Sunday, November 8, 2009

Schumann's Schubert story

Robert Schumann's review of Opus 9 and 33 (D. 365 and D. 783), published in 1835, gives us another way to think about associations between D779n13 and dances in other collections. Schumann, by his own admission a Schubert "fanatic," imagines a meeting of the Davidsbund, a domestic musical evening that resembles an informal, small-scale Schubertiade.

Florestan is in rare form throughout. He first invokes an image of dancing, with the heavily ironic joke that "dance music makes one sad and languid while church music, on the other hand, makes one gay and active--at least myself." Then Zilia [Clara] pricks her finger on a rose and offers, mysteriously, that "Like these waltzes it has nothing to do with pain, but only with drops of blood, drawn forth by roses" (124). Burgeoning excitement caused by Zilia's playing produces a silly moment at the level of a parlor game, as they try to decide between Schubert and Chopin: "Florestan went into a corner remote from the piano, saying, 'Now if running toward the keyboard I manage to hit correctly the first chord of the last movement of the D Minor Symphony [Beethoven's Ninth], it shall be Schubert.' Of course he succeeded."

After this, "Zilia played the waltzes by heart." These waltzes were, first, Schubert's Opus 9, then the deutsche Tänze of Opus 33 (D. 783). Florestan insists that the latter is a tableau of characters and that a painter present that evening ought to sketch them quickly and project the results as magic lantern slides. Florestan leaves suddenly, and our author offers the apology that "Florestan, as I may explain, is in the habit of breaking off at the moment of highest enjoyment, perhaps to preserve its entire freshness and fulness in his memory" (126).

Here the story has an intrinsic interest for its narrative progress, its characters, their social interactions, and its description of a domestic evening among creative artists in the early 1830s. The music is certainly important as a plot element (motivation for the event and characters' behavior) and as a motif, but Schumann allows his review of the music to be nearly lost in the story. Of D. 365, he does say that they are

lovely little genii, floating above the earth at about the height of a flower--though I do not much like Le Désir [No. 2], in which hundreds of girls have drowned their sentiment, nor the last three aesthetic errors [nos. 34-36] which on the whole I cannot forgive their creator. There is much beauty in the way in which the rest circle round the Désir, entangling it more or less in their delicate threads, also in the dreamy thoughtlessness which pervades them all, so that we, too, when playing the last, believe that we are still in the first. (124)

(About Le Désir—Schumann is being disingenuous, as he himself valued it highly enough to write an (unfinished) set of variations on it.)

D. 783 is described in terms that clearly evoke Schumann's own character-piece cycles, as Florestan declares that No. 1 announces a masked ball and then calls out characters from the ball as each dance goes by: "No.2. A comic figure, scratching its ear, and whispering "Pst! pst!" Disappears. No.3. Harlequin with his hand on his hips; exit with a somersault. No.4. Two stiff, polite masks, dancing and conversing little with each other" (125). Etc.

These descriptions might provoke us to consider how the A Major Waltz might replace one of the dances in D. 783. Florestan describes only the first ten dances, not all sixteen, but from those he does describe, No. 7 would seem to fit well: "Two reapers waltzing together in a happy trance. He says softly, 'Are you she?' They recognize each other." (Schumann's original for "Are you she?" is "Bist du es?" which is easily mapped onto the dotted rhythms that open phrases or–more likely perhaps–onto the half-quarter pairs at the ends (as "Bist du's?") (Gesammelte Schriften 1:200).)

The Bb-major Deutscher in this position bears a number of similarities to the A Major Waltz: its first strain is the only one in D. 783 that does not end with a hypermetrically weak tonic, its overt chromaticisms are restricted to the opening of the second strain, and it relies on expressive suspension figures.

The first strain is the "happy trance" of the two dancers, the chromaticism a question, and the descent to the final cadence the mutual recognition. Each of these traits is easily transferred to the A Major Waltz: the soprano/alto pairs of the first strain and the more exuberant C#-major section; the question in the mysterious chromatic measures measures 29-30; and the moment of recognition in the sixth-octave registral climax.

As a final comment, I should add that David Gramit is only half-right when he claims that "Schumann's one extended discussion of Schubert's dances . . . effectively neutralizes the physical and potentially popular not by dismissing it, à la Hanslick, but by transferring it to the realm of the imaginary" (232). The physical--that is, the functional quality of dance--is certainly gone, as Zilia is seated at the piano throughout the evening; through her, the dances become domestic salon music: as Gramit puts it, they are "no longer functional music but rather evocative character pieces." The physical is transferred to Florestan, who is a vital, even hyperactive, presence throughout the story, but it by no means follows that "Schumann creates high art out of dance" (232).

The domestic musical evening, the salon, itself is a principal emblem of middle-class entertainment in the 1820s and 1830s, and often included dancing and parlor games. There is, furthermore, nothing "high-art" about the magic lantern (indeed, quite the reverse, if one recalls that magic lanterns and similar machines were later associated with photography, not painting). Gramit anachronistically imposes socially exclusionary high/popular art distinctions onto an era when such distinctions were far from fully formed, and thus he falsely turns Schumann the creative critic into Schumann the snob, the progressive Romantic into the reactionary Romantic that Schumann did indeed become after the democratic revolutions in 1848-49.

Schumann, Robert. "The Literature of Dancing: First Waltzes, Opus 9, Book 1, German Dances, Opus 33." In Robert Schumann, ed. Konrad Wolff, tr. Paul Rosenfeld, On Music and Musicians, 123-6. New York: Pantheon, 1946.
Schumann, Robert. Gesammelte Schriften über Musik und Musiker. 3d ed. 2 vols. Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1883.
Gramit, David. "Between Täuschung and Seligkeit: Situating Schubert's Dances." Musical Quarterly 84/2 (2000): 221-37.