Sounds of the world rumbling: Schumann and Stockhausen

I recently finished a concert cycle at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (ISGM) in Boston focused on the music of Schumann and Stockhausen. Picking this (seemingly) odd couple resulted in a year of discovery and toil. Their music has tremendous depth and both composers are representative of their respective eras in Europe. Beyond obvious differences, the two also share much: both were iconic and era-defining figures, Schumann encapsulated the spirit of Romanticism and Stockhausen was a leading proponent of post-World War II modernism. Both made their marks early primarily as composers for the piano. And, importantly, both were most definitely avant-garde!

Each of the three concert programs in the ISGM cycle was given a title offering a possible starting point for the listening experience. I called the first Character referring to the manner in which musical character shapes the flow of each composer’s music. The performance consisted of Schumann’s Abegg Variations and Humoresque and Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke IX and XI, the last performed in two different realizations, as indicated in the score.

The term and title Character snowballed from Leopold Mozart’s oft-referenced statement “before we can decide about the correct tempo for a piece, we must decide about its proper character.” Wolfgang’s father was describing music in which identifying the musical character was the duty of the performer. In Schumann’s case, many of the subtleties of musical character are carefully designated by the composer: markings in the score of the Humoreske include descriptions like “simply, hastily, sincerely, with pomp.” Stockhausen’s musical character is the result of carefully carrying out prescribed musical acts. For example, the score of Klavierstück XI instructs the performer to “randomly choose the next section to be played and then play it extremely fast and extremely quiet” (or one or another of similarly indicated tempos and dynamics).

The second program, Monumentalism, presented the two opus magnum works by Robert and Karlheinz, the former’s Sonata No. 1 and the latter’s Klavierstück X. Each over half an hour long, both works are rich in detail and prescribe journeys far from expected or straight-forward. Their large-scale structures, however, reflect one another. Schumann’s Sonata is a construction with a capital “C,” presenting its main ideas in the first movement, with polite elaboration in the middle movements, and finishing with a sweet-and-sour finale – a de facto massive climax of the work. Stockhausen’s X does the opposite, beginning with hyper-activity and ending in total silence, the plot being the slow dissolving of a mass of sound.

The third and final program, Carnival, featured Stockhausen’s Kontakte for piano, percussion, and a four-channel electronic part alongside Schumann’s Carnaval, a musical masquerade, a daring interplay of the sensual and the seductive, and a real romantic piano blast! For the performance of Kontakte, I was joined by percussionist Jeffrey Means with Hans Tutschku controlling the electronics. Jeffrey was enough of a sport to perform the “silent” movement Sphinxes in the Carnaval – playing it on the marimba, mind you! The stunt was understood by many in the audience, but it led to a comical internet aftermath when an online critic failed to recognize the movement (which pianists including Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, and Cortot famously included in their performances, though not on marimba of course). The critic complained of being baffled by “Mr. Means delivering some random tremolos in the middle of Mr. Jumppanen’s rendering of the Carnaval.” Oh, dear …

Sounds of nationalism

An exploration of the music of the two composers sets up a comparison of the European avant-gardes of the 19th and 20th centuries. It also puts on display German music that was affected by the advent and then disastrous collapse of the idea of a German military might. Schumann peaked before Bismarck and Stockhausen post-Hitler, providing a context in which to observe what happens in music when the world quakes.

When Schumann was composing his early works, the idea of a unified Germany was developing. The superpower of philosophy and arts was gearing up for nation-building. Many artists, including Schumann, hailed the process and offered their own “pro-German” works. Beethoven had paved the way for the symphony to be lifted to the highest artistic stature and composers after him followed suit. By the time Schumann emerged, the symphony was acknowledged as, first and foremost, a German concept. Schumann paid his national dues with the“Rhenish” Symphony.

At the time he wrote his First Sonata, Schumann had not yet made his mark as a creator of large piano cycles (comprising many small movements), which is what we most often remember of him today. Instead, he was developing his own “take” on the Beethovenian model, a structure in which a work’s poetic climax occurs in its finale. With the First Sonata he accomplished this in a fresh way, as Ignaz Moscheles pointed out in his review of the Sonata: “the youngest preacher of music [Schumann] was called upon to expand the art’s horizons and take it to further afield than where Beethoven himself had gone.”

Leap some 130 years ahead to the aftermath of the collapse of the Third Reich. Written in the 1960s, Stockhausen’s Klavierstück IX begins with the repetition of one and the same chord 140 times in the first measure (and a few dozen more times on the first page). The chord resembles another, more famous, German chord, namely Wagner’s Tristan chord which had become the very symbol of musical modernism since its operatic debut in 1865. IX attempts to resolve the strain of the opening as the work’s middle section toils with the ingredients of the tension-filled “Tristanian” chord, and the final section contains some of the most free-sounding music ever composed for piano. Stockhausen grew up in 1930s Germany when Nazi cultural politics dominated the arts and Wagner was lauded for greatest nationalistic achievement. Klavierstück IX can be heard as a sonic representation of the dissolution of that dark union.

(These ideas are explored in more depth in my program notes for the cycle – the full text is available on the read-section of this site.)

Good guys or bad guys?

History can be said to lay traps, and while Schumann and Stockhausen weren’t around to fall into this one, other composers couldn’t help but take the dive. Brahms barely escaped; Wagner didn’t, although the marvels of his music have since eclipsed the faults of the man. Both were admirers of Bismarck and both composed works to glorify Germanic culture. Of the two, Wagner’s reputation is still tainted by Nazi admiration. Brahms pretty much avoided such stigma but there was a time when that wasn’t so obvious. In the 1930s Wilhelm Furtwängler made a case for Brahms’s music being indebted to German Volk-music, an idea which resonated well with the Nazi regime’s claim of Arian superiority. Apparently the stakes at that time were high enough to make Arnold Schoenberg feel the need to distance Brahms from this Germanic juggernaut. His essay, Brahms the progressive, effectively provided a postmortem benefit-of-the-doubt for Brahms’ beleaguered reputation.

The lesson to be learned from Brahms, and indeed from Schumann and Stockhausen, is that while art is, to a degree, an independent phenomena born of the mind of the creative artist, it cannot escape the world around it. The inconvenient truth is that enjoying Brahms’s Fourth Symphony makes a prettier picture when one puts aside his highly nationalistic Triumphlied (true, the Fourth Symphony is also a better piece). And, despite the fact that the sonata and the symphony were primarily German concepts and Schumann’s potpourri-form was essentially his own unique creation, Schumann’s achievements in the realm of the larger forms needn’t be neglected. As to Stockhausen, even though his harmonic language is atonal his music retains the capacity to reference tonal music and, in so doing, profoundly critique the society that celebrated its tonal monuments. Characteristic of all such great artists is that no matter how we feel about the dialogue between their art and the world in which it was created, such concerns in no way diminish the astounding beauties of the creations.

The picture is Parolchiastrasse by Eduard Gaertner. While Schumann was composing away in Leipzig, Gaertner occupied himself in chronicling the modernizing cityscape of Berlin.

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