Reflections on Schumann
In my previous post under the same title I discussed and rejected Charles Rosen’s suggestion that Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte contains the first representation of “the complex process of memory”. Even if part of that work might be interpreted as a thought process, there is no representation of recall, of music remembered in music.
We may still follow Rosen’s lead in turning toward another option, one moreover that has a close link with An die ferne Geliebte.
Robert Schumann’s Fantasie in C major, op. 17 (1839) includes a phrase that has been identified as a quotation of the most memorable four bars from An die ferne Geliebte: the phrase associated with the words Nimm sie hin denn, meine Lieder (Accept therefore my songs). This quotation appears at the end of the first movement.
It is, however, not a new idea. In slightly different form it has first been presented as part of the main theme (bars 15-18), and its stepwise descent is present wherever that theme recurs in some form. According to Rosen (1998: 96), in its final appearance it “sounds like a memory: it recalls most of the principal themes, and it at last presents the material that went into these different themes in its simplest form”.
However, there has been some debate about the question: is this really a quotation of that Beethoven phrase?
Anyone who hears one after the other is likely to answer: obviously! But – first, no one has identified this quotation in writing before 1910 (Newcomb 1990: 295). To which Rosen (1998: 97) simply replies that it must have been recognized “by every cultivated musician”.
Second, similar phrases may be found in other works, most notably, in Schubert’s lied An die Musik (Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir) (Marston 1992, Todd 1994). It shares its harmony and upbeat with the Schumann phrase, though in their melodic descent they part ways.
Beethoven’s phrase, on the other hand, is based on a different, very common harmonic schema, with outer voices running in parallel thirds (it has become known as ‘Prinner’, Gjerdingen 2007). This ‘skeleton’ in fact is so common that it is amazing that Beethoven’s phrase can yet be so distinctive.
But there are arguments in favour of the Beethoven quotation. One is ‘programmatic’: the work was written as contribution to a Beethoven commemoration. Schumann had a reason to refer to Beethoven. The other is biographical: for Schumann himself, his beloved Clara Wieck was at this time his own ferne Geliebte.
The poetic idea of Beethoven’s cycle – the imaginary meeting of distant lovers through the music they share – must have been dear to Schumann. This becomes clear from an earlier exchange between the not-yet lovers. Schumann (age 23) writes to Clara (age 13):
Since there are no electric sparks that connect us or remind us of each other, I have come up with a sympathetic proposal – as follows: at 11 o’clock tomorrow I will play the Adagio from Chopin’s Variations, and while playing will think of you intensely, and only of you. My request is that you will do the same, so that we may meet and see each other in spirit. The precise spot where our doppelgänger meet would probably be over St Thomas’s Gate (Thomaspförtchen).
(Letter from 13 July 1833. Schumann and Schumann 1984: 7; my transl.)
The piece chosen is from Chopin’s fiendishly difficult Variations op. 2 on Mozart’s La ci darem la mano, a showpiece in Clara’s repertoire. It is also the subject of Schumann’s famous first published review, which welcomed Chopin on the musical scene as a (hats off!) genius. The character of this variation may have suited the sentimental-fantastical jocularity of Schumann’s proposal, which reminds of his favourite authors Jean Paul and E.T.A. Hoffmann. According to his review, in this variation “the budding B-flat Major effectively represents the lovers’ first kiss” (Schumann 1854: 6; my transl.).
Quotation and Memory
A Beethoven quotation, after all? It’s hard to decide. It may have been a subconscious recollection – and then it is not really a quotation, since quoting is something we do intentionally. Schumann’s recollection, then – but does it also represent a memory?
A quotation is, of course, a memory made public … (Rosen 1995: 111)
Quotation is, evidently, a phenomenon that relies upon memory, both the author’s and the listener’s. But if Rosen’s casual assumption is true, it should equally apply to that blockquote above. And I don’t think I’ve just publicized a memory. I might even have copied those words without knowing their meaning – it would still be a quotation. As a matter of fact, I may now reproduce them from memory, but it still wouldn’t be something we call a memory. It’s experiences, rather, that we call memories.
Remembered phrases, verbal or musical, may come to mind spontaneously, by association. And I could have written this essay as if it were a continuous thought process, quoting from memory whatever came up.
But maybe this is precisely what Schumann has done in the first movement of his C Major Fantasie? By its unhalting passionate flow and its defiance of schematic form, it comes close.
That the (alleged) quotation has the appearance of a memory is most convincing in the original ending of the third and last, slow movement. There the phrase recurs, and stands out unprepared as a clear reminder (and quotation) of the conclusion of the first movement. But Schumann crossed out this passage shortly before the work went to the printer (Walker 1979: 161). Maybe worry about an excess of poetic intention and a concern for formal coherence prompted his decision. An unfortunate one, according to Rosen, and I concur … but this topic tends to provoke heady discussions on the composer’s “last will” and the integrity of the “musical work” (Seiffert 2010, 2012).
Not everybody is convinced, however, that the conclusion of the first movement even sounds like a quotation.
The possible Beethoven quotation at the end of the first movement of op. 17 is not extraneous to the rest of the music – is not embedded in musical quotation marks, so to speak, as is the quotation from Papillons in “Florestan” of Carnaval or the “Stimme aus der Ferne” in the last Novellette. (Newcomb 1990: 295)
This is precisely the contrary of Rosen’s opinion:
This quotation is relevant since Schumann has found a way of making it sound like a quotation; he invented musical quotation marks. (Rosen 1998: 96)
If we feel tempted to follow Rosen here, it may be because the phrase is presented in a more song-like manner, in a slower tempo, and in a final move towards resolution on the C major chord that has been absent for the whole duration of the piece (a truly stunning feature!).
Musical quotation marks may be any device that highlights a passage as in some way standing apart from the main discourse: a disruption of the flow by contrasting metre and rhythm, texture, dynamics, a harmonic discontinuity, or harmonic stasis. It is basically similar to marking quotations in speech (change of register, slight pause, emphasis …).
But Schumann is certainly not the inventor of musical quotation marks. It is a simple device with a tradition that goes back to at least the refrains of the fourteenth century ars nova, where a quotation may be highlighted by a slower tempo and change of texture.
Carnaval: Memory and Improvisation
A pianist is improvising. Involuntarily his fingers have hit upon the beginning of some familiar motif. What is that tune? … How does it continue? … Oh, that’s it. Having identified it and played the phrase in full, he returns to his earlier idea.
This spontaneous association, a kind of mental burp, is an audible process. The improvisation is an almost direct reflection of what happens in the player’s mind – which is music. This is what Schumann has represented in the Florestan episode of Carnaval op. 9 (1837). Florestan, his uninhibited alter ego, is improvising a rather wild waltz that seems to go nowhere. A phrase from Schumann’s earlier Papillons comes up unexpectedly – first only the beginning, the second time complete, and there it is quasi-tentatively identified in the score (Papillons?).
That added information – a kind of thought cloud belonging to Florestan – is lost to the listener. But the fact that something is quoted here is marked clearly enough by what Rosen (1998: 97) calls “a brutal change of tempo” from Passionato to Adagio. We may add that this clear, song-like phrase stands out within a context that seems to be suffering from an excess of impulse and a lack of direction.
Here, then, we may have a first clear case of music remembered in music. It occurs in a framework of music not representing thought but representing music, as improvised by the imaginary Florestan, who has independent literary existence in Schumann’s diary and essays.
To be continued.
Gjerdingen, Robert O. 2007. Music in the Galant Style. New York: Oxford University Press
Marston, Nicholas. 1992. Schumann: Fantasie, Op. 17. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Newcomb, Anthony. 1990. “Schumann and the Marketplace: From Butterflies to Hausmusik”. In R. Larry Todd (ed.). Nineteenth-Century Piano Music. New York: Schirmer Books. 258-315.
Rosen, Charles. 1995. The Romantic Generation (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press).
———. 1998. Romantic Poets, Critics, and Other Madmen. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Schumann, Clara, and Robert Schumann. 1984. Briefwechsel: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Ed. by Eva Weissweiler. Basel: Stroemfeld.
Schumann, Robert. 1854. Gesammelte Schriften über Musik und Musiker. Vol. 1. Leipzig: Wigand.
Seiffert, Wolf-Dieter. 2010. “Schumanns Fantasie Opus 17 (Und Franz Liszts h-Moll-Sonate).” Schumann Forum 2010.
———. 2012. “Will versus Caprice. On the the Closing Measures of Robert Schumann’s C-Major Fantasy Op. 17.” G. Henle Verlag.
Todd, R. Larry. 1994. “On Quotation in Schumann’s Music”. In R. Larry Todd (ed.). Schumann and His World. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press. 80-112.
Walker, Alan. 1979. “Schumann, Liszt and the C Major Fantasie, Op. 17: A Declining Relationship.” Music & Letters 60 (2): 156–65.