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The Life And Music Of Robert Schumann

by Ted Libbey
Jun 7, 2010

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Robert Schumann was a German composer and critic born in Zwickau on June 8, 1810. A quirky, problematic genius, he wrote some of the greatest music of the Romantic era, and also some of the weakest. Severely affected by what was most likely bipolar disorder, he achieved almost superhuman productivity during his manic periods. His life ended early and miserably with a descent into insanity brought on by syphilis. He did his best work when younger, in small forms: piano pieces and songs.

Early Years Of Study

Schumann's bookseller father was also a novelist and translator of Walter Scott and Byron; highly nervous, he married a violently passionate woman, and Schumann was brought up in an environment both literary and unstable. He began piano lessons at seven, and studied Latin and Greek in school in Zwickau, developing a keen interest in literature and in writing as he entered his teens. He continued to develop as a pianist and wrote novels. When he was 16 his father died and in the same month his sister committed suicide. His father had stipulated that for Robert to receive his inheritance he had to take a three-year course of study at the university level, and the next year Schumann enrolled as a law student at the University of Leipzig. He spent his time reading Jean Paul Richter and soon became a piano student of (and border with) Friedrich Wieck, whose daughter Clara, then nine, he would eventually marry. He developed a consuming interest in the music of Schubert, which opened a window on his own creative yearnings.

In 1830, Schumann opted out of law and resumed his studies with Wieck. Despite incessant practice, he never became the virtuoso pianist he hoped to be, owing to a "numbness" in the middle finger of his right hand. The problem may have resulted from his use, over Wieck's objection, of a splint contraption to strengthen the hand, or from mercury poisoning related to the treatment of syphilis, which he probably contracted in his teens. Fortunately, he would not need to be a virtuoso — because he married one.

Music — And Trouble — In The 1830s

The 1830s were turbulent for Schumann. He fought with Wieck over his training and his relationship with Clara, which Wieck opposed. Under stress, he drank and smoked heavily and suffered his first bouts of depression. Gradually, Schumann let go of the dream of keyboard virtuosity and became active as a critic, for which he was, during his lifetime, as well known as he was for his music. Simultaneously, he developed into quite a capable composer.

In 1834 he founded the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, turning it into a platform for his philosophizing on the music of the past and present and for notices and analyses of new works. Among his own important works of the decade were the majority of the pieces that established his reputation as a composer for the piano: Carnaval, the Davidsbündler Tänze, the Symphonic Etudes, the Fantasy in C, Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), Kreisleriana, and others. During this time, he befriended Chopin and Mendelssohn.

Marriage, Music, And Mania

By 1840, Clara Wieck, 20, was a distinguished pianist and had been in the public eye for more than a decade. Schumann's marriage to her — which took place a year after he prevailed in a lawsuit against her father — resulted in an enormous creative outpouring. First came the "year of song." Anticipating marriage in a decidedly lyrical state of mind, Schumann focused his pent-up emotion on vocal music, composing nearly 140 songs in 1840, most of them in the anxious months before August, when the marriage permission suit he and Clara had filed against her father was decided in their favor. The following year, in a mood of celebration, he turned to the orchestra. His works included two symphonies — No. 1 in B-flat and No. 4 in D minor — as well as Overture, Scherzo and Finale, and a Fantasie in A minor for piano and orchestra. In 1842 Schumann focused on chamber music, composing three string quartets, the often heard Piano Quintet in E-flat, and the wonderful Piano Quartet in E-flat.

Such feverish concentration on a single genre at a time can be seen as typical manic behavior. The other side of the coin — phobias and terrifying slides into depression — turned up as the 1840s wore on, leaving the composer incapacitated. At the end of 1844 Schumann and Clara moved to Dresden, at one of the lowest of his low points. During his next few years, he completed the Piano Concerto in A minor, his Symphony No. 2 in C, his one opera, Genoveva, and an extraordinary dramatic poem based on Byron's Manfred.

Düsseldorf And Downhill

In 1850, Schumann accepted a position as municipal music director in Düsseldorf. One of the first works he composed after his arrival was the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, the Rhenish, inspired by the majestic Cologne Cathedral. During the three seasons he held the job, Schumann experienced difficulties with city administrators and ultimately, owing to his increasingly erratic behavior on the podium, lost the respect of the orchestra and chorus. He was fired in the fall of 1853. A bright spot during that sad season was the time the Schumanns spent with the renowned violinist Joseph Joaquim and the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms, whose budding genius Schumann immediately recognized.

During the winter of 1854, Schumann's insanity manifested itself dramatically: He heard "angelic" voices that quickly morphed into a bestial noise of "tigers and hyenas." On a February morning he walked to a bridge over the Rhine and threw himself in; he was rescued by fishermen. Insisting that for Clara's protection he be institutionalized, he was placed in a sanatorium. His doctors prevented Clara from seeing him for more than two years, until days before his death.

The Music Of Poetic Personalities

Schumann's literary sensitivity and introspective nature led him to imbue nearly everything he wrote with personality — in the case of his best songs and piano pieces, often the multiple sides of his own personality. Nearly all of his piano music is referential, attempting to embody emotions aroused by literature or to characterize actors' interactions in some ongoing novel or lyric poem of the mind. One of Schumann's favorite conceits was the "Davidsbund" ("Tribe of David"), peopled by imaginary characters who, like the biblical David, were willing to stand up to the artistic Philistines of the day. The members of this society included Meister Raro, probably an idealization of his teacher and father-in-law, as well as Schumann's two major personae: the impetuous extrovert Florestan and the pale, studious, introverted Eusebius. The Davidsbündler Tänze (Dances of the Tribe of David) specifically chronicles an emotional and musical journey with these two alter egos at the wheel — but so do most of Schumann's works, especially those for piano.

Schumann's lyrical, intense musicality produced some of the most beautiful and moving lieder in the repertoire. His Dichterliebe (Poet's Love), a setting of 16 poems by Heinrich Heine, is his best-known song cycle and a supreme achievement in German lied. Other cycles include Frauenliebe und Leben (Women's Love and Life) and two sets titled Liederkreis (one to poems of Heine, one to poems of Joseph von Eichendorf). There is a substantial amount of chamber music; the best pieces are the Piano Quintet (the first piece ever written for that complement), the Piano Quartet, and the Three Romances for oboe and piano.

As a symphonic composer Schumann sports a long rap sheet: awkwardness in larger forms, muddy scoring, excessive doublings that always sound a little out of tune. But he was capable of achieving splendid orchestral effects, and his Third and Fourth Symphonies also reveal original and innovative approaches to form. In an effort to reinforce a feeling of unity in the Fourth Symphony, he specified that its four movements be played without a break, with the aim that the entire work would form a large, cyclical structure. The underlying unity of the piece asserts itself in the treatment of the key and in the thematic linking of the last movement to the first, and of parts of the third movement to the second. The material is so closely knit that musicologists have come to regard it as a landmark in the history of the genre. Of the concerted works, the Piano Concerto is Schumann at his best. The Cello Concerto is a solid piece but the Violin Concerto, a late work of troubled delicacy, requires very sympathetic treatment to be effective. None of Schumann's efforts for the stage has found a place in the repertoire.

There is little doubt that Schumann will remain a canonic figure, though if quality of work is the only gauge, his importance has long been overrated. His abilities, at times, fell short of his ambitions, but he brought enthusiasm and a rare poetic genius to everything he attempted. As a critic he was remarkably astute in some judgments, wildly off the mark in others, and in all cases generous. He never became a great pianist, was a failure as a conductor, and at times was not even a very good composer. But his entire being was music, informed by dream and fantasy. He was music's quintessential Romantic, always ardent, always striving for the ideal.

(Ted Libbey is the author of "The NPR Listener's Encyclopedia of Classical Music")

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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The Life And Music Of Samuel Barber

by Ted Libbey
Mar 5, 2010

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Barber, Samuel (b. West Chester, Penn., March 9, 1910; d. New York, Jan. 23, 1981)

American composer Samuel Barber was a nephew of the celebrated contralto Louise Homer and a protege of the composer Sidney Homer, who caught on to young Samuel's gifts when, at the age of 9, he began work on his first opera. In 1924, Barber enrolled in the newly opened Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he studied piano with Isabelle Vengerova, composition with Rosario Scalero and conducting with Fritz Reiner. It was at Curtis that he met another young composer, Gian-Carlo Menotti, who was to become his lifelong companion and professional collaborator. Early works from Barber's student days still hold a place in the repertoire, including Dover Beach — a setting of a Matthew Arnold poem for voice and string quartet; Barber, who had become quite a capable baritone, sang the world premiere — and his graduation exercise, the Overture to The School for Scandal. These works established him as "the one to watch" in his generation of American composers, a status confirmed by his receipt of the Prix de Rome and a Pulitzer traveling grant in 1935, when he was 25.

His music caught the ear of Arturo Toscanini, who led the premieres of two works: the Essay for Orchestra (later retitled First Essay for Orchestra) and the Adagio for Strings, one of the best-known works of the 20th century. The essay form — Barber's own creation, something of a musical "argument" in which one "thought" or melody is the seed from which an entire single movement springs — would be something the composer would return to at subsequent points in his life, composing a Second Essay in 1942 and a Third Essay in 1978. His beautifully lyric Violin Concerto (1940) is one of the finest string concertos of the 20th century, with a razzle-dazzle finale and a richly expressive opening movement. He also wrote a piano concerto (which won him a Pulitzer Prize) and a cello concerto. For Vladimir Horowitz, he composed the Piano Sonata in E-flat minor (1949), making it as challenging as possible. Barber's other works for the piano include the Nocturne (Homage to John Field) of 1959 and the beautiful Excursions, Op. 20 (1942-44).

Barber's most exquisite achievements were in the realm of vocal music, particularly the songs of Op. 10 and 13 and his 1947 setting of James Agee's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 for soprano and orchestra, commissioned by soprano Eleanor Steber. He also wrote a song cycle called Hermit Songs (1953), in which he set old anonymous Irish texts taken from the walls of monasteries.

In recognition of his preeminent place in American music, the Metropolitan Opera commissioned Barber to compose an opera, Antony and Cleopatra (based on Shakespeare), for the opening of its new home at Lincoln Center in 1966. While not a success in its original production, the opera, which featured Leontyne Price in the role of Cleopatra, manifested yet again Barber's unique mastery of line and color, and his extraordinarily imaginative way of setting a text.

(Ted Libbey is the author of "The NPR Listener's Encyclopedia of Classical Music")

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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The Life And Music Of Frederic Chopin

by Ted Libbey
Mar 2, 2010

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Chopin, Frederic Francois (b. Zelazowa Wola, March 1, 1810; d. Paris, October 17, 1849)

Frederic Chopin was a Polish-born pianist and composer of matchless genius in the realm of keyboard music. As a pianist, his talents were beyond emulation and had an impact on other musicians entirely out of proportion to the number of concerts he gave — only 30 public performances in 30 years of concertizing. No one before or since has contributed as many significant works to the piano's repertoire, or come closer to capturing its soul.

Early Years

Chopin's mother was Polish, his father a Frenchman who had come to Poland as a young man and held jobs as a bookkeeper and tutor before marrying and settling in Warsaw. Young Frederic studied piano with Wojciech Zywny and harmony and counterpoint with Jozef Elsner, gave his first concert when he was 8, and rather quickly outdistanced his teachers. His name became known outside of Poland when his Variations, Op. 2, for piano and orchestra on Mozart's "La ci darem la mano" — written when he was 17 — were published in 1830, prompting Robert Schumann's famous accolade in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung: "Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!" In the spring and autumn of 1830, Chopin treated the Warsaw audience to a pair of newly composed, marvelously poetic piano concertos. Seeking to expand his horizons, he left Poland for Vienna in November 1830, and after eight months there, headed for Paris. He would never again return to his native country, but Poland's loss would be Paris' gain.

Off To Paris

By the 1830s, Paris had become the undisputed center of European culture — a hotbed of new thinking in the arts and letters and the focal point of Romanticism in music. After a sensational debut at the Salle Pleyel on Feb. 26, 1832, with Franz Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn and Luigi Cherubini among those in the audience, Chopin, three days shy of his 22nd birthday, took his place as one of the celebrities of the French capital. He found himself in such demand as a teacher that he was able to make a comfortable living, and he hobnobbed with the great artists of the day, forming particularly close friendships with Eugene Delacroix, who would paint a splendid portrait of him in 1838, and Liszt. Chopin's works from his first years in Paris include the Nocturnes of Opp. 9 and 15 (1830-32), the 12 Etudes, Op. 25 (1835-37), dedicated to Liszt's mistress, the Comtesse Marie d'Agoult, the Scherzo in B-flat minor, Op. 31 (1837), the Sonata in B-flat minor, Op. 35 (1837), and the G minor Ballade, Op. 23. In 1836, Chopin became engaged to Maria Wodzinski, but the engagement was broken off by her family the following year.

Reaching New Heights

Chopin's art reached a new plateau in the late 1830s as a result of his involvement with the writer Aurore Dudevant, six years his senior, who in 1832 had taken to calling herself George Sand. Some of his greatest works emerged as a result of the emotional contentment he felt in the early days of their nine-year liaison. They spent the winter of 1838-39 together on Majorca, living in adjacent rooms in an abandoned Carthusian monastery. Chopin endured his first major bout of tuberculosis, but though seriously ill managed to complete the 24 Preludes, Op. 28 (1838-39). During the 1840s, in spite of emotional ups and downs and recurrent illness, he produced a remarkable body of compositions that included the Ballades in A-flat, Op. 47, and F minor, Op. 52, the Mazurkas of Opp. 50, 56, 59, 63 and 67, the A-flat major Polonaise, Op. 53, the Nocturnes of Opp. 48, 55 and 62, and the Sonata in B minor, Op. 58 (1844). The best of these works — the B minor Sonata, the Op. 55 Nocturnes and the Op. 56 Mazurkas — are characterized by remarkable refinement and complexity, along with a newly rich sense of ambivalence. The opening movement of the sonata finds Chopin at the summit of inspiration, weaving turbulence and romantic yearning into a beautifully seamless expression.

The situation with George Sand began to deteriorate in 1843, and in 1847 the break came. By then, Chopin was gravely ill; seeking escape, he left Paris in April 1848 for an extended sojourn in England and Scotland, from which he returned, exhausted, in November. He composed virtually nothing in the final year of his life.

The Composer And His Piano

Chopin was the first composer of genius to devote himself uniquely to the piano — every one of his works was written for it either as solo instrument or in combination with other instruments. The majority of his solo pieces are in shorter forms, and improvisatory by nature. These include 20 nocturnes, 25 preludes, 17 waltzes, 15 polonaises, 58 mazurkas and 27 etudes. In these works, especially the nocturnes, preludes and mazurkas, the emotions are fleeting, and precious because of that. Chopin also achieved success in larger forms, including the scherzo, a form he reinvented; the ballade, a genre he invented; and the sonata. The four Ballades and the Sonatas in B-flat minor and B minor are among his greatest creations, combining passionate drama and lyrical tenderness in a memorable way.

In his remarkably advanced treatment of harmony and rhythm, Chopin banished the ordinary from his music and opened the door to an emotional ambiguity that continues to intrigue listeners — one whose communication requires subtleties of execution that generations of pianists have labored devotedly to achieve. The luminous textures and haunting melodies he used to express his thoughts added to the piano's sound and range of color shadings that no one before him had imagined were there, but that all who have followed recognize as his. The same is true of the harmonic question marks one finds throughout his music — the equivalent of a look of gentle longing. He created a slimmer oeuvre than his important contemporaries, but every piece he produced was a pearl.

(Ted Libbey is the author of "The NPR Listener's Encyclopedia of Classical Music")

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Hear Schumann's Music

Barber Speaks

On a 1949 CBS radio program, Samuel Barber talks about the Italian premiere of his first symphony, and writing his second symphony while serving in the army.

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More About Chopin

Chopin At 200 Rubinstein, The Chopin Poet Full Chopin Archive

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Steve Reich's 'Maximum' Minimalism

by Ted Libbey
Jan 12, 2010

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I guess it's still impossible not to think of minimalism when you think of Steve Reich, but his music has been increasingly "maximal" since the 1970s.

More and more, he's brought in elements of harmonic structure, lavish scoring and long-range symphonic-like structure that one doesn't associate with minimalism at all. It really represents a kind of departure from minimalism, but always with an undercurrent of what's so invigorating about it, which is that strong sense of a rhythmic pulse.

Reich is a circular musician who has gone back and picked up elements from earlier in musical history. He's adopted these elements from all around the globe — from Indonesia to Africa — and he draws on all sorts of things when he writes music. That's very much the case with what I consider the landmark piece in his career, Music for 18 Musicians, completed in 1976.

Reich Breakthrough

Even though Reich dislikes the term "minimalism," Music for 18 Musicians was a breakthrough work in the history of minimalism and a watershed moment in Reich's career. The piece, scored for an ensemble of two clarinets, four pianos, three marimbas, two xylophones, vibraphone, violin, cello and four female voices, is a progression of 11 "chords" in which each chord is explored individually, with textures developing and morphing according to minimalist techniques (i.e, constantly changing, but almost imperceptibly). With its lush texture, which has been described as "tropical,"and its expansion of a static harmonic situation into something dynamic, Music for 18 Musicians brings elements of "maximalism" to minimalism.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Hear Schumann's Music

Barber Speaks

On a 1949 CBS radio program, Samuel Barber talks about the Italian premiere of his first symphony, and writing his second symphony while serving in the army.

Hear Barber's Music

More About Chopin

Chopin At 200 Rubinstein, The Chopin Poet Full Chopin Archive

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John Dowland's Art Of Melancholy

by Ted Libbey
Jan 5, 2010

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John Dowland (1563-1626) was an important instrumental composer at a time when the most serious music was vocal, and he was a popular composer at a time when there was no dichotomy between popular and classical music. Much of Dowland's music is sad and melancholy, but that's not to say that he was a self-pitying person. In his time, melancholy was the sign of a superior individual, of someone who was mature and capable of deep feeling. Dowland was a fine artist capable of giving voice to what was considered an appropriate emotion.

Dowland's works are divided about evenly between songs and solo compositions for lute. As a songwriter and performer on a "gentleman's instrument," Dowland was, in effect, a pop musician. But the expressive content of his music is serious, and in most of his songs, darker sentiments dominate. His early songs were strophic, patterned on dance types, and influenced by the madrigal styles of Marenzio and others. In his later works, of which fewer are strophic, he gradually moved away from madrigalistic word-painting toward a freer and subtler style, closely attuned to the rhythms of speech and marked by a keen, often biting expressiveness. There is real character in Dowland's music, a sense of someone communicating with you, and it goes right through those 400 years that separate us from Dowland and his time. He was a contemporary of Shakespeare and, as with Shakespeare, his music speaks to us.

Dowland That Rocks

Paul O'Dette stands well above anyone else who has played Dowland's music on the lute. He is, technically, in a league of his own. He gets the notes to speak and achieves different tones with the nails or flesh on the fingertips. He has a sense of rhythm that I find extraordinary, perhaps going back to his early days as a rock musician. O'Dette is an ideal interpreter for Dowland, because, in one person, he joins the streams of popular and classical music. In both the composer and the performer, there's an understanding that these two streams are really one.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Hear Schumann's Music

Barber Speaks

On a 1949 CBS radio program, Samuel Barber talks about the Italian premiere of his first symphony, and writing his second symphony while serving in the army.

Hear Barber's Music

More About Chopin

Chopin At 200 Rubinstein, The Chopin Poet Full Chopin Archive

Missing some content? Check the source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2014, NPR

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