Mendelssohn was a prodigy of the Mozart variety, and even Goethe (yes, that Goethe) recognized his genius:

“A day or two after, when the youthful composer’s first quartett had been performed, and Felix himself, after playing the pianoforte part, had run off into the garden, Goethe remarked to the other players: ‘Musical prodigies, as far as mere technical execution goes, are probably no longer so rare: but what this little man can do in extemporizing and playing at sight, borders on the miraculous, and I could not have believed it possible at so early an age.’

And yet you heard Mozart in his seventh year at Frankfort?‘ said Zelter.

‘Yes,’ answered Goethe; ‘at that time I myself had only just reached my twelfth year, and was certainly, like all the rest of the world, immensely astonished at his extraordinary execution; but what your pupil already accomplishes, bears the same relation to the Mozart of that time, that the cultivated talk of a grown-up person does to the prattle of a child.‘”

Source: Karl Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Goethe and Mendelssohn (London: Macmillan and Co.), 18-19.

BURN. Goethe just referred to Mozart’s music as baby babble compared to Mendelssohn’s. So why is Mozart still considered one of the pillars of classical music, while Mendelssohn is often overlooked? Much may have to do with the fact that Wagner was, as one would say in the vernacular, a “hater.” Although he was an unabashed Protestant, Mendelssohn was Jewish by heritage. It was this trait which Wagner brazenly attacked, calling out Mendelssohn by name in the infamous anti-Semitic essay “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (“Judaism in Music”):

…We find [accumulated considerations about the Jewish character] exhibited in the nature, life and art-career of the composer who was taken from our midst at such an early age—Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. By him we have been shown that a Jew may be gifted with the ripest specific talent, he may have acquired the finest and most varied education, he may possess the highest and most finely-tempered sense of honor–and yet, notwithstanding all these advantages, he may remain unable, even in so much as one solitary instance, to bring forth that deep effect upon our hearts and souls which we expect from Art because we know its capability in that direction.

Source: Richard Wagner, Judaism in Music (London: W. Reeves, 1910), 33.

The source of Wagner’s distaste for Mendelssohn, however, may have been due to more than just radical German nationalism. It’s possible he was nursing a personal grudge: at the age of 23, Wagner had sent Mendelssohn a copy of his C major symphony–perhaps in the hope that Mendelssohn would conduct it–and received no reply.

Wagner’s letter to [Mendelssohn] of the 11th April, 1836, from Magdeburg, shows that he sent the score to Mendelssohn as a present, asking him to read it at his leisure, as a specimen of his industry and aspirations at eighteen. Mendelssohn never performed the work….While it is certain that the score was not lent but given to Mendelssohn, it is difficult to account for its not being found among his papers after his death, except on the supposition that he destroyed it. In 1874 Wagner told Cosima that he thought Mendelssohn must have done so, “perhaps because he detected in it a talent that was disagreeable to him.

Source: Ernest Newman, Life of Richard Wagner, Volume 1: 1813-1848 (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1933).

The rivalry between these two greats of the 19th century also showcases their differences. Mendelssohn was conservative and traditional, interested not only in his own compositions but also in reviving the masterpieces of the past. Wagner was progressive and pioneering, and believed that Mendelssohn’s conservatism was slowing musical progress. It provides a bit of drama to the narrative, and a reminder of the tension and competition between the rockstar musicians of more than a century ago. At any rate, Mendelssohn deserves more credit than we give him nowadays. His works hum with dramatic tension and sweeping gestures, shimmer with lyricism, and are shaded with the stained-glass hues of religious reverence in hymn quotations or chorale textures. Take the time to listen to some Mendelssohn this weekend–I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

More reading:
The Guardian – Clash of the Composers

notes from the past: the letters between robert and clara

robertclaraschumann“Listen–at Easter I’ll get a couple thousand talers from Eduard and Carl–and it’s then possible that I’ll build a small house–in consultation with experts, of course, with three rooms upstairs and just as many downstairs–the entire design and plan is already complete in my mind–Härtel’s house can’t compare with the cozy atmosphere in ours–the dreamy darkness in the one room with flowers in the window or the bright blue room with the grand piano and copper engravings–we will love each other very much and remain faithful–that will be an angelic life–you will gently guide me when I need direction–will tell me when I fall short, but also when I’ve done something nice–and I’ll do the same for you–you will love Bach for my sake and I Bellini for yours–we will often play duets–I’ll improvise for you at twilight, and sometimes you will sing along softly–and then you will fall quite blissfully into my arms and say, ‘I never imagined it would be so wonderful.’” – Robert Schumann, to Clara Wieck, January 1838

Source: The Complete Correspondence of Clara and Robert Schumann, edited by Eva Weissweiler (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1994).

Musical Excerpt: the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh

A moving performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 last night inspired me to post this masterpiece of a second movement (conducted here by Haitink), which is so gorgeously crafted that it never becomes trite or tiresome–in fact, several audiences at premiere performances of the Seventh demanded that the second movement be repeated. The life pulse of this movement, broken only by brief, shimmery pastoral moments, comes from its inexorable rhythmic ostinato. While many have differed on the character of the second movement, for some it is reminiscent of a funeral march. Bitter and hopeful at the same time, this march communicates not resignation but resolution, of the determination of the human spirit to keep moving forward despite external forces or internal sorrows.

More reading: NPR – Christopher Gibbs’ Notes on Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony