Jonathan Biss: Most of What I Know About Myself, I’ve Learned From Playing the Work of Robert Schumann

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Oct. 1 2012 12:02 PM

Private Music

Most of what I know about myself, I’ve learned from playing the work of Robert Schumann.

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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.

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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.

Pianist Jonathan Biss has won international recognition for his recordings and for his orchestral, recital, and chamber music performances. This year, he began a nine-year project of recording all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas.