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

Pop, jazz, and classical.
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.

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Jonathan Biss’ Kindle Single A Pianist Under the Influence, available at Amazon.com.

Robert Schumann.
German composer and pianist Robert Schumann, 1839.

Lithographie by Joseph Kriehuber.

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.

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