Recently the pianist-singer-composer Gabriel Kahane has given concerts featuring Schumann’s 1840 song cycle Dichterliebe, or A Poet’s Love. It makes for a revisit to a composer who, in recent years, has been seldom performed or considered.
In a long retrospect, we remember Schumann as a key mid-19th century contributor to the piano literature. We think of him as mentor to the young Johannes Brahms. We recognize him also as a tragic figure who suffered from mental illness, and ended his days in a sanitarium.
Yet for too many years, Schumann’s work has been neglected. He came from a literary background. His father was a bookseller. He was strongly attracted to literature. Like Berlioz and Wagner, two other literary musicians, he worked as a music critic.
It was Schumann’s background in literature that made him a key figure in the field of lieder, art songs that are the settings of poems. While Schumann’s songs are less numerous than Schubert’s, they are almost as important to the development of this art form.
It has been argued that Schumann possessed better judgment than the earlier composer, although it Schubert, to his credit, often used the texts of Goethe and Schiller. Nevertheless, where Schubert based such major song cycles as Winterreisse, or A Winter’s Journey, on the poems of journeyman bards, Schumann went to Heinrich Heine, one of the greatest German poets, for his Dicterleibe.
Schumann’s prominent place in the piano literature is well deserved. Recently I went back, after the absence of years, to play his Traumerei on the piano. Schumann possesses a sensitivity to the shapeliness of melody that places him in the forefront of the Romantic movement. He stands as an interface of sorts, connecting such early Romantics as Beethoven with such late ones as Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Mahler.
Finally, it’s time for his orchestral music to be given proper attention. In the last years of his life, Schumann composed four symphonies and the Piano Concerto in A Minor. These works were for a long time considered a minor part of his output.
For me, they show the influence of Beethoven. They also resemble Brahms. The reality is that they strongly influenced Brahms, who, as a young pianist-composer attached himself to Schumann and his household, becoming close friends with the older composer’s wife, the pianist Clara.
If for no other reasons, Schumann’s orchestral works would be important to musical history for their influence on Brahms. But, despite long-held critical opinions, these pieces are major works in themselves, as rich in imagination and sensitivity as Schumann’s piano works.
To revisit, or initially visit Schumann’s work creates a rewarding experience. I would strongly encourage the push for the performances of his piano, vocal and orchestral works.