Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Musical Explanation 2/23/16: Schumann Fantasie in C

Resounding through all the notes
In the earth's colorful dream
There sounds a faint long-drawn note
For the one who listens in secret.
- Friedrich Schlegel. 
- Quote at the top of Schumann's Fantasie in C's score. 

The unconscious is a dangerous place. It is everything beautiful and sublime, in no small part because it's also the force that can tear us all to shreds from the inside. There are no words for the danger involved in peering beneath the lid. It is a journey from which you may never return - just as Schumann did not.

Schumann, in addition to being the Patron Saint of the Manic among us, is also Bard of the Unconscious. The vast majority of his music exists is the world of dreams. You cannot understand his music on the objective terms of Beethoven and Mozart, and when viewed through their lenses, his music invariably comes up short. Everything about it is a bit clumsy - it is not as well-constructed, not as well-arranged, and any performance that views Schumann with classical objectivity will invariably point up Schumann's weaknesses rather than his strengths. Yet I think Schumann alone, among the generation that also includes Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, and Wagner, is the sole composer of his epoch who can be considered the full equal in profundity and value to the titans immediately preceding them like Schubert, Beethoven, and Mozart. Among his generation of gigantic geniuses, Schumann is the only one I'm willing to put in the absolute center of the pantheon - among composers whose musical powers were absolutely cosmic.

The beautiful grandeur of this Schumann Fantasie comes in no small part from its near-absolute lack of structure; one idea floating into the next with utter freedom and utter continuity, just as our thoughts do - coming unbidden into our heads for seemingly no reason from a place we will never understand. In these decades before Wagner came up with his concept of the 'unending melody', Schumann clearly found the way to create it, and he did so simply by mimicking the way we all think and converse.

But mimicking the way we think alone would be like stream of consciousness with fully cognizant thoughts as Berio did with his Sinfonia more than a century later, and as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce did forty years before Berio got there. Schumann plunges far deeper, deep enough to get to places literature can't possibly reach. He plunges us into the stream of unconsciousness, where thoughts are first formed from a place so irrational that we have no means of forming them into coherence. Philosophy can describe it, but only music can convey it. Perhaps we can form vague pictorial flashes in our minds of what Schumann describes here in music, or perhaps we can form brief one-or-two word descriptions, but no more than that. In order to convey them in words, perhaps we'd have to switch to those vague German philosophical compound words like transfiguration and sense-experience.

But what are we sense-experiencing? What is being transfigured from or into?

On the face of it, it's an extremely difficult question, unless you hear the music, which communicates as directly as any music ever composed. What is communicated in this C-Major fantasy is so clearly beauty, hope, or perhaps something still deeper: perhaps even the elemental will to life. What's communicated is pure beauty in its primordial, pristine state, before the world can sully it with its complex inhibitions and unclean hands. It's music that tells us that however destructive it is for us finite and imperfect life of ours to look into this blinding energy and sunlight as Schumann always did, our motives in this complex world are still pure, our intentions good. Whatever demons are released from looking into something so primeval, we only meant well.

(One more version... purely for the love of it.)

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