Schumann, Dvorak & the art of subtle anomaly

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First published in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra autumn 2017 newsletter, then in The Herald on 18 October, 2017

History is full of the times we got it wrong. The times an artist unveiled a bold new work or a change in direction and was met with incomprehension, or plain derision, from audiences and critics and their own artistic community. Beethoven got it for exploding string quartet form in the Grosse Fuge. Puccini got it for putting the lives of the poor and the sick on stage in his opera La boheme. Stravinsky for, well, pretty much everything about The Rite of Spring. Miles Davies for going electric.

In the cases I’ve just mentioned, general consensus swung around and, sooner or later, works that were initially heard as too weird or too radical were absorbed into the canon of ‘greats’. (Which didn’t always do them favours; ’canonical’ status often softens the way we play and hear things that still deserve to sound shocking.) In other cases, usually when the work in question is less obviously ‘out there’, those negative first impressions seem tougher to shift. We’re happy to reconsider wild unconventionality as creative genius in retrospect, as the product of a rogue but brilliant mind. But with subtler eccentricity we tend to fixate on the flaws. And one quality in particular that we can’t seem to handle is frailty.

Take the way we listen to the music of Robert Schumann, lyric poet, collector, teacher, storyteller, complicated mind. Regular concert-goers will likely be familiar with his piano quintet, his tender piano concerto, some of his enchanted early works for piano, probably a couple of the glorious song cycles. But what about his troubled late music? The form-breaking piano fantasies, more songs, the piano trios, the rarely-done opera Genoveva… or the deeply affecting Requiem? Thought not. Scottish audiences have a chance to plug that last gap, at least, because the Requiem is one of several 19th century rarities included in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s new season.

There is a generally held attitude that the music Schumann wrote from about 1848 up to when he died in 1856 was the product of a deteriorating mind, and therefore inferior to what had come before. It is true that the late works aren’t easy. Schumann himself told his wife Clara that everything he experienced in life went directly into his music – but that means the expression of failure was there in his scores long before he suffered any official mental breakdown. Even his earliest works are flecked with confessionals of self-doubt and disappointment. It’s when the flecks become too visible that we seem to turn away.

The Requiem, Opus 148, is a gentle and contemplative score that speaks directly and deserves to be heard more often. It dates from 1852, the year in which Schumann produced almost all of his sacred music. His mental health was becoming increasingly volatile –– in less than two years he would attempt to drown himself in the Rhine. He survived, then was incarcerated in an asylum where he would end his days. For many commentators, that biographical detail is a signifier of substandard music, and the Requiem has generally been dismissed or glossed over. Robert Haven Schauffler, who wrote a definitive 1960s account of the composer’s life, states that the late choral works “need not detain us”. Eric Jensen, a more recent biographer, picks up briefly on the mournful quality of the Requiem and informs us that it contains more contrasts than the Mass – which isn’t the most thrilling sales pitch. The critic Andrew Clements believes that “even by the standards of late Schumann, [the Requiem] is not an outstanding work, with rather unvaried choral writing and thick orchestral accompaniments”.

The august musicologist Carl Dahlhaus compared Schumann’s Requiem to Brahms’s – relevant enough, given the close friendship between the two composers, but the comparison fails to spot a fundamental difference between the two works. Brahms’s requiem is all about the living. It offers consolation to the mourners. Schumann’s, on the other hand, turns its gaze unflinchingly toward the dead. It isn’t without problems in orchestration or textural balance. But – surely more important – it confronts mortality with an honesty and serenity that is gracefully, profoundly moving.

Late style, the work made at the end of an artist’s life, often circles around the process of dying. Some artists find acceptance, others rail. Think of the way Turner used light in his late period – “the sun is God”, he told us. Think of Bob Dylan’s 1997 song Not Dark Yet, with its foreboding repeated line (“it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there”). Think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The History of My Sad Whores, which explores with immense elegance the experience of living with the prospect of death. In the late sonnets of Rilke, Orpheus finally accepts his place in Hades, telling us to “stop fighting and take it in”. Edward Said concluded that lateness is “the power to render disenchantment and pleasure without needing to reconcile the two”. In Schumann’s late works, the sound of failure is left unresolved. For the Requiem to succeed, we have to allow it to fail.

Richard Egarr, until recently an official associate artist of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conducts Schumann’s Requiem at the end of October. A month later, outgoing principal conductor Robin Ticciati and Sir Andras Schiff turn their attention to another bafflingly neglected gem. Dvorak’s Piano Concerto. Yep — I promise you the Czech composer did write one, though you could be forgiven for not knowing that he did. The reason why it is hardly ever performed?

I blame our collective obsession with virtuosity. In many ways, Dvorak’s Piano Concerto is an anti-concerto. He wrote it in 1876 and openly admitted that what he had not created was a showpiece in which the piano does dazzling battle with the orchestra — which would have been a more typical model for a romantic concerto. What’s more, the solo writing sounds less difficult than it actually is, and that never exactly endears a piece to performers. The pianist Leslie Howard remarked that “there is nothing in Liszt that is anywhere near as difficult to play as the Dvořák Piano Concerto – a magnificent piece of music, but one of the most ungainly bits of piano writing ever printed.” Little wonder hardly anyone wants to give it a shot.

After its premiere the work was declared unpianistic and was forgotten about by almost everyone. Only a few devotees have championed it, notably Sviatoslav Richter, and more recently Francesco Piemontesi and Stephen Hough. Yet there are so many reasons to love it. The music unfolds with subtle and lyrical beauty, full of characterful cameos for various members of the orchestra. The opening theme is vintage Dvorak, glowing and earthy, tinged with resignation. The horn solo at the start of the slow moment could be a missing page from the New World Symphony.

Sure, it is very different from the bluster and one-upmanship of most romantic-era piano concertos. To me that’s a good thing. Instead, the music meanders like a convivial conversation. It is unshowy, unheroic. It is mighty precisely because it is not conspicuously mighty. Maybe it’s a concerto for our times: an antidote to the rule that whoever shouts loudest gets most attention. Time for a reappraisal.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus perform Schumann’s Requiem at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on October 26 and City Halls, Glasgow, on October 27; the SCO performs Dvorak’s Piano Concerto at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on December 7 and City Halls, Glasgow, on December 8