March 22, 2011


What if Schumann had Prozac or lithium? Would his creativity have been helped or hampered by these modern, so-called wonder drugs? Would his autobiographical Second Symphony tell a different story? As it stands, I hear the music pulsing with Schumann's journey from abject depression to triumph and joy.
Conductor Marin Alsop, interview on National Public Radio.
... the interpreter must possess a special empathy for Schumann the man and troubled creator. ... It must never be forgotten that Schumann ... was desperately holding back the gates of madness. 
David Dubal, Art of the Piano.

Why is it that, when it comes to Schumann's music, musicians are expected to act as Schumann's self-appointed psychiatrists, and to treat performances of his music as exercises in postmortem psychiatric profiling?  Schumann's mental life wasn't pretty, true.  But then neither were those of good many other important composers:  rabid antisemites (Wagner), pedophiles (Saint-Saens), anguished closeted homosexuals (Tchaikovsky), Nazi sympathizers (Webern), Communist sympathizers (Shostakovich), or just plain mean and vindictive bastards (Britten).
       Why is it, then, that Marin Alsop does not hear Saint-Saens' "Egyptian" concerto "pulsing" with lust for prepubescent boys?  Why doesn't David Dubal insist that interpreters must possess "a special empathy" for Tchaikovsky "the man and troubled creator"?  (And troubled Tchaikovsky was, if anyone can be meaningfully called 'troubled'!)
       Why does it seem informative for Dubal to refer to Schumann's "highly personal and psychological formal shapes", as if the formal shapes in the music of Bach or Mahler are impersonal and carry no psychological imprint of the minds that created them?  (Surely Bach and Mahler were not composing with their kneecaps or livers.)
       And, most importantly, why is it that those who insist on placing Schumann's music on the psychiatrist's couch never bother to ask themselves such basic questions as:  What exactly is the perceptual difference between a sforzando marked by composers with bipolar disorder, and one marked by composers with 'healthy' minds? (Since the answer is clearly "None", such questions would be rather uncomfortable for those who indulge in the above kind of psycho-blabbering.)

I hold this wide-spread pseudo-musicological idiocy responsible for frequent maiming of Schumann's music on record and in the concert hall.  Fortunately, the young generation of pianists does not seem to see anything important (musically or otherwise) in Schumann's psychological condition.  Or so I think based on what I hear in their playing, which focuses my attention on the natural beauty of Schumann's harmonic and melodic imagination, while avoiding the hysterical dynamical and rhythmic excesses of Schumann performances from decades past.  Perhaps for young musicians, who grew up in the world where Prozac and Ritalin supplement Gerber Baby Food, a psychological case like Schumann's may be utterly ordinary.

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