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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 6 Critics
Richard Taruskin

To savor the experience of literary music without the concurrent medium of words we may consider two piano compositions from Schumann's freshest, most idealistic period, one of them tiny, the other grand. A proviso first: although words do not figure concurrently in piano music, they are often present in the form of titles, epigraphs, textual allusions, and so on. These definitely and purposefully mediate the effect of the notes and should be thought of as part of the work rather than as an “extramusical” expendable or a mere concession to “unmusical” beholders. The latter view gained a lot of currency in the twentieth century, owing to the confusion of the romantic idea of “absolute music” with a vein of antiromantic formalism that later invaded musical thought.

Schumann never intended any such strict conceptual segregation of media. He did not distinguish between the contribution of the music and that of words to the effect of his compositions. In fact he abhorred such distinctions, enthusiastically committed to the view (as he once put it in an aphorism) that “the aesthetics of one art is that of the others too; only the materials differ.”8 This little maxim of Schumann's could be looked upon as heralding the late-nineteenth-century ideal of media-synthesis or “union of all the arts” (sometimes designated Gesamtkunstwerk—”collective work of art”—based on a misunderstanding of one of Wagner's pet terms; see chapter 10). Schumann himself never aimed at anything so grandiose.

The nature of Schumann's interplay of words and textless music is very piquantly illustrated in the third number in the series of Phantasiestücke (“Fantasy pieces”), op. 12, a group of seven character pieces composed in 1837 (Ex. 6-2). Marked to be played “slowly and delicately,” it is one of Schumann's most diminutive keyboard creations, only forty-two bars long (albeit with the last twenty-six repeated), consisting mainly of repetitions of a single motive, a dotted “neighbor progression” that is stated in the first measure and thereafter given various continuations.

The texture, like that of the piano's “extra song” at the conclusion of Dichterliebe, is clearly homophonic, especially at the beginning, and therefore lyrical. More than one voice seems to be singing, however. If we mark occurrences of the motive phrase, we can identify soprano and alto entries in the first section (up to the double bar), joined in the second section by a rather insistent bass whose entries are dramatized by the player's rather extreme crossing of hands at the keyboard.

All of this may be easily noticed, and even interpreted in light of the music's familiar harmonic trajectory (FOP in the midsection and a double return to conclude), without knowledge of the title, deliberately withheld from the music as printed in Ex. 6-2. That title is Warum?, German for “Why?” What does knowing it add to the experience of the music?

How Music Poses QuestionsHow Music Poses Questions

ex. 6-2 Robert Schumann, Phantasiestücke, Op. 12, no. 3

It certainly couldn't be said that the title clarifies or explains anything. A title that is itself a question only contributes another enigma. It prompts speculation, though, which is to say the active intervention of the beholder's imagination. One might speculate that the first phrase, which adds an unusual ascending major sixth to the neighbor motive, mimics an interrogative inflection. In that case, the “why” is the unsung text of the “song.” One might speculate that the interplay of voices represents a lovers’ colloquy. (But there are three voices—a ménage à trois?) One might speculate that the interrogative title is just a reference to the insistence with which the generating motive is propounded. Or one might even speculate that the title is ironically self-referential (“why this title?”) in a way that Heine might have approved. Or one might speculate something else. (Here's one: is it by chance that the “motive phrase” in Schumann's Warum? coincides with an urgent phrase in a then very popular opera by Francesco Morlacchi, an Italian working in Germany, in which the male lead, Tebaldo, sings a kind of duet with his absent beloved, Isolina, as shown in Ex. 6-3?) Chances are, though, that one will do more speculating with knowledge of the title than one would do otherwise. A mind engaged in speculation is a mind receptive and alert.

How Music Poses Questions

ex. 6-3c Francesco Morlacchi, Tebaldo ed Isolina (1822), Act II, Scena e romanza: “Caro suono lusinghier”

So it should not embarrass or perplex us unduly to find in the presence (or absence) of titles an added complexity rather than an explanation. That seems to be the idea. Schumann himself was inconsistent and sometimes vacillating about applying them. They were much more frequently afterthoughts than motivating concepts. In several cases the composer added, changed, or deleted them in successive editions of his works. Another set of piano pieces from 1837 carries an autobiographical collective title—Davidsbündlertänze (“Dances of the members of the League of David”)—about which Schumann was profoundly ambivalent. In the first edition the individual pieces were “signed” by Florestan and Eusebius, and carried descriptive commentaries describing their antics. All of that disappeared in the second edition, and subsequent ones as well. This, too, prompts questions and speculations—as in this memorable passage from a celebrated article on Schumann's esthetics by Edward Lippman:

Did Schumann come to feel that guides to the meaning of his works were really not necessary? that the content was sufficiently obvious without them? or that the public had become educated and no longer needed the help it did originally? Did he feel that the headings restricted the imagination, or that they were a danger because they might be misconstrued? or did he always regret having permitted any small glimpse into his personal affairs and feelings? Perhaps the headings did not give the significance of the music at all, or even provide an index to its significance; they might have arisen as an additional poetic expression inspired by the music, which the composer could easily feel to be expendable. Or again, in removing them, Schumann might actually have changed rather than concealed the meaning of the music; did the pieces in fact remain the same without their titles?9

One's head spins. And one is grateful to Lippman, who, by allowing his spinning head this unusual public exposure, gave one of the best insights ever into the nature of literary music.

The pinnacle was reached in Schumann's Phantasie, op. 17, a monumental three-movement work composed in 1836 and dedicated to Liszt, that is in everything but name a sonata on the most heroic Beethovenian scale. Between 1832 and 1838, Schumann wrote three actual piano sonatas, of which one is comparably grand. (He originally published it under the title Concert sans orchestre, “Concerto without orchestra.”) The original working title of the Phantasie itself was Grosse Sonate für das Pianoforte (“Great big sonata for piano”). So why the change?

The change was dictated by the concept of literary music, or rather by Schumann's sensitivity to its implications. Unlike the other sonatas, this one was freighted from the beginning with a heavy cargo of literary ideas. The first movement was drafted in the early summer of 1836 as an independent composition called Ruines: Fantasie pour le Pianoforte. The work was temporarily renamed Sonata by late fall, when it picked up its additional movements. In this form it was envisioned as a memorial to Beethoven, inspired by the news (which Schumann had published in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik) that a committee had been formed in Bonn, led by the great literary scholar August Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767–1845), to raise funds for the erection of a monument to the Master at his birthplace in Bonn, where Schlegel served as professor of art and literary history. Schumann's rather optimistic idea was to contribute the proceeds from the sale of a hundred copies of his Grosse Sonate to the monument fund, but the project foundered until Liszt rescued it with a promise to contribute his concert earnings. Thanks almost single-handedly to Liszt, the monument was finally erected in 1845 and unveiled on the seventy-fifth anniversary of Beethoven's birth.

In December 1836, Schumann proposed the piece to a prospective publisher under the name Grosse Sonate f. d. Pianoforte für Beethovens Denkmal (“Sonata for Beethoven's monument”), and listed the three movements as “Ruinen/Trophäen/Palmen” (Ruins, Trophies, Palms). The titles of the new movements were intended in their original, ancient Greek meanings, which resonated both with the antique aura of veneration suggested by the first movement, and with the idea of the Beethoven monument. Trophies were memorials (war spoils displayed on pillars) erected in commemoration of victory, the most “Beethovenian” of all concepts; “palms” were the ceremonial palm branches awarded at victory celebrations.

How Music Poses Questions

fig. 6-5 Friedrich von Schlegel, charcoal drawing by Philipp Veit, ca. 1805.

To all of this Schumann now added an epigraph from a poem, Die Gebüsche (“The bushes”), by A. W. von Schlegel's even more distinguished brother Friedrich (1772–1829). It has been suggested that Schumann knew these lines not from Schlegel's poem directly,10 but only from Schubert's setting of it, to which the music of the Phantasie’s final movement briefly alludes. But even if that is so, Friedrich von Schlegel was a culture hero with whom Schumann had to identify, if only by reputation. Famous both as a romantic philosopher and as a classical scholar, he was the author of Die Griechen und Römer (“The Greeks and Romans”), a long-standard survey of classical civilization, and he wrote lyric poetry as well. The range of his interests and writings, in other words, runs the gamut of moods in the Phantasie from the most public and monumental to the most inward, even secret. The epigraph tantalizingly invokes the latter, in a fashion reminiscent of the other occult or unfulfilled gestures we have encountered in Schumann's literary music:

Durch alle Töne tönet

Im bunten Erdentraum

Ein leiser Ton gezogen

Für den der heimlich lauschet.

Through all the sounds

In the motley dream of earthly life

There sounds a soft, long drawn-out sound

For the one who overhears in secret.

Many have guessed at the identity of this secret sound; one can never know for sure. But what made the “Ruins” fantasy an apt basis for the Beethoven tribute to begin with was the fact that, as we will shortly learn, it already contained a secret quotation from Beethoven, to which Schumann added others, even more veiled and less definite, when he came to write the Trophies and Palms. As usual, he toyed a good deal with the titles and headings. Shortly before the work was printed in 1838 he made a wholesale substitution, in which only the heading of the first movement survived: Dichtungen: Ruinen, Siegesbogen, Sternbild (“Poems: Ruins, Triumphal Arch, Constellation”). At the very last minute, when the music was already in proofs, Schumann suffered cold feet, changed Dichtungen back to Phantasie, and dropped the rest, even “Ruinen,” the original motivating image.

This is quite a stew of representation and allusion, enigma and erasure, and the more we know of the work's history the thicker (and, it could seem, the more contradictory) the stew becomes. There are many who would claim that Schumann's right to withdraw the titles should be respected and that they should not be divulged lest they unduly influence, hence constrain, a listener's understanding. Indeed, the chance that listeners might think of the titles as constraints was probably what dissuaded Schumann from publishing them (although he kept the epigraph). But as long as we regard the titles as stimuli rather than as confines to the imagination they can function for us as “images that yet fresh images beget,” the way Schumann, in his confident moods, intended. (The quoted line is from W. B. Yeats's nostalgic “Byzantium,” a poem whose resonances for musical interpretation were first plumbed by Anthony Newcomb.)11

But in fact Schumann did not mean to withdraw the titles entirely. His actual direction to the publisher was to replace each title with an asterism—three stars in triangular formation (thus: ), a device often used in nineteenth-century typography to signal an omission, often the name of an anonymous author, or a dedicatee. The Russian composer-critic César Cui, for example, used an asterism as his journalistic nom de plume throughout his career. Obviously, there is a huge difference between simply omitting a title (which may as well never have existed as far as the reader is concerned) and signaling its omission. To do the latter is to challenge the reader to guess it, or invent one. A new question is posed. Nothing is removed from the stew. Indeed, the stew only thickens with the revelation that something (presumably something private) is being concealed. The listener is again involved, again asked to speculate, again rendered receptive and alert.

The posthumous publication of Schumann's private correspondence in 1885 added a great deal to the pot willy-nilly. In 1838, he had written to Clara Wieck, his then distant beloved, that the original “Ruinen” fantasy was conceived as “a deep lament for you,”12 implying that it was his own life that lay in ruins. A year later, after the whole Phantasie had been published, he wrote to her that in order to understand it, “you will have to transport yourself into the unhappy summer of 1836, when I renounced you.”13 A couple of months after that, he wrote, “Aren't you the ‘tone’ in the motto? I almost think so.”14

We need not pounce at this or shout Eureka. In the first place, as Charles Rosen wisely reminds us, Schumann (perhaps teasingly, perhaps candidly) left the matter in doubt. “As a listener to his own music, not as a composer, he has understood how his love for Clara can be poured into the mold of his work,”15 and left a model by which other listeners may pour their own loves into the music they hear, if that is their pleasure, for music, especially Schumann's “literary music,” is “made to be filled with our experience” (italics added). And as Rosen rightly warns, “too firm an identification of an element in a work with an aspect of the artist's life does not further understanding but blocks it,” as does any reading so definitive as to foreclose the begetting of fresh images.

Still and all, there is one spot in the first movement of the Phantasie on which every interpretive trajectory in the foregoing discussion can converge, and that is the spot marked Adagio, fifteen measures before the end (Ex. 6-4a). Comparison with Ex. 3-5e will reveal its identity as a variant of the opening/closing song in Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte (“To the distant beloved”). That, of course, was Clara in 1836. But it was also a Beethoven “ruin,” a disfigured shard from the Beethoven composition that, perhaps more than any other, contained a poignant message for the composer of the Phantasie.

How Music Poses Questions

ex. 6-4a Robert Schumann, Phantasie, Op. 17, I, mm. 295-end

It has a poignant resonance for the music's secret overhearer, too, whether or not the listener is aware of any biographical resonances. For the music is contrived in such a way that the whole movement up to the point of recall seems to function as a gigantic upbeat to it. And here is the most decisive reason why the piece had to be renamed Phantasie, even after Grosse Sonate and Dichtungen had been tried out. “We are accustomed to judge a thing from the name it bears,”16 Schumann had written in 1835 in the pages of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. “We make certain demands upon a fantasy, others upon a sonata.” Thinking back now to other fantasies, notably those by C. P. E. Bach and Mozart in the eighteenth century, we cannot fail to identify “tonal vagrancy” as perhaps their most salient shared characteristic. What a sonata normally announces at the outset—a firmly settled, cadential establishment of the tonic—a fantasy only arrives at later, and sometimes not until the end. That is what we expect in a fantasy, or as Schumann would say, what we demand from it.

Now look at Ex. 6-4b, the beginning of “Ruinen,” marked “to be played in an extravagant and passionate manner throughout.” There can be no doubt that that turbulent swirl, consisting of a root, fifth, seventh, and ninth, is expressing a dominant function, “longing” extravagantly and passionately for the tonic. (With two “unprepared” dissonances, moreover, and one more—C, a fourth—that enters with the melody, the harmony seems to begin not at the beginning but in process, as one might expect in a fragment or shard—or ruin—torn off from some larger unheard entity.) It would make an instructively frustrating exercise to pursue the harmonic implications of the opening gesture through the movement to find the moment where the gesture is consummated. But as the reader has probably guessed, that moment does not happen unequivocally until the allusion to An die ferne Geliebte makes its tranquil, consoling C-major close in m. 299.

How Music Poses Questions

ex. 6-4b Robert Schumann, Phantasie, Op. 17, I, mm. 1-19

In between, every threatened consummation is provocatively attenuated or evaded: in m. 13 by an ordinary deceptive cadence made a little garish by the application of a diminished seventh; later by the use of modulating pivots that introduce long roving episodes; elsewhere by turning I at the last minute into V of IV (a notorious anti-sonata digression into the subdominant); and so on. About one-third of the way through, the opening material, both melodic and harmonic, returns. Some, noting the double return, have called this a recapitulation; but to give such a name to the resumption of a still-unconsummated dominant is not to uphold but fatally to undermine everything “sonata form” has ever stood for.

Something else “fantasia” has historically stood for has been the seemingly random or illogical extemporaneous introduction of new material (often harmonically stable) to disrupt and destabilize the thematic and harmonic continuity of the whole. A classic instance takes place about half-way through Schumann's first movement, where the still-unresolved dominant harmony dissolves into an out-of-time arabesque or curlicue (incongruously played low and slow), and is succeeded by what can only be described as a lengthy interpolated character piece in C minor, which Schumann originally marked “Romanza” (romance, normally a vocal form), then changed to “Erzählend im Legendenton” (told in the manner of a legend), which was finally printed simply as “Im Legendenton.”

The functional relationship of its key to the sought-after tonic resolution is attenuated by a connecting phrase in G minor, so that C minor, when it comes, no longer sounds like the resolution of the harmony, but instead like another—yet another—feint. The theme that articulates it has some connection with the main body of the movement (specifically, with some episodic material first presented in the “alto” in mm. 33–37). But its quality of interpolation, of downright intrusion, is patent, and amply confirmed at its conclusion, almost a hundred bars later, where the “main body” resumes just where it had broken off—or rather, been broken off by the intruder. If the whole “Im Legendenton” episode were spliced out, an unbroken continuity would be restored. The interpolation makes no contribution at all to the clarification of the structure. It answers no questions, only poses new ones, further thickens the stew.

And so it is that when the opening material recurs a second time at m. 286, it still has the character of an unconsummated gesture, and the quotation from An die ferne Geliebte can function as the single consummation toward which the entire movement has been striving. It is a thematic consummation as well as a harmonic one, for as Charles Rosen and John Daverio have both convincingly pointed out (and as the reader can easily confirm by listening), most of the main themes in the first movement of the Phantasie are related motivically (if sometimes somewhat indirectly) to the melody of the final song in An die ferne Geliebte (albeit not always to the part quoted), and can be construed as derivations from it.

Seeing the whole movement in this light accords even better with the motto from Schlegel, which speaks of a tone sounding throughout, not just at the end. (And just to multiply possibilities, consider in the light of the Schlegel motto the enigmatic single tones that sound softly forth as weak local harmonic resolutions at two spots, of which the first is shown in Ex. 6-4c.) What is provided at the end, then, is not a new idea but a synthesis: the simplest, most concentrated possible statement of ideas that have been formerly propounded in a diffuse and complicated manner, with varied or even contradictory implications. The quotation from Beethoven is no longer merely a quotation—that is, something brought in from outside—but the realization of impulses from within, and their reconciliation.

How Music Poses Questions

ex. 6-4c Robert Schumann, Phantasie, Op. 17, I, mm. 77-81

More “organic” than that form can hardly get. It is a compositional tour de force. And yet while the movement could not be more clearly articulated or “directional” from the dramatic or gestural standpoint (that is, as an unfolding of thematic and harmonic impulses in time, and their ultimate convergence in repose), it is enigmatic in the extreme when approached from the standpoint of traditional conservatory “Formenlehre” (textbook study of form), which emphasizes the standardized arrangement of sections within a whole.

The first movement of the Phantasie thus has a doubly enigmatic status: originally a self-contained composition, when contemplated in isolation from its companion movements it becomes a “fragment” or a ruin in a new sense. Friedrich von Schlegel himself called attention to the romantic mystique of fragments. “Many of the works of the ancients have become fragments,”17 he noted. But then he added, “Many of the works of the moderns are fragments as soon as they are written.” This may sound like a complaint. Some, indeed, might have wished to say it in complaint, as Schlegel was mockingly suggesting. But Schlegel heartily approved. His love of fragments is closely related to Schumann's obsession with unconsummated gestures, withheld information, and the rest. The notion of a fragment demands that the beholder relate it to something larger, yet absent, to be supplied by an engaged imagination.

The beholder, in other words, must add something, once again confirming Schiller's marvelous insight that art's hold on our imaginations comes not (or not only) from what the composer puts in, but from what we ourselves are forced to contribute before we can take anything out. It follows from this that our perception of an artwork is never entirely objective. That much is a truism. But what also follows is the less common admission that it is never entirely subjective, either. Artistic engagement, and whatever knowledge (or self-knowledge) may emerge from it, is therefore the product of an interaction between the object submitted to the public gaze and the subjects who do the gazing. Neither can ever be excluded. Or so Schiller and Schumann (and every other romantic artist) insist.

Far from a truism, this has always been a hotly debated issue, for its implications are vast and potentially very disquieting. If we can never know or understand an artwork with complete objectivity (or with any other kind of completeness), where does that leave us with respect to other kinds of knowledge? Perhaps the intentionally incomplete statements with which romantic artists insist on tantalizing us do not really differ in kind from other statements, including those that purport to be entirely complete and unproblematical. Perhaps completeness of utterance is only a disguise worn by partiality. Perhaps romantic techniques of propounding intentional and unanswerable questions within the experience of art products, while seemingly novel and even radical, are only an extreme manifestation of a universal condition of knowledge. That would make romantic artists the greatest realists of all.


(8) Schumann, Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. I, p. 39.

(9) Lippman, “Theory and Practice in Schumann's Aesthetics,” p. 314.

(10) John Daverio. “Schumann's ‘Im Legendenton’ and Friedrich Schlegel's Arabeske,” 19th-Century Music XI (1987–88): 151.

(11) See Anthony Newcomb, “Those Images That Yet Fresh Images Beget,” Journal of Musicology II (1983): 227–45.

(12) Clara Schumann, ed., Jugendbriefe von Robert Schumann (Leipzig, 1885), p. 278.

(13) Ibid., p. 302.

(14) Ibid., p. 303.

(15) Rosen, The Romantic Generation, p. 101.

(16) Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 31 July 1835; trans. Paul Rosenfeld in Robert Schumann, On Music and Musicians, ed. Konrad Wolff (New York: Pantheon, 1946; rpt. Norton, 1969), p. 64.

(17) F. von Schlegel, “Fragments” (1798), quoted in Rosen, The Romantic Generation, p. 50.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Critics." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-006004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Critics. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-006004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Critics." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-006004.xml