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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 6 Critics
Richard Taruskin

We have already noted that as Schumann's career progressed, his activities became more public. In his case publicity seems to have acted as a restraint. His later music showed increasing mastery of technique, but also a tendency to conform to public expectations. As a hotheaded Davidsbündler and maverick journalist, he summed up his attitude toward such expectations in a quintessentially romantic aphorism: “People say, ‘It pleased,’ or ‘It did not please’; as if there were nothing higher than to please people!”18 (Imagine Mozart's reaction to this!) As a civic music director and the head of a large family, Schumann inclined toward “classicism,” as the term was then beginning to be understood.

A subtle and revealing illustration of the change in Schumann's attitudes and their “socio-esthetic” implications was the fate of another fantasy that became a fragment. What began life as a one-movement Fantaisie in A minor for piano and orchestra, composed in 1841, later found a home as the first movement of a conventional three-movement concerto (op. 54), completed in 1845. The complete concerto is a justly popular repertory item. It has perhaps the most perfectly realized balance of forces of any standard piano concerto, with the soloist and the orchestra cooperating in all the thematic presentations, as well as in the transitional, episodic, and developmental passages. The only concerto that may be said to surpass it in these respects is Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, completed two years later and possibly under its influence.

When it functions as the first movement of a “normal” concerto, what we are most apt to notice about the former Fantaisie is what is most normal about it. Unlike the opening movement of the Phantasie for piano solo, its unfolding can easily be reconciled with the conventions of “sonata form,” which is what made it potentially an appropriate beginning for a “classical” concerto in the first place. Tearing it loose from that context, at once turning it into a fragment and returning it to its former estate as a freestanding composition, will expose its more experimental side.

The first thing we are apt to notice now is that its various sections, all of which may be related, if desired, to the conventional sonata design, have different, sometimes highly contrasting, tempos: allegro affettuoso to begin; animato at m. 67; andante espressivo at m. 151; più animato at m. 200; tempo primo at m. 249; and, after the written-out cadenza, allegro molto at m. 448. But then, in seeming contradiction, we notice that at each of these highly contrasted spots, the thematic material is the same: or rather, that (with the exception of the “tempo primo” that functions as a literal restatement or “recapitulation”) each section is based on a variation—or, to speak Lisztianly, a “transformation”—of the same thematic idea, in which a common opening phrase is given a new continuation each time (Ex. 6-5).

Anxiety and Recoil

ex. 6-5 Thematic transformations in Robert Schumann's Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra

Viewed this way, the Fantaisie looks less like a sonata movement than like a set of linked character pieces that might have been variously signed “F” (for Florestan) or “E” (Eusebius). Yet considering the placement of the slowest and the fastest tempos, the Fantaisie seems at the same time to sum up within itself the outward shape of a complete and conventional three-movement concerto, making its later incorporation into such a work seem a redundancy. In its sui generis yet elaborately overdetermined form, the concerto can support many interpretations, which is to say that there are many plausible answers to the implicit questions it poses.

Anxiety and Recoil

fig. 6-6 The old pontoon bridge over the Rhine at Düsseldorf, from which Schumann plunged in a suicide attempt on 27 February 1854.

Ultimately, that is the point. The one-movement composition, which seems in effect to anticipate Liszt's innovations (though far less flamboyantly) in its compression and its thematic transformations, asks far more of its hearers than the popular three-movement concerto in which it was eventually embedded, and which Clara Schumann premiered (with Mendelssohn conducting) at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on New Year's Day 1846. By then, the enigmatic “literary” quality he had prized as a youth had come to trouble and torment the composer, who was increasingly given to fits of nervous tension and melancholy that (as he noted in his diary) gave his life “an idée fixe: the fear of going mad.”19 This “fixed idea” or obsession made Schumann morbidly sensitive to symptoms of “irrationality” in his early output, and even caused him to revise some of his most remarkable compositions to render them more conventional, hence less threatening to his own peace of mind. It was almost as if the romantic conviction that his life and his work were esoterically commingled gave Schumann the idea that altering the work might alter his fate—a neurotic symptom in itself. His fears were eventually borne out, or perhaps fulfilled themselves: Schumann spent his last two years in an asylum following a suicide attempt. “Classicism,” for him, was a retreat from a threatened abyss. In this he was the first of many.


(18) Schumann, Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. I, p. 43.

(19) John Daverio, Robert Schumann: Herald of a “New Poetic Age” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 301.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Critics." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2016. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-006005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Critics. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 28 Apr. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-006005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Critics." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 28 Apr. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-006005.xml