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20 Jan 2018

The Schumanns at home: Temple Song 2018

Following their marriage, on 12th September 1840, Robert and Clara Schumann made their home in a first-floor apartment on the piano nobile of a classical-style residence now known as the Schumann House, on Inselstraße, just a short walk from the centre of Leipzig.

Sophie Bevan and Julius Drake will perform ‘The Schumanns at home’: Temple Song, 22nd January 2018, Middle Temple Hall

Above: Clara and Robert Schumann

 

During the next four years, this was where Schumann composed many of his important compositions, including the three string quartets and the ‘Spring Symphony’. In the first year of their marriage alone, the Liederjahr, over 150 songs tumbled from Robert’s pen, expressive of his love for his new wife, and his happy hopes for their future together.

As Clara gained renown as a concert pianist - alongside bearing eight children and managing the household finances - Robert’s reputation as a composer, and as editor and publisher of the New Journal of Music (Neue Zeitschrift für Musik) which he had founded in 1834, flourished. In autumn 1840, the journal published an extensive article about musical life in Leipzig during the winter of 1839-40:

‘One must confess that in this Leipzig, which nature treats so shabbily, German music blooms to such a degree that - without seeming immodest - it can easily compete with the richest and largest fruit- and flower gardens of other cities. What an abundance of great works of art were produced for us last winter! How many distinguished artists charmed us with their art!’

The Schumanns’ home became a meeting place for such artists - composers, poets, writers, performers - from all parts of Europe. Many of these visits were described in a journal, the Ehetagebuch (marriage journal), in which, alternating weekly, the couple kept a record of their daily activities and of their emotional lives. They noted their thoughts about the music they studied, played, composed and heard, and composed ‘character studies of significant artists with whom we are in close contact’. The list of distinguished guests included Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin, Johannes Brahms, Richard Wagner, William Sterndale Bennett, Heinrich Heine, Hans-Christian Andersen, the pianist/composer Adolph Henselt, and the young pianists Amalie Rieffel and Harriet Parrish, among many others.

In October 1840, Clara wrote to her friend Dr Adolf Keferstein,

‘We have so many musical pleasures now that our life is truly blissful. [Bohemian composer and pianist] Moscheles was here last week … and we gave soirées in our homes. It was a frantic time, something different every day. Now he has gone and we are awaiting [Norwegian violinist] Ole Bull about whom I am very curious.’ [1]

Surely there can have been no other residence in Leipzig from which so much music poured.

Sophie Bevan-Sussie-Ahlburg-5-WEB.jpg Sophie Bevan. Photo credit: Sussie Ahlburg.

Katharine Armitage’s play, Duet (seen at Wilton’s Music Hall in 2016), took us into Poppe’s coffeehouse in Leipzig, where Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck became engaged; interweaving original text and songs by both composers, Armitage allowed Robert’s and Clara’s ‘voices’ to be heard directly, their struggle for self-expression embodied in song.

Now, Sophie Bevan and Julius Drake have prepared a lieder recital which will to transport us from the Middle Temple Hall to 1840s Leipzig: specifically, to an imagined concert party at the Schumanns’ home, at which the hosts and a selection of their celebrated guests will be each represented by four songs.

Sophie Bevan explains to me that the recital programme was proposed by Julius Drake, who curates the Temple Song series, ‘Julius Drake and Friends’: “Julius asked if I’d be interested, and I was keen to try it as I wanted to learn some new songs; songs that may be less well-known by very famous composers.” When I ask if there were any particular songs that ‘spoke’ to her most powerfully, Sophie’s delight in these new songs is immediate and infectious: “Not really! They are all wonderful songs, and each has a particular ‘something special’ about them. That’s why I think they’ve been chosen. Each song needs to speak to the audience on first hearing!”

Julius Drake Sim Canetty-Clarke.jpg Julius Drake. Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke.

I’m interested to see that the programme begins with songs by Clara Schumann (née Wieck) and Fanny Hensel (née Mendelssohn). One of the most popular and acclaimed books about classical music in the last couple of years, Anna Beer’s Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music, celebrates the achievements of eight women - Francesca Caccini, Barbara Strozzi, Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Marianna Martines, Fanny Hensel, Clara Schumann, Lili Boulanger, and Elizabeth Maconchy - who challenged ideological conventions and restraints, and dared to compose for public consumption.

But, while Clara bravely defied her father’s wishes to marry Robert, she was less forthright about her own music, writing before her marriage, ‘A woman must not wish to compose — there never was one able to do it’. Perhaps she was disheartened by her husband’s remark, when she commented on his music: ‘You are wrong, little Clara … If you think you could do it better, that would be as if a painter, for example, wanted to make a tree better than God.’ Fanny, Felix’s older sister, persisted with her compositions but was similarly dissuaded from publishing her work by her brother and father.

Sophie tells me that this is the first time she has sung songs by these nineteenth-century women: “It’s been very challenging learning it all. I’m hoping I’ll get to perform them all again and again. It’s always hard learning a brand-new programme and making it your own. As for Fanny’s and Clara’s songs, they are beautiful and intelligent and every bit the equal of their male contemporaries’ songs. Felix Mendelssohn was even known to pass off Fanny’s songs as his own. I suppose if people sang them more often, then they would more likely to become part of the mainstream lieder repertoire. I know I will certainly ask my future students to learn them.”

I ask Sophie is she feels that the songs are expressive of the character of their composer: “I think the individual language (the harmonic language and the style of song-writing) is discernible in the four representative songs of each composer. They’re naturally all different. I ’m not particularly trying to communicate character (in the sense of the individual composer at the imagined concert party) - just trying to let the beauty and style of each composer speak for itself.”

So, on Monday evening we will enjoy songs by another of the pioneers of Romanticism, Frédéric Chopin. Robert Schumann, who was born in the same year, followed Chopin’s progress from afar, but in October 1836, the two men spent, in Schumann’s words, an ‘unforgettable day’ together when Chopin past through Leipzig. Sophie remarks that the four songs by Chopin pose further new challenges: “I’ve never sung in Polish before and it’s totally different from anything I’ve done before. So many consonants to fit in a very short space of time!”

Berlioz and Robert Schumann had corresponded throughout the late 1830s and early 1840s, about performances of Berlioz’s music in Leipzig and the Euterpe Society of Leipzig’s awarding of their Diploma to Berlioz in March 1838. In 1840 the Neue Zeitschrift began to republish articles by Berlioz which were appearing in Paris journals. However, the first meeting of the two men did not take place until January 1843, when Mendelssohn invited Berlioz to Leipzig. When he visited the Schumanns’ home on 27 February, Berlioz was unwell; Clara reported that she found him ‘cold’. Perhaps, as they had no shared language, the Schumanns and Berlioz found it easier to communicate through the music that was undoubtedly on that occasion.

In 1839, Robert published his first essay on Franz Liszt - a review of the Grand études, which had been composed two years earlier - in which he suggested that Liszt’s virtuosity outshone his compositional talent. But, in imagining the Études in performance, Robert evoked sublime, magisterial imagery to convey Liszt’s power in harnessing the titanic forces present in the music, and he professed himself to be eagerly anticipating the day when Liszt might perform these Études in Leipzig. When Liszt eventually gave his first Leipzig recital, in 1840, Schumann pronounced his achievement to be superhuman: ‘He played like a god.’

I wonder if any of the songs that Sophie and Julius are to perform might seem to be ‘in dialogue’ with each other? “Not intentionally, by the composers themselves; however, I often like to create some sort of narrative in my mind to help with the learning process. For instance, maybe a path through a character’s life involving new love, then pain and suffering etc.”

There is certainly much love, pain and suffering in the Benjamin Britten’s opera, Gloriana. In April, Sophie will take the role of Lady Penelope Rich, in a new production by David McVicar in Madrid - the first time Gloriana has been performed in the city - conducted by Ivor Bolton, the Musical Director of the Teatro Real. Sophie is “looking forward to being in Madrid again - a wonderful city and opera house. I love singing Britten and can’t wait to have a new role under my belt. I have no idea what David McVicar is planning for this production, or what challenges he will have in store, but as far singing the role is concerned, so far, it seems pretty easy-going. She doesn’t have too much to sing and when she does it’s great stuff. Maybe I’ll change my mind once we get going with rehearsals!”

In February, Sophie will tackle more new repertory, by Stravinsky and Ravel, when she joins with the Nash Ensemble at the Wigmore Hall as they continue their series, The Friend Connection .

But, first there is a soirée chez Schumanns to enjoy, in which composers, musicians and poets of the past will meet again - much like characters in Robert Schumann’s Carnaval which Anthony Tommasini, the chief music critic for The New York Times, described as ‘a portrait gallery of Schumann’s friends (real and imagined), love interests, musical heroes (including Chopin) and adversaries.’

Sophie Bevan and Julius Drake spoke to Katie Derham on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune on Thursday 18th January, and performed four songs from their Temple song programme: ‘Liebst du um Schonheit’ (Clara Schumann), ‘Muttertraum’ (Robert Schumann), ‘Warum sind denn die Rosen so blass’ (Fanny Mendelssohn) and ‘Schilflied’ (Felix Mendelssohn). [The broadcast is available until Saturday 17 th February 2018.]

Claire Seymour



[1] Eric Frederick Jensen, Schumann (OUP, 2013)

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