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How This Series Came To Be…

By John C. Tibbetts

“Schumann failed, perhaps, of the full achievement which his rare gifts entitle us to expect…. But whatever his imperfections, he is yet one of the princes of art….”

Edvard Grieg

I was only twelve or thirteen when I first heard the music of Robert Schumann. While twelve is a wonderful age, it can also be a dangerous age. You’re acutely sensitive to the world, but you’re highly vulnerable to it, too. Everything is new. Everything is a shock to the system. As the song says in Kander and Ebb’s musical, Zorba!, “Everything that happens is happening for the first time.” Thus, in 1962, my first hearing of the Artur Rubinstein/RCA “Dynagroove” recording of Schumann’s Carnaval and the Fantasiestuecke, Opus 12 was a warning shot across the bow of my musical horizon. A new world fraught with magic, mystery, and heartbreak lay dead ahead. At that same time, Ingrid Haebler’s recording of the Papillons and Kinderscenen on the Epic label introduced me to more Schumannian wonders. Haebler’s LP (remember LPs?) had escaped the flames of a Kansas City record store fire, where I found it in a “damaged record” bin. Further sealing my fate, Robert Haven Schauffler’s 1946 biography of the composer, newly reprinted in 1962 by Dover Press, dropped out of the skies into my waiting hands. By the way, since then, I have read all the biographies I could get my hands on, by Ostwald, Taylor, Walker, Boucourechliev, Daverio, and others, but to this day I retain a special affection for Schauffler’s unabashedly hagiographic book.

It wouldn’t be long before I considered the notion of putting together a series of radio programs on Schumann’s life and music. By that time, in the early 1980s, I had survived military service, completed a Doctorate in Theatre and Film, and kicked around awhile in the broadcast journalism business. I couldn’t say I had become anything like an authority on the subject. Apart from a few years of piano instruction, I was self-taught in the ways of musicology and historiography; I knew little of Schumann beyond my own listening and reading; and I was inexperienced in the ways of broadcast technology. What I did have going for me was a deep-seated conviction that I had recognized something in the music and in the man that “spoke” to me in special ways and compelled me to convey that sense to others. I refer not just to the “outer” voices of the music itself, the instrumentations, the melodic contours, the harmonic adventures, the formal eccentricities. There was also that sense so peculiar to Schumann’s music of an inner voice, a running commentary, as it were; a kind of musical speech murmuring beneath the surface, sometimes musing, sometimes disputatious and disruptive, sometimes downright baffling. Only much later was this confirmed when I encountered these words by the French philo-linguist Roland Barthes in his 1979 essay, “Loving Schumann”: “Schumann is truly the musician of solitary intimacy, of the amorous and imprisoned soul that speaks to itself, hence the abundance of parlando in his work.”

Over time, I have learned that a lot of others—including Barthes, Italian jazz artist Giorgio Gaslini, composer Aribert Reimann, and composer-performer Heinz Holliger—have been attending to those same musical voices, formulating their own interpretations, and asking their own questions. Many are enthusiastic about their encounters. A few are not. Some of Schumann’s contemporaries, including his great friend, Felix Mendelssohn, expressed reservations regarding his compositional skills. Late in the19th century, a clique of Wagner enthusiasts (including Wagner himself) actively pursued an anti-Schumann campaign, accusing him of clumsy orchestrations, awkward constructions, and obscure literary and political allusions. As a boy I ran across an article by pianist Glenn Gould in Horizon magazine, in which he blithely dismissed Schumann as the least accomplished of the second-rank tier of composers. I heard similar cavils in some of my subsequent interviews. Pianist Vladimir Feltsman, for example, told me that works like the Davidsbuendler Dances are nothing more than a kind of musical “shishkebab,” a collection of “pieces, pieces, pieces.” A handful of orchestra conductors—Lucas Foss is a notable exception—complained about the supposedly thick instrumentations of the symphonies. And several violinists and cellists objected to the allegedly declining inspiration of the later music. No matter. We must embrace, rather than reject these radically differing views. The simple truth is that one way or another, listening to music like Schumann’s helps define us all. And when we find others of like interests, we remember Leonard Bernstein’s words: “Mention of the name ‘Robert Schumann’ can send shipboard strangers into each other’s arms.”

So, how to proceed? The radio project began as a series of four programs, mostly music, with some tentative commentary from yours truly, broadcast on KXTR-FM in Kansas City, Missouri in the spring of 1983. It was pretty standard stuff. Routine. But then, two years later, an extraordinary coincidence saw the appearance of two new biographies of Robert and Clara Schumann. Impulsively, I reached for pen and paper, and in a matter of days I was in touch with both authors, respectively, Dr. Peter Ostwald, a practicing psychiatrist from San Francisco, and Dr. Nancy B. Reich, a musicologist from upstate New York. I soon visited both of them, and I must say that those encounters radically changed the course not only of the radio project but of my growing sense of the composer. Both gave unselfishly of their time and expertise. Both introduced me to other scholars in the field. And both opened many doors to me that otherwise might have remained closed. Alas, Dr. Ostwald passed away several years ago. But Nancy Reich is as vigorous and active as ever. She continues to be an inspiration and a dear friend. To both Nancy and Peter go the dedication of this series.

The fruits of the hours of taped interviews with Ostwald and Reich convinced me that many other biographers, musicians, and critics should also have their say. Key to the conceptual evolution of the series was Jacques Barzun, the eminent humanist and educator. I found him in his offices at Scribner’s publishers in New York City. With his advice and encouragement, I began to hammer out the prevailing metaphor of the series, the quintessential image of the Romantic duality—a man on horseback. This image unites the guiding intelligence of the brain (the rider) yoked to the primary creative impulse of the primordial instinct (the horse). It has proven to be an effective aural motif throughout the series; and the hoofbeats of horse and rider can be heard many times throughout these programs, contextualizing and recontextualizing the rhythms and currents of Schumann’s age.

I was subsequently emboldened to track down more humanists and music historians to help me develop a greater awareness of the Romantic contexts surrounding Schumann. Albert Boime of UCLA (whose work on 19th century French painting I had greatly admired) received me at his Los Angeles home, and together we tracked countless paintings, poems, novels, and music from the period, from Gericault to Berlioz. Robert Winter, of UCLA, Leon Plantinga, of Yale, Hugh Macdonald of Washington University in St. Louis, Alan Walker, of McMaster’s University in Ontario, Canada, Rufus Hallmark of the Aaron Copland School of Music, Roger F. Cook of the University of Missouri-Columbia, and Paul Boller and David Ferris of Texas Christian University all contributed many hours of discussion and interviews that have proven to be crucial to the concepts discussed in the series.

Because I was in a position to produce classical music programming for Kansas City radio, because I began to write frequently for music journals like Ovation and Musical America, and because my television work kept me frequently on the road, I was able to locate and access many musicians, both here and abroad. Their views throughout this series amplify as well as interrogate those of the historians. Musicians are a peripatetic lot, you know. They never stand still. I had to go to them. Armed with cameras and tape recorders and letters of introduction, I haunted concerts, recitals, master classes, and music festivals all over the world. None of these talks was conducted in the pristine confines of a recording studio. Rather, they transpired in dressing rooms, hotel lobbies, private homes, and rehearsal stages. A few even occurred in the backseats of automobiles. Oftentimes I felt I was conducting a sort of guerilla operation, operating behind the lines to “bring ’em back alive.”

To cite just a few examples…. Vladimir Ashkenazy had just finished a Schumann recital in Duesseldorf when I found him in his dressing room, clad in little more than a towel. Elly Ameling was in the midst of a master class in Kansas City when she walked offstage right into the range of my microphone. Peter Frankl was between trains in New York City’s Grand Central. Leslie Howard was home in London writing scholarly notes for his monumental Liszt recording project. And Eugene Istomin was hosting a reception for Shura Cherkassky and Paul Badura-Skoda at his Washington, D.C. apartment after concluding the William Kapell Piano Competition.

On more than one occasion, the interviews came about through sheer accident. For example, while interviewing Van Cliburn-winner Jose Feghali for a local news story on the occasion of a forthcoming recital, I learned that he had just recorded Schumann’s Carnaval. It took little more than a gentle prodding to persuade Jose to repair to the local concert hall, where we spent a couple of hours at the keyboard on the empty stage talking about the work and analyzing every one of its numerous thematic permutations. It was quite a feat on Feghali’s part, a veritable tour-de-force, completely spontaneous and extremely insightful. That interview appears virtually intact in the “Carnival” episode of this series. In another example, while contemplating an episode called “The Haunted Forest,” I realized I needed to talk to a specialist in German landscape painting, particularly, the work of the early 19th century artist, Caspar David Friedrich, whose images seemed to haunt Schumann’s songs. I began my inquiry by calling the Art History Department at my alma mater, the University of Kansas. “Where in America or abroad might I find a specialist in Friedrich?” I asked the voice at the other end of the phone. After a pause, came the response: “You’re talking to him.” Thus, quite by happenstance, I found myself in the company of Professor Tim Mitchell, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject. I did not need to travel to some farflung corner of Europe; rather, here he was in my own back yard! We shared our findings soon enough over a few beers at a bar near the University campus. While I was gratified at finding out more about Friedrich, Tim in his turn was struck by the correspondences between Friedrich’s work and the songs from Schumann’s Liederkreis, Opus 39, about which he had hitherto known little. And a chance remark by pianist Malcolm Frager at a post-concert reception sent me scurrying to my tape recorder to document his account of his recent discovery of the original manuscript of the Schumann Piano Concerto.

A complete list of these interviews is too extensive to enumerate here, but some of the names deserve particular mention because they not only shared in common a passionate enthusiasm for Schumann, but because they became more than passing acquaintances. Rudolf Firkusny and his wife received me several times in their New York apartment and in their quarters at the Bard Music Festivals. He was always ready to talk about not only Schumann, but his beloved mentors, Leos Janacek and Bohuslav Martinu (in later years Firkusny kindly contributed to another project of mine, a book called Dvorak in America, 1993). From the keyboard of his New York apartment, and later during several visits to Kansas City, Charles Rosen discoursed on his newly-released set of Nonesuch recordings, in which he unearthed and performed the original manuscripts of Schumann’s piano pieces. We spent many happy hours talking about those proverbial “cabbages and kings,” subjects as varied as French primitive photographers and Hollywood “B” movies. Eric Sams, the British specialist on the Romantic Lied, provided me with one of the longest and most inspiring interviews of this series. He, too, became a longtime correspondent and adviser. Another stalwart friend to the series was Eugene Istomin. After growing up with many of his recordings sounding in my ears (I continue to regard his reading of the Rachmaninoff Second with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra as definitive), it was a particularly rewarding pleasure to discover a gentleman not only well versed in matters Schumannian, but a genial and wholly unpretentious man whose humor graces many of these programs. He and his wife, Marta, always welcomed me to their New York and Washington, D.C. apartments, and it was my pleasure to be their special guest at the First William Kapell Piano Competition in 1989. Although Gene passed away recently, I can still hear his chuckle and see his disarming smile. Perhaps not many of his listeners knew what a diehard baseball fan he was; and that he kept lovingly tucked away a complete Detroit Tigers uniform!

I am quick to add that some of these interviews failed through my own technical shortcomings. Lost to this series, for example, is an interview with the eminent Austrian pianist/scholar Joerg Demus, who discoursed at length on the nature and significance of Schumann’s piano accompaniments to the songs. Few people on the planet are more qualified on the subject, considering Mr. Demus not only has recorded extensively with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elly Ameling, among others, but has also recorded all the Schumann piano literature. But because I foolishly conducted the interview in a restaurant, it is hopelessly ruined by obtrusive background noise. The lesson here is never, never record an interview in the midst of a restaurant! On another occasion, I traveled to Chicago to talk with the legendary conductor, Erich Leinsdorf, about Schumann’s Scenes from Faust. To my dismay, I later discovered that the signal of a local rock ‘n roll radio station had bled through the wall outlet of his hotel room and registered on the tape. I report these misadventures with some embarrassment; but such are the pitfalls to a relatively home-grown project like this. Fortunately, I learned my lesson in time for two other interviews with Mr. Demus, conducted in Duesseldorf, on subjects ranging from Schumann’s music for and about children to the cycle Fantasiestuecke, Opus 12. Those interviews survive and are heard here.

Several trips across America and Europe yielded a rich mine of information. Conferences of the American Musicological Society, on German Music History at Champaign-Urbana, and a Schumann Festival at Bard College in Rhinebeck, New York led to conversations with Schumann biographers Ronald Taylor and John Daverio; cultural historian John Fetzer; and musicologists Lawrence Kramer, Susan McLary, and Michael Beckerman.

The city of Duesseldorf, Germany proved to be a treasure trove of information. Across the street from the Schumann-Haus on Bilker-Strasse, where Brahms first came to visit in the autumn of 1853, are the charming, picturesque headquarters of the Robert-Schumann-Gesellschaft. There, amidst the flowers and winding vines gather the foremost Schumann scholars of the world, many of whom submitted to interviews—former Director Frau Dr. Gisela Schaefer, Leipzig musicologist Joachim Koehler, and American musicologist Margit McCorkle. Every three years the Gessellschaft and the city sponsors a Schumann-Fest, a two-week celebration of concerts and symposia held in the domed Tonhalle, where musicians and scholars gather for concerts and symposia. Here under one roof I encountered the likes of conductors Wolfgang Sawallisch and Christoph Eschenbach, violinist Thomas Zehetmair, oboist Heinz Holliger, and singers Mitsuko Shirai and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

In tradition-rich Leipzig I found that a short stroll from Bach’s Thomas Church led to the fabled Café-Baum, where in the mid-1830s Schumann and his cronies hatched the Neue Zeitschrift fuer Musik in the mid-1830s (a “Schumann-Ecke” in the restored structure honors their memory). Elsewhere is the newly-restored structure that was the home of newlyweds Clara and Robert in 1840.

Nearby, in Schumann’s birthplace of Zwickau, I toured the Geburtshaus and talked with the Director, Dr. Gerd Nauhaus. A walk along the River Mulde, across the meadows, and through the Marketplace past the Schumann statue, evokes vivid impressions of the composer (despite the presence of a Burger King a scant hundred yards away from the Geburtshaus).

Finally, a visit to the asylum at Endenich-Bonn, where Schumann spent his last two years, and to the nearby cemetery where rest Clara and Robert, brings a sober and meditative close to the Schumann adventure.

Back to the recording studio in Kansas City, the Schumann radio series subsequently went through several transformations over the last seven years (I had been on a self-imposed hiatus from 1994–2002, during which I had been absorbed in family matters and that trifling matter of obtaining my University tenure). When I found Mark and Elizabeth Robbins, two fine Equity actors long associated with the Missouri Repertory Theater, I knew I had found the perfect “voices” for Robert and Clara. Their theatrical training enabled me to devise the dramatizations featured here. The fact that in real life they are husband and wife doubtless fed into the sympathy with which they played their roles. Recording engineer Larry Johnson and producer Royal Scanlon of the RSRT Digital Masterworks studios in Overland Park, Kansas have been crucial to the final stages of the series and have brought it into the digital age.

The World of Robert Schumann now clocks in at fifteen hours. Over a period of more than twenty years, it has gone from a few programs with narration and music to a 15-hour series featuring dramatizations, interviews, critical commentary, and hundreds of musical excerpts. But I’ll never say that it is finished. Rather say that the work has been provisionally suspended for now, and that the music and the interviews and the study will always continue. Some of the participants in this series have passed on, but the spirits of pianists Eugene Istomin, Rudolf Firkusny and Youri Egorov; historian Tim Mitchell; and biographers Peter Ostwald and John Daverio are still in my heart and are present in these programs.

I began this project many years ago with the conviction that I had things to say about Robert Schumann. Now, much older, if not wiser, I have had my say. But, more importantly, I have learned to listen to what others are saying. In particular, I recall the words of Eric Sams, that most genial and insightful of Schumannians, who during our interview so beautifully summed up the essential Romantic sensibility that was so strikingly embodied in Schumann:

Think of an isolated figure, isolated in some kind of splendid romantic exultation on the top of a handy mountain surveying the local scene. This person is, as it were, the German Romantic soul on its upward path, the bourgeoisie ever improving its lot in the world, making its way upwards literally and metaphorically. (Was there ever a time when the bourgeoisie was not rising?) But the figure stands alone in the landscape, a bit puzzled, a bit worried, a bit perplexed about life and maybe wondering where one's road leads and where one's goal is to be found.

Sam’s words conclude the episode in this series entitled “The Haunted Landscape.” But they could well serve as an epigraph for the entire series.

Through it all, I have renewed my own sense of wonder, revised some of my opinions, and asked many more questions. I hope you will do the same as you lend an ear….

John C. Tibbetts, Kansas City, July 23, 2004


© John C. Tibbetts 2004


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