Bienen School of Music Commencement Address, June 2014

July 29, 2014

Below is the text of the Convocation Address given by Jonathan to the 2014 graduates of the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University. To view a video version of the speech click here.

President Schapiro, Dean Montgomery, guests, faculty and administration of the Bienen School, and most of all, soon-to-be-no-longer-students of the Bienen School: Good morning. And thank you – a heartfelt thank you – for inviting me today, not just to speak to you, but to share this day on which you have so much to celebrate, so much to be proud of, so much to look forward to. All I can say, with the hope that overuse hasn’t leeched the meaning out of the word, is that it is a true privilege.

At the same time, though, it’s a bit terrifying. My own commencement, you see, wasn’t all that long ago, and I remember it well. To be specific, I remember the commencement speaker well. To be remorselessly specific, I remember the way her speech raised first my eyebrows, and then my blood pressure, and the way I stared her down, as if attempting some sort of Vulcan mind meld situation, trying to get her to wrap the thing up.

In fairness, I had a concert that evening in Islip, New York, a four hour drive away, so as far as I was concerned, she was on the clock before she even started – I’m just praying that none of you are as jaundiced and horrible now as I was then – but really, it was the content of the speech I was reacting to. Looking serenely at our unblinking faces in Curtis Hall, she told us that, armed with our degrees, we would be not merely musicians, but businesspeople – heads of Fortune 500 companies, even. If she had taken a harder, less serene look at the people she was talking to, the improbability of her prediction would have quickly become apparent to her. But no matter.

The subtext of her speech seemed to be that making music would never be as interesting, challenging, or valuable as a more “real world” endeavor, so I probably would react to it the same way today as I did then. But what I find so extremely striking, looking back at that 2001 speech, is that I found it so extremely striking. Today, rarely do five minutes go by without someone saying that musicians not only can, but should, must be entrepreneurial – a mere 13 years ago, the message was so unfamiliar, I had absolutely no idea what to do with it. My friends, my about-to-be colleagues, it really is a brave new world you are commencing into today.

The 2001 me would surely be shocked at how the music world has changed; he would be more shocked still by how exciting, freeing and fulfilling it can be to live in that changed world. It is not an unmixed blessing to be beginning your musical lives – because “career” is such an ugly word, particularly for something that ought to be a calling – in 2014, when so many of the existing models for the making and sharing of music are foundering, if not crumbling. But it is indeed a blessing. I know this because, despite not being by any stretch the most enterprising or creative of my peers, I have seen my own musical life branch out in directions I couldn’t have envisioned a decade ago. I’ve had the opportunity to organize series of concerts, where I was responsible for choosing the repertoire, for hiring the other musicians, even for the promotion, heaven forfend. And the result was that I become much more alert to the power of programming – to the ways in which context can open our ears, or close them.

I’ve spent many lonely and thrilling hours writing about music, about a lifetime of grappling with Beethoven and having my heart stopped by Schumann. Now that I have some limited experience being confronted with that most terrifying vision – the blank page – I stand in greater awe than ever at the achievement of those composers, and really, at the achievement of all composers. And, coming back to that music, after somehow filling those pages, I’ve found, paradoxically, both greater clarity and more mystery than ever in the music at hand.

Finally, in addition to teaching piano students, which I might have predicted was in my future, I’ve taught a course about Beethoven to thousands of people online, which, given my moderate to severe technophobia, I still can’t quite believe happened. But having had that – truly, remarkable – experience, I think more often and more deeply about what it means to communicate with an audience, with words, but most of all, with sound, than I ever used to.

The common thread running through all of these projects is that they each originated with an idea – with me asking myself which aspects of music mattered most to me, and then dealing with the implications of my answer. And having done that work, my feeling for the music concerned was invariably more…many things, really. Vivid. Three-dimensional. Accessible to me. None of this replaces the need to practice – sorry, folks – and sure, there are some days when I wouldn’t mind having 24 uninterrupted hours to devote myself, hermetically, to my craft, but I can say, unequivocally, that I am a better musician for having lived this more varied, more ventilated musical life – a musical life which would have been unavailable to me a generation earlier. You may choose a different musical life from the one I’m describing – in fact, you almost certainly will – but the freedom to do so is a, perhaps the, defining characteristic of our musical era. As Emily Dickinson said, you dwell in possibility.

So, that’s the good part. The best thing about this brave new world is that anything is possible; the worst thing about this brave new world is that… anything is possible.

For years, young musicians have been under pressure to conform to tradition – perhaps in no other art form has the weight of tradition been quite so heavy. It is the responsibility of every musician not to ignore that tradition, but to always question it. That pressure has not gone away, but joining it now is an equally powerful, more insidious one: the pressure to be new, to make a name for oneself by being different, and therefore carving out an unoccupied space. While at first, these pressures might look like opposites – “old is good” vs. “new is good” – and while they do tend to come from different sources, they are at their core, very much like one another, because they both ask you to ignore your own passions and interests. They are both about plugging you into a system, without ever asking if it’s a good system, or if you have something meaningful to contribute to it. And one has to find the courage to resist both at all costs. If you put together an unconventional program that really turns you on and someone powerful tells you that “things aren’t done that way”, you find a way to do it anyway. And if someone tells you that you should play the complete works of Sorabji because it’s never been done in Chicago before, you say no. Unless, of course, due to some no doubt hugely traumatic event in your childhood, you actually like Sorabji’s music.

In short, because there are more pathways than ever before, there are more wrong reasons for doing things than ever before. With increased possibility comes increased responsibility – responsibility to make your musical choices with absolute conviction and integrity. It is not selfishness, but the very essence of artistic generosity, to ignore what the world may be clamoring for, and instead ask what it is that you want to share with the world.

What this means is that it is more difficult than ever, and therefore more essential than ever, to locate and hold onto your musical center. To do so, you must ask yourself the only question that really matters, the fundamental question whose answer will provide you with the strength you need to choose the right musical path, your musical path: Why do I make music?

I will get to my answer eventually – today’s answer, anyway, because it is forever shifting – but I thought it might be more revealing to share some of the things I’ve heard over the years that have helped lead me to that answer.

The first is a quote of Artur Schnabel, a musician for whom I have a reverence that I hope falls just short of being irritating. Schnabel was, in a sense, my “grandteacher”, having taught my own teacher, Leon Fleisher, and this remark actually concerns Fleisher – it is Schnabel’s response when asked, at a lecture at the University of Chicago – to give his opinion of his (at the time) teenaged student:

“He has imagination and courage. He will try things and face the risk of failure. This is nowadays a rather rare quality. Courage is suppressed by the pursuit of safety.”

In addition to being as precise and perceptive as assessments come – seven decades later, Fleisher still has imagination and courage in spades – this gets right to the heart of one of the deepest psychological challenges we face. Given the instability of the life of a musician – the ever-changing musical world confronting us, the nerves that we simultaneously need and wish we could rid ourselves of – the urge towards safety is powerful. Being reliable – being able to produce today what we produced yesterday – is a quality we tend to prize highly, in self-defense. But it is among the least interesting, the least musical qualities a person can have. To pursue safety – stability – is to value what you already know and can do today more highly than what you might learn tomorrow. While this is completely natural and understandable – it is the result of being defended, which we all are, to a greater or lesser extent – it is ultimately nothing more than complacency: the enemy of the artist. Without courage – without the rejection of safety – literally not one great work of art would exist: not the late Beethoven quartets, not the Rite of Spring, not Guernica, not Ulysses.

So that’s courage. And what of imagination? I hardly need to stand in front of a group of people who have chosen music as their life’s work and explain its importance. But can it be developed? Isn’t imagination something you either have, or you don’t?

To be honest, I don’t know. Certainly, neither love, nor money nor the Vatican is going to turn me into a composer – I simply don’t have the talent. But while imagination may be among the most elusive of qualities, curiosity – its cousin – can be practiced, much in the way that an instrument, or any craft, can. I know this, because as a child, I was interested in music to the exclusion of almost anything else. And look at my reaction to that commencement speech at Curtis – fine, there may have been many forces at work, but my response showed that I was almost disdainful of the notion that something outside of music might merit my attention. But 13 years later, having met people from all professions and walks of life from all over the globe – another gift my life as a musician has given me, incidentally – I am not that person anymore. It has only taken a little bit of alertness for me to discover how endless, and endlessly interesting, the world beyond music is.

So if you cannot be more imaginative than you are – and let’s face it, imagination, like money and attractiveness, is one of those things everyone would like more of – you can train yourself to be more curious and alert. And those qualities are enough to make music, and your relationship to it, open ever outward.

The next quote I’d like to share with you comes from another piano-playing Arthur whom I revere: Rubinstein. He is grappling with the same question as Schnabel, though unsurprisingly, given their respective personalities, he comes at it from a very different angle:

“Of course there is no formula for success except, perhaps, an unconditional acceptance of life and what it brings.”

It’s funny: It’s the Schnabel quote, not this one, that references “failure”. But I find Rubinstein’s remark even more deeply concerned with it. Because to not accept life – its vicissitudes and challenges – is to try to control it. And why do we try to control life, if not to ward off what we fear? And what do we fear more than failure? It’s terrifying – believe me, I know – but with the acceptance Rubinstein is talking about comes freedom, the freedom to allow both the good and the bad that you deny in the alternate scenario.

And failure is liberating. This I learned the hard way, which, come to think of it, is in this instance probably the only way. A number of years ago, I played a concert that was attended by a huge number of childhood friends and teachers. And every one of my worst fears as a performer came to pass: there were memory slips, moments of panic, and a constant feeling of disconnection from what I was supposed to be doing. Honestly, short of classic anxiety dream territory – walking on stage without, say, a piano or my pants – it couldn’t have been any worse. And trust me: it hurt. It hurt while it happened, and it hurt more afterward, when I had to face friend after friend, with no idea what to say to them.

But sure enough, later that evening, the sun went down. The next morning, it came up again. And when it did, I had the musical equivalent of a very bad hangover, but I was otherwise exactly the same. The same as I was the day before, the same as I would have been if I’d played the best concert of my life instead of, to my subjective ear, at least, the worst.

I don’t think any realization has ever been quite so useful to me. Music means an enormous amount to me, as I’m sure it does to each and every one of you. But concert to concert, the stakes are simply not that high. You might think you played terribly, you might briefly feel humiliated, but you will learn from the experience. The course of your life will not be irreparably altered. No one will die. (Well, unless it’s a particularly bad performance of that Stockhausen piece with helicopters.)

And courage, just like curiosity, can be practiced. With my personality, when faced with a new and unfamiliar task, my first instinct is to think that it is completely beyond me. In spite of this (or is it because of it?), I try new things all the time. Unfamiliar repertoire. Learning something under a tight deadline. Public speaking…

I don’t mean to go all American Idol on you. It’s not that “you can do anything you put your mind to.” You, and I, and everyone else on this planet are each unequal to a great many things. But you will never know without trying, and you will invariably learn from failing.

The third quote I want to share, because I come back to it constantly, myself, is not from a musician, but from the late, great poet, Seamus Heaney – from the speech he gave when he accepted his Nobel Prize:

“[Poetry has] the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest [part] of our veritable human being.”

While it’s ostensibly about poetry, this says what I think are the very most essential things about music, and our job as musicians – unsurprising, perhaps, as music is really just poetry written in a purer, more beautiful language. Making music is not – or should not be – about ego, or glory. It is about showing the most vulnerable sides of ourselves, our “solitudes and distresses”. It is a means of communicating those things that we can’t otherwise – not with prose, not even with words – those things, as Heaney says, that we know are true, even if everything in the material world conspires to suggest that they are false.

And that “hunters and gatherers” bit – that’s even more on the nose. Because in the end, music is all about engagement, and as you engage, you represent values. You do so in choosing to shape a phrase in one way and not another; in coming to a rehearsal prepared or unprepared; in honoring your commitments or not; in treating a colleague well or badly; in trying to reach people with your music, or in shutting them out. Making those choices: that is what it means to be a musician, and a musical citizen.

So why, then, do I make music? Because of its wondrous, powerful, often terrifying beauty. And because I want to share that beauty, so unlike the other beauties of this world, with as many people as possible, in as many ways as possible. Because I am genuinely frightened to think what I might have been without music in my life. Every significant thing that I have learned about myself, I have learned through music. From Mozart’s Soave il Vento from Cosi fan Tutti, and the D Major String Quintet and d minor Piano Concerto, I learned that it is normal that all my emotions – my rage and my exhilaration and my anguish – live so close to one other. From playing Schumann – the Davidsbündler and the d minor piano trio and all the rest of it – I learned that loneliness, too, is ironically a shared human experience. From Kurtág’s silences, I came to understand the relationship between needing, badly, to speak, and not knowing what to say. With every note I play or hear, I become just a bit less maddeningly inscrutable to myself. And to whatever meager extent I have learned to communicate my feelings: that too, I have learned from music – from playing it for people, and with people. That is why I make music: because I need to, and because I want, deeply, for other people to have their lives enriched in the same way.

I’ve taken enough of your time – I don’t want anyone Vulcan mind melding me! – but I would like to share one more bit of Schnabelian Wisdom. In that same University of Chicago lecture, he was asked whether the intellectual or emotional side of music mattered more to him: a question presumably as irritating in 1945 as it is today. His response: “Love has to be the starting point – love of music. It is one of my firmest convictions, that love always produces some knowledge, while knowledge only rarely produces something similar to love.”

To that end, I will make one request of you. Today, tonight, before you leave this campus and go your hopefully merry ways, think back to your first musical experiences. More to the point, think back to the first moment when you knew you loved music. Whether you were playing it, listening to it, writing it, or writing about it, whether it was the repertoire, or the tactile experience, or the camaraderie of it, try to remember it, as precisely as possible, what it was, and what you felt. Lock that memory inside you. And then go on remembering it, every day. Each time the search for improvement – forget perfection – feels overwhelming, remember it. Each time life conspires to take you down a new and difficult path, re-remember it. Each time you are asked to do something that doesn’t sit quite right with you, remember it yet again. Nothing else will be as useful a guide in keeping your equilibrium, in preserving a healthy relationship with your art, in hunting and gathering the right values. It will make it possible to fulfill what are really your primary tasks as a musician: to work, doggedly but lovingly; to try to play just a very little bit better each day, until the day you die; to leave the world of music, in your own, small way, better off than it was when you first discovered it.

Thank you, once again, for allowing me to be here with you as you enter the next phase of your musical lives. I am genuinely moved to look out at all of you, who have chosen a life in music, and I cannot wait to see what it is that each of you will do in this beautiful, messy, wonderful world of possibility. I wish you, quite literally, all the luck in the world. Congratulations!


Private Music

September 19, 2013

This is an excerpt from Jonathan’s Kindle Single, Pianist Under the Influence

My first memory of playing the music of Robert Schumann comes from when I was 9 years old. I had been making my precarious way through the Scenes From Childhood, learning one tiny movement (at most) a week, and had arrived at the penultimate piece, Child Falling Asleep. The title suggests gentle music, and the perpetual, unhurried rocking motion of the rhythm fulfills this expectation. But the calm is never unthreatened, with misplaced accents injecting a note of unrest and some of the harmonies causing the cradle to shudder slightly; just like Schumann’s adult subjects, this is a child with a rich and turbulent inner life. Something about this music, poised between security and danger, riveted 9-year-old me, and I can remember leaning forward as I first read through it, straining—and needing—to see what the next notes would be.

They turned out to be extraordinary. After a brief—everything about the 2-minute-long piece is brief—interlude in a glazed-eyed E Major, the minor key music of the opening returns. At just the moment that it should come to a resting point, though, it loses its bearings, takes a harmonic turn away from where it needs to be, and gropes in the dark for a conclusion. Each of the final phrases of the piece is more questioning, open-ended, and vulnerable than the one before, and rather than resolve, the music simply stops, in midsentence, harmonically far from home. The child does indeed fall asleep, but in a state of high anxiety. I was instantly transfixed. But at 9, I did not quite understand that what Schumann had done was to give voice to my most frightening dreams.

In fact, the realization has come only very gradually: that most of what I know about myself, I have learned from playing Schumann. That is not to say that it is the greatest music I have played, or even my favorite. Schumann does not have the power or the spirituality of Beethoven. He does not have Mozart’s Shakespearean grasp of human psychology. He was blessed neither with Schubert’s preternatural grace, nor Brahms’s iron will. But he has a precious quality that no other composer does to the same degree: He knows the meaning of solitude, and he can translate it into sound. If any of those other composers had not existed, I would be poorer for it—ever so much poorer. But if Schumann had not existed, I would be less than whole.

Love has always been at the core of my relationship with Schumann. While this might seem like a foregone conclusion, in fact it represents a crucial difference from my relationships with other great composers. With Mozart, Schubert, Bartók, Beethoven—above all, Beethoven—the principal thing is not love, but awe. Walking offstage after a performance of a Mozart concerto, or the Archduke Trio, my colleagues have heard me ask, over and over, “How is it possible?” With most of the music I am most drawn to—and it really is a draw, in the deepest sense, something magnetic or centripetal—a huge part of the appeal comes from the mystery. Two decades of living with the music of these composers has not brought me closer to an understanding of their achievements, or how they achieved them. Time and hard work have made Beethoven’s vision of the infinite and Schubert’s psychodrama feel more and more accessible to me when I play. But could I explain where they come from? Not a chance.

Unlike other great composers, whose imaginations are sources of mystery and wonder to me, Schumann’s music feels as if it springs from my inner life: It is the music I would write if I were braver, and a genius. In this unique case, there is no awe, because there is no distance: His music is about me, and for me. When I play his music, I understand everything about him. Like every performer, I have the capacity for delusion, but I am not quite that deluded. Schumann did not write especially for me, and I understand his music no better or worse than any of the large army of listeners who so love his music. But that is the aspect of Schumann’s gift that is most unusual: personal as his music may be, what it describes is universal enough that a remarkable number of people feel that it has a special resonance for them. It is music that articulates the most private thoughts of a large public—individual by individual.

And to be clear, I am speaking about a very extreme degree of privacy. There are, for all of us, the things we tell everyone, the things we tell just a few people, the things we tell only loved ones (and perhaps therapists), and the things we tell only ourselves. And then, of course, there are the things we do not even admit to ourselves; it is at that level that Schumann’s music operates. Over and over again, in piece after piece, he reaches deep within himself for that which is most obscured, and makes it feel like everyone’s obscurity. This is a quality to be treasured; it is also dangerous as hell. To acknowledge one’s frailty is healthy; to stare at it repeatedly, with a magnifying glass, under fluorescent lights, is not. But that is just what Schumann does.

An example: the wrenching Frauenliebe und Leben tells, from a woman’s point of view, the story of a romantic relationship through all its stages, ending with the woman mourning her husband. The final song bursts into existence with a minor triad, the piano sounding like three trombones, like the furies themselves. The opening lines, unsurprisingly, are filled with rage—the rage of the person who has been left behind. This rage soon gives way to pleading—the text is about the bitterness of her loss, but Schumann’s music begs for his return. Moving as all this is, these are postures—the sorts of affects we expect in romantic poetry about loss, and in music that uses it as a source.

But with the arrival of the final stanza, Schumann strips away all the artifice, and unflinchingly explores the woman’s pain. The rage and pleading had created an illusion of purpose; when they go away, all that is left is grief, and its futility. Accordingly, the music closes in on itself: rhythmically, harmonically, and motivically, terrifyingly little happens. The voice inches first upward, then downward. Each phrase poses a question without an answer. We are hearing a soul unravel.

And then, nothing. The singer’s final words—“you, my whole world!”—end, unresolved, on a half-cadence, at which point, she simply stops singing. The work closes, crazily, with a reprise of the opening song, a quiet declaration of her love, music from 20 minutes and perhaps 20 years earlier, with the vocal line missing. The piano simply plays its part alone, at times encompassing the now unsung line, at times providing only a skeleton. This conclusion—I use the word loosely—is presumably meant to be a memory, but the message could not be clearer: not only is he gone, but so, in every meaningful sense, is she. She has been exploded by her loss, and by what she has permitted herself to feel.

Gender and characterization aside, I never doubt, listening to Frauenliebe, that it is Schumann’s own annihilation that I am hearing. And precisely the same could be said about any number of his works. To play one of these works is to follow Schumann down corridor after frightening corridor; for better and worse, I have never hesitated to do so. Playing this music, I feel so connected to its emotional meaning, my whole body chemistry changes; I sense that through the music, I may come to know—really, truly know—this odd, beautiful, broken person. And whatever the danger, I want to know. That, I suppose, is what love is.


Jonathan on Schumann in The Guardian

May 17, 2013

Jonathan shared some final thoughts about Schumann for The Guardian as his season of Schumann: Under the Influence draws to a close, and you can read the published column here. But for those interested in the full “director’s cut” version, see below!

“His head was like water.”

The head in question was Robert Schumann’s; the observation was made by Dr. Franz Richarz, chief psychiatrist of the Endenich asylum. It was there that Schumann spent the 29 last, unhappy months of his altogether unhappy life.

For most of the century and a half since Schumann’s death, these final months have been shrouded in mystery. Clara Schumann, encouraged by a group of close associates that included Brahms, suppressed the music of this period, fearful that it would betray signs of her husband’s mental deterioration. And until 2006, Dr. Richarz’s family kept Schumann’s medical records sealed, presumably as much to protect their ancestor and the well-meaning but antiquated institution he headed, as to protect Schumann. Seven years ago, these records were finally made public, and now, thanks to Lise Deschamps Ostwald, they have been widely disseminated. In 1985, the psychiatrist Peter Ostwald, Ms. Deschamps Ostwald’s late husband and collaborator, wrote Schumann: The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius, the first work to examine its subject with both the rigor of a scientist and the ardor of a music-lover. A new edition includes an extra chapter, “Endenich Revisited”, written by Ms. Deschamps Ostwald. It is a loving and meticulous account of the composer’s day-to-day life, as his frailties finally defeated him. Schumann’s medical treatment, interactions with doctors, and fears and passing delusions are all presented soberly, with an admirable refusal to overreach for conclusions. A gift as unprecedented and inimitable as Schumann’s remains impossible to understand fully – and the line between his creativity and his madness remains as porous as his head apparently was – but this is an invaluable contribution to Schumann scholarship. New information about an artistic genius is always welcome, and understandably, people seem to have a particular craving for knowledge about the lives of the great composers. Instrumental music is unequaled among the arts in its magnificent, even defiant abstractness. It suggests infinite possibilities, without offering any definitive answers; at its best, it is simultaneously about everything, and nothing at all. What could be more tantalizing?

But Schumann’s music excites the curiosity further still, because it is not only lofty, but personal. Excruciatingly personal. So much of its shattering emotional power comes from the feeling it conveys that confidences are being shared – that Schumann is disclosing the sorts of truths one often hides even from oneself.How ironic, then, that this most self-revealing of composers has been so often overshadowed, even betrayed, by his biography. One of the defining characteristics of Schumann’s music is its tendency to wander. Virtually no work of his proceeds directly to its finish on precisely the path its start seems to promise. This quality produces moments of heart- and time-stopping beauty, but it also means that his music resists the human desire for a clear narrative.

Far clearer is the narrative offered by his life: talented, sensitive man can’t cope, goes mad, jumps in the river. This version of events – lacking in nuance but verifiably true – gives the listener an easy out, a reason not to engage with the most striking, and therefore most unsettling aspects of his music: If I don’t immediately understand it, if it doesn’t meet expectations set by other great music, then, well, we all know what the poor man’s limitations were. Prejudices against Schumann’s music that we might otherwise dismiss as facile have been given ballast by his life story, which ultimately obscures his music as much as it informs it.

I have heard these prejudices articulated again and again, and each time, I find it dismaying. His music is well-represented in concerts and on disc (though, I would argue, by a too-narrow sampling of his work), and yet plenty of musicians and music lovers persist in saying that his large-scale works are rambling, his orchestral ones grey, his late ones incoherent. Imagine a sizable portion of the art world speaking condescendingly of van Gogh, and you will have some idea of how this makes me feel. That is why I have devoted much of the last year to a project called Schumann: Under the Influence, which places Schumann at the center of his own musical world, surrounding him with the music he admired, and the music of composers who took his unique creative vision as an inspiration. It asks the audience only to listen, with an open mind and heart, and not to ask Schumann’s music to be anything other than it is.

Under the Influence began 7 months ago with the Gesänge der Frühe – songs of the early morning – completed only days before Schumann’s suicide attempt. As ever, an autobiographical aspect can be felt from the outset: the fifth was always the interval he used to invoke his beloved wife, and the Gesänge der Frühe open with a pair of them, first rising then falling, a Clara couplet. This rise and fall – a tentative advance and immediate retreat – is emblematic of the work as a whole, which is suffused with emotion throughout but daringly lacking in motion or activity.

This stillness is not serenity, though; it is the sound of a soul unraveling. Each piece evokes, with painful precision, the confusion and vulnerability many of us associate with the first light of day, and which Schumann perhaps associated with life itself. Simultaneously highly charged and very obscure, these pieces do what Schumann’s music does best: They speak for the part of us that stays silent, yet longs to be heard. They are the lump in our throat, in full voice.

The Gesänge der Frühe have never entered the repertoire; most piano students are unaware of their existence. Perhaps the work’s most remarkable qualities – its lack of purpose, its opaqueness, the extremity of its resignation – are the very ones that have led us to ignore it. Any listener primed by the Cliff’s Notes version of Schumann’s life to hear mental decay in his late works will find it here. It is stripped of anything externalized, of the desire to please, even to be understood.

Predictably, Schumann has been very misunderstood indeed. In our minds’ eyes, we tend to reduce composers to clichés of their last years: Brahms is bearded; Haydn is grandfatherly; Beethoven is deaf. But while even Beethoven’s deafness is seen as ennobling, the spent, lifeless, inert Schumann we envision only diminishes him. And us. These descriptions are inevitably one-sided, limiting, but in the case of Schumann’s, what is revealed ultimately areour failings– of imagination, empathy, and courage.

So, please, go listen to the Gesänge der Frühe. Any recording will do. They will pose many questions and provide no answers. And yet they will reveal so much of him, his end of life, his fragility. Far more than is revealed by his recurring vision of the destruction of Düsseldorf, or his affection for lukewarm baths and warm milk, or his time spent in straitjackets.

Or, if these late works seem a bridge too far at first, begin with the early ones. They are sometimes dazzling in a way that the Gesänge der Frühe never are, but in their finest, most characteristic moments, they are equally mysterious and disconcerting.Davidsbündlertänze, the magnificent 1837 cycle with which Under the Influence comes to a close next week, may be a work from Schumann’s youth, but it finds him no more at ease with himself or the outside world. The work runs the gamut of expression, from tender to wild, but is most moving when it is at its most internal – when everything about Schumann, even his desire to communicate, feels closed in on itself. Revealingly, its most extraordinary moment is marked “Wie aus der Ferne” – as if from a distance.

This being Schumann, the “distance” is not merely a question of space: it reflects his feeling of being out of step, out of place, out of time. Listen to Schumann. Accept, even embrace, his unknowability. The moment you stop listening for the water in his head, his soul opens itself to you.


Jonathan Biss: Schumann’s Culture Of Musical Nostalgia on NPR

October 11, 2012

This essay appeared on NPR’s blog as part of week-long dedication to Schumann

There’s a charming scene in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris where Owen Wilson, completely smitten with his fantasy of Paris in the 1920s, discovers that Marion Cotillard, his dream woman (literally) from the era, doesn’t share his affection for it: She longs for the Belle Epoque. So together they go back to the 1890s — it is a fantasy, after all — and there are Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin, wishing they’d had the fortune to have lived in the Renaissance.

I loved the conceit, but found myself wondering just how far back it went — did Piero della Francesca pine for the Dark Ages? And then I thought of music: Is yearning for the past a critical element in music, and if so, has it always been present? The more I thought about it, the clearer it became to me: Robert Schumann is the inventor of musical nostalgia. Moreover, he is the creator of a musical nostalgia culture, alive and well two centuries after his birth.

It takes a bit of a mental leap to realize this quality needed “inventing.” In the 20th century, nostalgia became such a critical element of music and the musical world. If I look at the composers of the last 100 or so years I love most, disparate as they may be, they share an uncanny capacity to communicate longing for the past. It is there, implicit, in the downward, “sighing” figures that permeate the music of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg; it is more explicit in Janácek, who gave his pieces titles like “Words Fail!” and “Unutterable Anguish,” and whose In the Mists is a lament against the cold, unfeeling musical culture he inhabited. And it is the very essence of the music of György Kurtág, who solicited the assistance of a therapist to convince him that writing music in the late 20th century was not pointless. Ultimately, his solution is to write intensely expressive miniatures — frequently in tribute to the past masters he reveres. One of the most significant and moving of these tributes, not coincidentally, is the Hommage à Robert Schumann. A Musical Rückblick

This ache for the past becomes absolutely critical in the 20th century, but it does not begin there: Gustav Mahler, Hugo Wolf, and Johannes Brahms didn’t share much, but they were all haunted by the specter of Beethoven. Each in his own way was preoccupied with the problem of composing in a style and harmonic language that was already halfway to being dismantled. For Brahms, the solution was to meticulously, even fanatically, study the old style. For Wolf it was to try to ignore it completely, and for Mahler, it was a more complex mix of adulation and rejection.

But go back far enough, and this backward glance — this musical rückblick — goes away. In the latter half of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, musical culture was rooted in the present. Beginning with Haydn, the era saw a series of masters each of whom wanted to build on what their predecessors had accomplished. Beethoven may have occasionally protested that no one would ever surpass this or that achievement of Mozart, but time and again he tried, using all the same genres in which Mozart had excelled. And while at that level, it is impossible to say that he succeeded, he certainly didn’t fail either. And Schubert was equally fearless in seeing the piano sonata and string quartet not as forms whose summits had been reached, but as vehicles for the expression of his own unique musical personality — just as Mozart and Beethoven did, he put new wine in old bottles.

Of course these titans could and did express nostalgia. Mozart may have done it better in the aria “Porgi Amor” than anyone before or since, though Schubert’s lieder provide stiff competition. But it was the nostalgia that is a part of life’s experience that interested them — the wistfulness that comes with the memory of a person or event — not the nostalgia for a previous musical era, style, or form. Schumann’s Musical Monuments

And this is where Schumann represents such a sea change. He was plenty concerned for the future of music — he even created a fictional army, the “Davidsbündler” (League of David) to advance its cause in the face of a reactionary society. But he was also the man who, in 1837, wrote a piece about the idea of a musical “museum,” and the question of who belonged in it. It could be that Schumann was the first composer to think of an artistic canon that preceded him.

In fact, he not only thought of such a canon, he paid obeisance to it: Schumann wanted to build monuments — both literal and figurative — to Beethoven. In the 1830s, Schumann was central to the fund-raising effort towards the construction of such a monument in Bonn, discussing the idea with his colleagues and writing an even more fanciful than usual essay on the topic. (Written in the voices of four alter egos — he typically restricted himself to two — the piece is Schumann at his most enjoyably wacky.)

But the real Beethoven monument Schumann was responsible for was musical. With his C Major Fantasy — one of his largest canvases and most staggering achievements — he created a work of art which is part tribute, part loving portrait, but most of all a deep lament: a lament for Beethoven, whom Schumann so revered, and for himself, given his conviction that this music he loved so much was the product of a world that no longer existed.

The roiling first movement lives in a state of permanent irresolution until, a minute from its conclusion, a direct quotation from Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (“To the Distant Beloved”) appears. (In the original song, the words are: “Take these songs, then, that I sang to you, beloved.”) Schumann has assiduously avoided any sort of harmonic point of rest until now — and there have already been 12 minutes of music! — making it seem that only this musical voice from the past can quiet the turbulence. This quotation has in fact been hinted at throughout the movement. There are at least five references to it: the first almost entirely amorphous, each subsequent one clarifying it, bit by bit — but only when we hear it properly at the end do we understand that Schumann has been groping for it all along.

In other words, nostalgia is not only an important feature of the Fantasy, it is its structure. The piece is given both meaning and shape by Schumann’s conviction that only the past — in the guise of a very beautiful but honestly not extraordinary Beethoven song — can save him.

Today, it is simply understood that classical musicians have a reverential attitude towards the past — it elicits an eye-roll here and there, but generally gets no reaction at all. But for Schumann, the idea that he was working in an art form whose pinnacle might have already been reached was a novel one. It is also heartbreaking, when considered in the context of all of his other insecurities: a failed pianist, lousy businessman and misfit, Schumann counted on composition to give his life meaning.

And yet, through putting into sound his yearning for the music of a previous generation — not to mention his tireless advocacy for the music of his own — Schumann became one of the most influential and essential figures in the history of the art form. How I wish he could have known!


Jonathan Biss: Meet The Schumanns (And Their Cryptic Communications) on NPR

October 10, 2012

This essay appeared on NPR’s blog as part of week-long dedication to Schumann

In October 1841, Clara Schumann wrote in her diary: I have had several unhappy days in which I really tormented my poor husband — I thought he didn’t love me as much as he had during the first year [of our marriage]. I know very well that he has many things on his mind which vex him. I was very irritable and because of this gave myself many troubled hours.

As a diary entry, there’s nothing particularly unusual about this — except perhaps the recitation of woe only one year into her marriage. But this is not actually Clara’s diary, it was Clara and her husband Robert’s diary — their marriage diary. And by all accounts, it was the primary way the Schumanns communicated with each other. Grievances, desires, fears — these were aired not in actual dialogue but in writing.

ncredibly odd as this may seem to an outside observer, it made a great deal of sense for the Schumanns, given their personalities and the nature of their relationship. Whenever they went on concert tours — Robert as composer and chaperone, never as performer — people they met reported a disconnect between the eloquence of the music and the extreme social awkwardness of the couple themselves. This was particularly acute with Robert. Clara may not have been any more comfortable with people, but like a good performer, she could fake it. Interpersonal relations were simply not a strong suit for either of them.

But most of all, the marriage diary worked for them because for the Schumanns, artistic expression was a form of religion — the diary served jointly as a lifeline for their marriage and a creative outlet. But while Schumann probably valued writing as much as any composer in history, music was high church. Which is to say, the most meaningful mode of communication for Robert and Clara was not the marriage diary: it was music.

The Message In The Music

The distinction between these two forms of communication is not so clear, though, because in Schumann’s hands, music is the ultimate diary. Virtually everything Schumann published is, on one level or another, a love letter to Clara, and his music is filled with coded references and messages to her. The principal theme of the Piano Concerto is a thinly disguised spelling of her name. A movement from Carnaval bears her name — a portrait in sound. And the theme of one of her compositions, based on a falling fifth, so moved him that the interval came to represent her in his music. In literally dozens of works, the arrival of the downward fifth (not inherently a particularly expressive interval) brings with it the most tender, heartfelt moment of the piece.

The 20th century brought with it huge amounts of music whose subject is the composer’s personal experience. Dmitri Shostakovich is a particularly obvious example, but hardly the only one. It also brought confessional poetry, confessional drama and, with the rise of television, confessional everything else. So it is very easy to lose sight of how radical Schumann was in this regard. He is the first composer to conceive of his music as an extension of his soul, as the medium through which his conflict with the world is expressed and, on a good day, worked through. No one, before or since, has written music so personal, emotionally specific, and unflinchingly honest.

A ‘Kreisleriana’ Diary

One of the most striking cases of this is the vast, wild and generally astounding Kreisleriana. In this set of eight fantasies, time and again the falling fifth comes and brings with it a heightening of emotion. It is the sole moment of vehemence in the inward second piece, the hint of reality in the dreamscape fourth and the moment at which the seventh progresses from mere disaster to total catastrophe.

Not only is Kreisleriana a diary of sorts, it is itself inspired by words. The “Kreisler” in question is Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler, an invention of Schumann’s beloved E.T.A. Hoffmann. Kreisler, protagonist in three of Hoffmann’s works, was a brilliant but unstable musician and it’s not exactly difficult to understand why he resonated with Schumann. In Kater Murr (The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr), the novel from which Kreisleriana seems to be drawn, Kreisler’s memoirs alternate with the slightly confused ramblings of his cat. (This is 19th-century German literature, after all.) Thus each section of the book features radically different accounts of the same events.

Accordingly, while every movement of Kreisleriana has a central idea, the work covers enormous emotional territory and is virtually defined by its mood swings. Ultimately, only the recurrence of the fifth clarifies that whatever is taking place in the moment, its source is always the same — the complex mix of emotions Clara elicited from Schumann. His feeling for Clara is more than just the background of Kreisleriana — it is its subject.

Soul Music

Music was not, ultimately, enough to save Schumann. But when I play Kreisleriana, or much of his music, really, I sense that it was a lifeline for him. Music has been speech from the very beginning: It has always had grammar, intonation, and meaning. But with Schumann, it is really his only means of speech. For years, it allowed this sensitive, frustrated man to give voice to his feelings in a way that he would otherwise have been unable to.

And because his music is, magically, simultaneously, deeply personal and totally universal, he gives voice to us as well. To pour one’s heart into music takes a certain kind of bravery, but if it did not in the process express something the rest of us could recognize, it would be of little interest. Schumann’s music looks at the darker corners of the human experience and filters them through his unique, vibrant, phantasmagorical lens; that is his genius. And a great gift to the rest of us.


Jonathan Biss: Shooting Down The Schumann Detractors on NPR

September 09, 2012

This essay appeared on NPR’s blog as part of week-long dedication to Schumann

Robert Schumann’s music has always been a huge part of my life; at the moment, it is at the center. Last week in San Francisco, I played the first concert of Schumann: Under the Influence, a project three years in the planning which will dominate my entire concert season. Each of the many programs the project encompasses will feature not only Schumann’s music — solo works, chamber music, and lieder — but the music that shaped him, and the incredibly wide swath of music that owes a debt to him.

Given that the purpose of these concerts is to “place” Schumann — to flesh out listeners’ understanding of his music and personality, and to view him as a critical rather than peripheral figure in musical history — it would be fair to call Under the Influence an advocacy project. And that, I’ve noticed, has caused a good deal of head-scratching among people I’ve discussed it with. Do I really mean Schumann? As in the beloved, canonical 19th-century composer? Or have I had a stroke?

I have not. But in trying to explain why I feel Schumann needs an advocate, I have surprised even myself: I feel protective of him. The feeling is there, unmistakably, but I recognize that it is bizarre. Schumann is, after all, one of history’s best-represented composers, not an injured baby animal to be wrapped in a blanket.

Still, I have heard the slightly apologetic tone people sometimes adopt when saying they love Schumann. I have been told by more than one colleague that he is overrated. I have seen the eyes of one of my favorite contemporary composers roll when I told him how deeply I love Schumann’s late songs. And perhaps worst of all, I have noticed that people blithely refer to many of his lesser-known pieces as “weak” without even bothering to listen to them first.

In short, there is more than a whiff of condescension in the public perception of Schumann. And because certain received wisdoms about him are so ingrained, they prevent people from investigating some of his richest, most affecting music. My intention is that this project will address — and hopefully redress — the many misconceptions that are perpetually, often mindlessly, ascribed to Schumann.

Misconception No. 1: Schumann was a poor orchestrator. This charge is leveled not only at Schumann’s symphonic works, but at much of his chamber music — basically anything other than the music for solo piano and for voices, which generally escapes censure. But the truth is that Schumann knew exactly how to get the sounds he was looking for — they just tended not to be sounds that made the hit parade. This is, after all, a man who wrote a work for two pianos, two cellos and horn. Deep, mellow, and quirky clearly appealed to him more than bright and healthy.

His orchestral writing rarely uses the assembled forces to create a huge, thrilling sound. It is much more about the poignant, individualistic detail, as in the inspired duet between an oboe and a single cello in the Romanza of the Fourth Symphony. And his violin writing virtually never explores the upper reaches of the instrument. Instead, it mines more throaty and intense characteristics — far more Kathleen Ferrier than Kathleen Battle. Schumann’s music has a sound world that is all his own, and should be cherished.

Misconception No. 2: Schumann could not handle large forms. It is undeniable that many of Schumann’s most arresting creations are microcosms — the lieder and the cyclical works for solo piano prime among them. But to say so is misleading, for Schumann was the master of the large-scale work composed entirely of miniatures. While it is true that every individual song from Dichterliebe and every movement of the incomparable Davidsbündlertänze is a jewel, not one of them has the same effect in isolation. The succession of the movements is handled with enormous subtlety and confidence, and in both cases, when music from early in the cycle makes a second appearance near the conclusion, the intervening events have transformed the material from merely touching to absolutely heartbreaking.

In creating vast works that are essentially multiple moments of heightened intensity, Schumann prefigures the modernist movement — in literature as well as music. Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and Joyce’s Ullysses each work their magic in a way I’d describe as Schumannesque. Each makes me dizzy in much the same way that Davidsbündlertänze does. It is not the conventional view of musical structure, but that does not mean that it lacks support beams.

Misconception No. 3: As Schumann’s mental state deteriorated, his music became incoherent. This one really gets me riled up. It is true that there are healthier, safer roads to travel than the ones Schumann takes his listeners down. Vulnerability is among the most essential qualities in his music, and loneliness is often its subject. And this becomes increasingly true as he ages. But why do we listen to music, if not because it says the unsayable?

Schumann’s early music — in the big piano pieces, the most famous of the songs — is so often a declaration of love, and it is undeniably moving for it. But the late music — the Gesänge der Frühe piano pieces are one astonishing example — which is withdrawn, resigned and far too inward for declarations, is something beyond moving. It is the sound we hear in our heads when our emotions render us silent. The mix of tenderness and sadness is almost more than one can bear. It is not supposed to be comfortable; it is music. Every human being knows what it means to feel alone, disoriented, even unmoored, but virtually none of us has the gift to express it in sound. That this gift should be derided rather than celebrated is utterly perplexing to me.

As far as I can tell, the principal cause for each of these misconceptions is our tendency to compare Schumann to other composers in ways that are both unfair and irrelevant. It is true that Schumann’s music does not have the easy brilliance of Mendelssohn, the rigor of Beethoven, or the unimpeachable proportions of Brahms.

But why should it? To appreciate Schumann properly, rather than judge him for what he is not, one needs to place him at the center of his own musical universe, and love him for every glorious imperfection.

As I immerse myself in his music over the coming months, my greatest wish is that a few people’s ears may be reopened to Schumann. In the process, they might not only rediscover his greatness, but come to see just how much poorer the entire history of music might look without him.


The Exhilaration and Dread of Beethoven’s Sonatas

December 16, 2011

This is an excerpt from Jonathan’s Kindle Single, Beethoven’s Shadow

Why indeed. A sense of equilibrium is a precious asset for any artist (or person), hard to achieve and harder to maintain. For a performing musician, asked to exert and contort himself in ways both subtle and improbable in the service of someone else’s ideas, it often feels out of reach entirely. So why am I throwing myself into Beethoven, whose music, more than any other, demands both laser-like focus and total abandon? To rephrase the original question: Why drive myself crazy in this particular way?

It is, of course, a delicious irony that only a thing that could drive one crazy could justify this kind of head-first immersion. However much an actor might enjoy playing Barefoot in the Park, it will not bore a hole in his brain in the way that, say, King Lear might, and therefore his devotion to it will have its limits. And this is not just some cliché about the artistic persona: Anyone who has been in love knows that infatuation does not come without complexity and, usually, an element of danger. We fall in love — with a person, or an idea, or a work of art — not in spite of the risk of losing ourselves, but because it is a way to lose ourselves.

I could not possibly identify a favorite work of Beethoven, but nothing he wrote strikes me as more emblematic of his personality than the Cavatina from the Quartet Op. 130.51 In it, after several minutes of uninterrupted, always yearning melody, the music begins to break down, and what was previously expressed unhindered, in the most open-hearted manner, now comes out in fits and starts, effortful and uncertain. This extraordinary passage is marked beklemmt, roughly translated as “oppressed,” and many interpret this peculiar and entirely unprecedented direction as connoting sorrow, anguish. But the oppression I hear in this music is not anguish, but shortness of breath, the kind that comes from a heightened state of emotion — in this case, tenderness gone out of control.

And that is why, in spite of my very real worries regarding what this music may do to me (and what I may not be able to do for it), I am recording all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas: Because he takes my breath away. Because he does so frequently, and in a way no other musical or life experience can replicate. Because he can do so through so many different heightened emotional states: despair in the slow movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata; warm-bloodedness in the second movement of the Sonata Op. 90; rage in the Appassionata Sonata; sheer transcendence in the G Major Piano Concerto and most everything else he wrote. Because I can see no better way of losing myself than in these wonders. Because I have to.

“What a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life — only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce …”

These words are taken from the Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven’s anguished attempt to articulate and come to terms with his fate; they were written in 1802, fully 25 years before his death. The thought that the majority of Beethoven’s adult life was spent either in total deafness or the realization that this was his ultimate lot is, of course, heartbreaking. It is also, however, an occasion to remember how great is the palliative power of music. Beethoven writes that only the need to express himself artistically kept him alive in the face of the loss of his hearing. I don’t doubt that this was the case, but what one hears in his music beyond the compulsion to self-expression is the profound form of healing it offered him. The Cavatina, and its out-of-control tenderness — that is what it is about, what it is for. Beethoven’s manner of composing was extraordinarily driven and unsettled — a glance at his handwriting, scrawled and furious, reveals this — and yet at the same time, composing gave his life an order and meaning that were otherwise unavailable to him. Similarly, working on his music is intimidating, maddening in its difficulty, and overwhelming in the sense of responsibility it inspires, but it addresses and consoles the spirit in a way no other creative artist has managed. He is simultaneously superhuman and intensely, painfully human.