Michael Houstoun
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Towards an Interpretation - a lecture around the music of Schumann and Chopin.

On 4 September 2010 I delivered the following lecture to a gathering of music teachers in Auckland. It was part of a three-pronged event organised by the Auckland branch of the Institute of Registered Music Teachers to celebrate the bicentennial birthdays of Robert Schumann and Frederic Chopin. At the end of the lecture I examined a few places in the scores of the works I had performed in a recital the previous evening (to read review click here), places that raised issues of interpretation. This included comparing two greatly differing editions of Schumann’s ‘Kreisleriana’. I also gave a masterclass. It was a very happy and successful event.

Good morning everyone and welcome to Part 2 of this bicentennial celebration.  Welcome to the music theatre at the University of Auckland, and welcome to my lecture on Schumann and Chopin.  I have been smiling for months at the strange irony in this - my lecturing in a university - an irony that only the closest readers of my bio notes might suspect.  Have you noticed that I do not have a degree in music, or indeed a degree in anything?  (Actually, there is an honorary degree tucked in there, but that only adds to the irony).  In fact I was a very poor student.  I took against schooling at quite a young age, basically hating it from about standard one onwards.  Perhaps I didn’t want to be told - the Houstoun line is full of stubborn individuals.  Or perhaps I wanted to be away from the teasing that is part and parcel of being a talented little boy.  I’m even inclined to wonder if it was  to do with my soloists instinct which runs much deeper than you might think - I didn’t want to be in a class, even with friends.  I only really woke up when I was having my piano lessons, those intense one-to-one encounters where everything seemed to be important.  By the time I got to university - and I had to go in order to continue my lessons with Maurice Till - I was questioning the relevance of everything other than my piano lessons.  I usually stopped going to lectures within a few weeks of the start of each term and was only able to continue at university because of Maurice’s pleading on my behalf and the powers-that-be turning a blind eye to my transgressions.  After I won the 3rd prize in the Van Cliburn Competition held in September 1973 I could have returned to NZ and completed my third year at Otago University.  Instead I spent a good chunk of my prizemoney on a ticket to London where I did nothing more than have a look around on my own.  That was the end of my academic life, age 21.

So...delivering my first lecture at age 57 in a tertiary education institution is definitely a major dag for me, and you are all mad to have come along.  Anyway, here we all are, mad or not.

I am calling this lecture ‘Towards an Interpretation’.  When it was suggested that I might address you about something, I decided to reexamine my attitude to academic learning.  I would read as many relevant books as I could, alongside my preparation of the music which I played at last night’s recital, to see just what help or otherwise they might provide...to see if there was some knowledge I could accumulate from literary sources that would genuinely help me in my search for the best way to play the music I had programmed.  I wasn’t looking for information that was interesting, I was looking for what was useful, what would help me in my actual playing of the music.

I read the following books.

  • The Romantic Generation, by Charles Rosen - the chapters on Chopin and Schumann.
  • Robert Schumann - herald of a “new poetic age”, by John Daverio
  • Robert Schumann - his life and work, by Ronald Taylor
  • Schumann and his World - a collection of essays by various experts
  • Chopin in Paris, by Tad Szulc
  • Chopin - Prince of the Romantics, by Adam Zamoyski
  • Frederic Chopin, by Franz Liszt
  • Notes on Chopin, by Andre Gide
  • Clara Schumann - the artist and the woman, by Nancy B Reich
  • George Sand, by Elizabeth Harlan
  • E T A Hoffmann’s Musical Writings, translated by Martyn Clarke
  • Music and Sentiment, by Charles Rosen

I also read a wonderful essay by Michel de Montaigne, but more about that later.

So I kept to reading books and did not study any scores other than the ones I was actually playing.  But I should declare that I already had a familiarity with quite a number of Schumann works, having performed the Arabeske, Papillons, Carnaval, the Fantaisie, Humoreske, the piano concerto,  piano quintet, a minor violin sonata,  and the Dichterliebe and Frauenliebe und Leben song cycles.
As for Chopin, I had once read a quote from Alfred Brendel which went something like... “You cannot expect to know Chopin by learning a few pieces, just as you cannot know Beethoven by learning a couple of sonatas”.  So a few years ago I put myself through a complete immersion.  I played every page of Chopin’s solo piano music.  I worked it all up to performance speed but I didn’t polish it all up to performance standard.

I read the books I’ve listed quite carefully and conscientiously, checking all the footnotes and having a close look at the musical examples.  Initially I took a few notes, jotted down some quotations.  But I soon realised that that was more to help me with this lecture than to help me with my understanding of the music, and so I stopped doing it.  I also knew that when I began writing these pages I would not go back to the books to try and find anything.  It was all about what I had absorbed, what had sunk in.  Montaigne would understand this.

So, the books.  I’ll say a few words about each one.

First... ‘The Romantic Generation’ by Charles Rosen.  Some of you may have read it and perhaps also his more famous ‘The Classical Style’.  There is no doubt he is brilliant and I believe his writing shows him as more sensitive than his piano playing does.  But he does spend a lot of time pointing out how stupid almost everyone else is, especially colleagues who have written on the same subject.  He does this in a very gracious and elegant manner but it still becomes tiresome.  I found that when my energy was low, reading him put me almost immediately to sleep.

However, John Daverio’s Schumann book was worse from this point of view and it sometimes took me ten goes to get through a sentence without napping.  He began by insisting - for several pages - that Schumann was not homosexual, and it was all downhill after that.  He also had a particular drum to beat - that Schumann was a ‘literary’ composer, that he might have been a poet or novelist or short story writer, that his music could only be fully appreciated after reference to particular literary sources.  Daverio is also of the faction who think there is greatness in all of Schumann’s music and spends a lot of space justifying this attitude.

Ronald Taylor’s book took the point of view of the opposing faction which maintains that Schumann’s composing life was a matter of gradual disintegration and that he never achieved in his later works the miraculous invention of his early piano works and songs.  Putting that aside though, his book was much more enjoyable than Daverio’s mainly because he gave me a feeling for Schumann’s whole life, his full being as a man and artist.

Except for the first essay by Leon Botstein which was great, the collection of writings in ‘Schumann and his World’ was dutifully read.

The translations of E T A Hoffmann’s musical writings were wonderful, especially the ‘Kreisleriana’ section, and I shall refer to them later.

The two primary books on Chopin - ‘Chopin in Paris’ by Tad Szulc and ‘Chopin, Prince of the Romantics’ by Adam Zamoyski - were both extremely enjoyable for reasons similar to Taylor’s book on Schumann:  they gave me very strong feelings for the wholeness of Chopin as man and artist. There was virtually no musical analysis in either book.

Franz Liszt’s book on Chopin is problematic in that it is generally believed that it was mainly written by Liszt’s mistress.  The prose is extravagant and predominantly purple, and the original was apparently in execrable and incompetent French, but there are nuggets nonetheless - the writing on the polonaise and the mazurka as dance forms, for example, was enlightening and would have been very useful had I included a polonaise or mazurka in my programme.  I could feel the hand of Liszt in the writing about Chopin’s personality and character and, as he knew Chopin as a friend and esteemed colleague - socialised with him, played duets with him -  the power of his description is unmatched by any other author.

The Andre Gide ‘Notes on Chopin’ is a beautiful little miracle, very moving, and I felt immensely fortunate to have come upon it in a secondhand bookstore...I didn’t know it existed.  Gide discredits the virtuoso approach to Chopin’s music with great precision, and he also offers enlightening thoughts on quite a few individual works.  Pianists of all ages, amateur or professional, as well as teachers, would find much to help and inspire them in this small volume.

I enjoyed the books on Clara Schumann and George Sand.  I knew nothing at all about the latter and was fascinated by Elizabeth Harlan’s presentation of her as both a goddess and a hideous monster.

Rosen’s ‘Music and Sentiment’ probably doesn’t belong in this list and there is nothing much in it for someone who has been playing music their whole life.  But I did think it might be important when I bought it, as it is the presentation of sentiment in the music of Chopin and Schumann that is so crucial in any interpretation and which is at the same time the most elusive part.

The reading done and my thoughts about this lecture beginning to crystallise I decided to compare the two composers, to note similarities and differences, not sure what it might be worth but thinking nonetheless that it may be interesting.

They were both born in 1810 (and I must say that I love us being here 200 years later, still so vitally interested in them).  Their birth places were not that far apart when you think of how large Europe is, and their birth dates are only about three months apart.  Chopin, born first, was a Pisces and Schumann was a Gemini.  You may not be very interested in astrology, but it does no harm to know that within its own esoteric system astrology regards Pisces and Gemini as psychological opposites.  My own irrational bent makes me interested in these things and I do feel that both men are pretty true to astrological type.  But I won’t bang on about it.

Chopin was born into a farmhouse, Schumann was born into a bookstore.  Chopin’s life was a movement from peasant beginnings to a natural place in the Parisian aristocracy, an aristocracy of art and culture as much as of bloodline and privilege.  Schumann remained in the middle class on the intellectual side.  Both it would seem had loving parents and both had siblings.
Chopin fixed on music early and never wavered, but Schumann was slow to choose and both literature and law were possibilities for some time.
Schumann was a dreamy child, Chopin was vivacious and alert.

As youths they were both in love with the piano and as young adults both were heading towards careers as concert pianists.  Schumann’s piano teacher and future father-in-law, Friedrich Wieck, wrote to Schumann’s mother that he had no doubt he could turn Robert into one of the greatest pianists the world had ever heard.  But Schumann ruined his right hand through massive overuse.  Some blame his use of a finger-strengthening contraption - my guess is that this just added damage to damage.  Chopin was mainly self-taught and achieved early fame as a pianist, both within Poland and further afield.   But he ultimately gave up a public career and confined his playing to his own drawing room and the salons of his aristocratic and musical friends.  He knew his playing was not suited to large halls, and he felt suffocated by the public’s expectation.  However, when he did occasionally perform in public, the demand for tickets was extraordinary and Chopin may well claim to have been one of the most adored pianists ever.  No-one was in doubt of his greatness.  It was said that Liszt was the best pianist, but that Chopin was the ONLY pianist.  

Both Schumann and Chopin were  able to improvise at the piano  and contemporaries described them as sensational, with an ability to transfix their listeners for hours.  Schumann continued to improvise after his hand was ruined.

Of their composing predecessors, Johann Sebastian Bach was the most loved and influential figure.  Schumann studied him assiduously and wrote fugues.  Chopin played and taught from the 48 Preludes and Fugues, and the contrapuntal writing in his mazurkas often feels just like playing Bach.  But where Schumann also loved Beethoven and Schubert, Chopin adored Mozart, admired Bellini and was quite out of sympathy with Beethoven.

Chopin wrote piano music, almost exclusively, and I’m not aware of any composition that does not include a piano part.  Schumann tried everything, usually in batches - piano pieces, songs, chamber music, symphonic works, choral works, an opera.  He seemed to compose in convulsions of activity producing almost unbelievable amounts of music in a few days or weeks.  Although there are exceptions, once he started a work he usually very quickly finished it.  Chopin had a more measured approach, working and reworking his compositions, playing them, polishing them and not submitting them for publication until he was fully satisfied.

It is generally agreed that once Chopin found his voice everything he produced was of the highest quality.  There may be a little carping about signs of exhaustion in his last works, but usually he is included with Bach and Beethoven as one of the composers who never produced a bad work.  As I’ve already suggested this was not the case with Schumann.  Although there is general agreement that his early piano works and songs are beyond compare, there is division in the ranks regarding the quality of the rest of his output - some commentators think he was continuously great and usually misunderstood, others that his composing life was a process of ever-accelerating disintegration.

Chopin was very good at everything he undertook, but he also only undertook what he was good at...Liszt described him as naturally shrewd.  He taught the piano for his primary income, was by all accounts a fabulous teacher and he lived comfortably on his earnings. Other than as a piano teacher we only know him as a composer. Schumann also took a teaching position for a while, and was for a few seasons conductor-cum-musical director of the Dusseldorf orchestra.  But he was hopelessly ill-suited to both these activities and had to suffer rather humiliating failures publicly as a result.

However, what Schumann could do was write.  In fact, he was a compulsive writer, keeping diaries and journals and thus becoming every biographer’s gift.  More than that, he actually began a serious musical publication, the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, which brought him considerable fame.  He was the first modern music critic, reviewing a huge number of works by both established and emerging composers, and in a way that influenced most subsequent music criticism.  He also wrote many articles on music and was responsible for most of the contents of the NZFM for many years.  His brilliance and renown as a writer may well have slowed the general appreciation of him as a composer, people finding it hard to accept that someone can be brilliant at two such demanding disciplines.  Schumann reviewed many of Chopin’s early compositions and can claim some responsibility for ‘introducing’ Chopin to the world as a serious and worthy composer.  His comment “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius” has been quoted ever since.  He loved Chopin’s music but thought that he should not have confined himself exclusively to the piano and to smaller works.  Serious composers had to write symphonies.

Chopin on the other hand was not interested in writing.  He wrote few letters and Liszt said that he would drive all the way across Paris in a carriage to decline a dinner invitation rather than to jot down a few lines of apology.  He did not reciprocate Schumann’s esteem for his music.  In fact, he showed almost no interest in Schumann’s music at all, only commenting on the cover when he was shown an edition of Carnaval.  He did pay at least one visit to Schumann and played some of his own recent compositions to him.  Schumann was overjoyed, but it is hard to avoid the impression that Chopin’s main interest in the visit was to hear Clara play the piano.

And this brings me to the women.  Perhaps the greatest similarity between these two great men was that they became involved with the two of the most famous women in Europe.  Clara Schumann was second only to Liszt in terms of her public recognition as a great pianist.  She was devoted to her husband and was almost continuously pregnant to him, she deferred to him at considerable personal sacrifice, but she still managed to maintain a public presence as an artist of the highest order.  She championed her husband’s compositions but had a difficult time winning public acceptance for them (as did Liszt).  Schumann was devoted to Clara, spent years wooing her and eventually had to sue her father in order to marry her.  He declared that she was the inspiration for everything he wrote, that his music was full of his feelings for her.  He was also jealous of her fame and their marriage was not without it’s tensions.  But my reading of Clara is that she was extraordinarily strong, physically, mentally and emotionally.  And, for all her fabulous artistry, she was practical where her husband was not.  They were a middle class household, and were visited by a seemingly endless string of tragedies, most notably the deaths of several children and finally the awful end of Schumann himself.

George Sand was a different kettle of fish altogether and her relationship with Chopin is not so easy to understand.  She produced books at an incredible rate, had numerous highly public affairs, dressed as a man (mainly for reasons of social access it would seem), and used everyone and everything as material for her novels.  Chopin was initially repulsed by her but gradually a mutual fascination developed and they created a durable partnership for quite a few years.  They maintained separate residences in Paris but Chopin would spend months with her on her country estate in Nohant to the south.  There is great speculation about the sexual nature of their relationship, and I think that George Sand would like us to believe that she sacrificed that side of things because she thought her passion could well kill the frail and consumptive Chopin.  I have my own theories, but regardless the more one investigates Sand the more difficult it is to believe anything she writes.  Everything was reinvented for her own purposes, and, with Chopin writing barely a word about any of it, we are left with a lot of mysteries.  It might be fair to say though that, despite her extravagant character, she brought a measure of stability to Chopin’s life, affection, care and appreciation, and his physical decline was greatly hastened by the breakup of their relationship.

Well, so far very interesting, or at least I found it so.  The cumulative result of all this reading is that I have been able to individuate these two fantastic men to ever greater degrees.  Gone are any ideas (pace Mr Rosen) of a ‘Romantic generation’.  Minor similarities notwithstanding, here are two creative geniuses of extraordinary individuality, utterly involved - even consumed - in their own particular worlds.  Of course, a close study of any two lives will reveal their individuality, the essential solitude of the human personality being the bottom line.  But history loves to generalise, to blur outlines, to create overviews, and so it takes an effort on our part to get to the truth.  I would say that any temptation to regard Schumann and Chopin as similar composers has been thoroughly expunged by this examination, and indeed, by extension, any two composers of any other generation.

Well...does this help me to play my programme?  Does knowing that the Arabeske could only have been written by Schumann, never by Chopin, help me to play it?
No, not really.

You see, one of the great problems with researching is that you are lead to believe what you read.  But why should you?  I feel certain that no-one writing my life could present me as I really am.  I certainly couldn’t myself.  All of us are unknowable to a larger or smaller degree.  And now with Facebook and such lunacies we become even less knowable as the whole business of manufacturing personalities escalates. 

Still, digressions aside, perhaps I haven’t quite gone far enough yet.  Perhaps a closer reading of their lives, a reading between the lines, or a concentration on the more telling aspects of their perceived characters could take me deeper into the music of Schumann and Chopin.

Schumann was famously silent.  He went for days without speaking...(Clara was no chatterbox either).  He drank large amounts of beer and champagne and smoked cigars.  He frequently ‘wrote himself off’ and expressed great regret the following day, vowing unsuccessfully to mend his ways.  He probably contracted syphilis while still relatively young, certainly before he married Clara.  It was said he walked as if he had no bones. He held his mouth as if he was always about to whistle.  He read constantly and developed powerful connections with the writings of certain authors, notably Jean Paul and E T A Hoffmann.  He knew himself as two personalities whom he called ‘Florestan’ and ‘Eusebius’ (a true Gemini!!! - three exclamation marks!!!).  He signed reviews he wrote with their names and included them in many of his musical scores.  He attempted suicide.  During a rebellious uprising he abandoned his children to a nanny and fled to the outskirts of Dresden (Clara risked her life to return to get them).

What does all this tell me? That Schumann was almost constantly engaged in his inner life, a life that we can only guess at?  Or that I must have a couple of extra drinks to see if I can’t get closer to his music that way? There is the special case of ‘Kreisleriana’ where we have the E T A Hoffmann writings of the same name, writings ostensibly about a character called Kreisler, a Kapellmeister, who entertains noble thoughts about music, is hilariously ironic in his expression, and at the same time worries about his messy and frustrated personal life.  Tremendous material to be sure, but can it be realised in music, can the music be ‘about’ the writings - or can the writings only be a provocation, a sort-of kick-off point after which it is all about Schumann’s creative imagination, essentially unknowable?

Chopin also was very quiet, but unlike Schumann he was also very sophisticated.  Liszt desribed him as having the manners and bearing of a prince, and yet as unknowable.  He deflected all attempts to get to know him, adroitly turning conversation back to the questioner.  He was unfailingly courteous, interested, charming, but impenetrable.  He had an androgynous look, exquisite taste, held himself aloof from all activity in which he had no interest, did not argue or involve himself in discussions on politics, religion or philosophy.  He was unerring in his emotional understanding, extraordinarily perceptive of the most subtle nuances of sentiment, but presented only a serene and friendly demeanour to the world.  He liked to move house and redecorate.  He was renowned for his impersonations, especially of other pianists, but it is said he was never cruel, just psychologically devastatingly accurate.  And if I mention Schumanns predilection for alcohol, perhaps I should also mention that the standard treatment for consumption in the mid-19th century included dosing with laudanum, a quite powerful opiate.  There are reports of Chopin’s hallucinating while composing some of his Preludes.  True?  Who can know?         One more thing from the Liszt book:  Chopin had been playing to Liszt and a close woman friend and she asked him what it was in his music that moved her so deeply.  Chopin responded that he was never free of a feeling that somehow formed the base of his heart and which could only be described by the Polish word Zal...as Liszt says, this word “comprehends the entire gamut of emotions produced by a profound regret, from repentance to hatred”.

I could probably go further down this track but it is time to draw all this to a close.  It has been a fascinating exercise exploring lives, contemplating ideals, waiting for the revelations that would lead me deeper into the scores I was studying.  But the truth is that whatever I may have found about the music of Schumann and Chopin, has been found through playing it.  As far as interpretation is concerned it is not what you know and learn, but who you are that is of paramount importance.  You may be rich in knowledge, you may be able to analyse the most complex scores, you may know many of the specific features that give each composer their special identity - but your truest musical understanding, that which takes you deepest into the music, that can not be learned or taught.  It is a question of listening with the utmost openness, of giving your entire being to the music at hand, of following your instinct where it may lead, of persisting when all inroads seem to be blocked.  There is a direct connection between your hearing and your most subtle soul and this can be awakened, nurtured and developed.  When people talk about a ‘gifted’ musician that is what they are referring to - the connection is alive and working.

A certain amount of my reading was done while I was touring around the country recently with the brilliant young violinist Josef Spacek.  At one point I found myself in Auckland having just finished the books I was carrying.  So I went to Unity Books and bought a lovely little volume from the Penguin ‘Great Ideas’ series - a collection of 13 essays by Michel de Montaigne.  The first essay, ‘On Solitude’ was magnificent, but it was the second essay, ‘On Books’, that gave me the support and affirmation that I was unconsciously seeking.  In this essay Montaigne declared that he retained almost nothing of what he read.  That he sometimes found himself excitedly beginning to read a book that he thought was for the first time, only to discover that he had already filled it with annotations and notes in the margins.  I loved that.  But, at least partly to expain this, he said that he read not to gain knowledge but to learn how to be.  He wanted a book to help him live better, to become more true to himself, to help him become more human.  He wanted to be a man, not an encyclopedia.  I could only agree and was very moved to find my intuitions so beautifully backed up by his wonderful self-observations.

So...if this little project I have undertaken has value to me as a performing musician, it is in increasing my sensitivity in ways I could not begin to describe.  And because I cannot describe it I am afraid I end up with almost nothing to offer you in your lives as teachers of music.  I did suggest that you may be mad to have come here in the first place and I should apologise for leaving you with nothing to take home.  At one point I was tempted to say that, if Schumann said that his music was filled with his love for Clara, then the teacher of his music had to lead the student into an understanding of what love is.  But it wasn’t too far from that idea to the suggestion that the teacher should also offer their students champagne and opium.  And really I just might get myself into too much trouble.

I will finish with just one suggestion.  Don’t be satisfied with words.   Feeling is the alpha and omega of music, and being - your individuality, your essence - underpins everything.


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