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Composed in delirious time

The musician Heinz Holliger on Schumann's labyrinthine imagination, his erudition and incredible modernity

Die Zeit: Herr Holliger, you reference Robert Schumann in all your compositions. You conduct Schumann and you have devoted huge amount of your time to his life and his work. You don't seem to be able to tear yourself away from this composer.

Heinz Holliger: I readily admit that it is a little obsessive.

How did your passion for Schumann begin?

I was 14 or 15 years old, when I heard the Violin Sonata No. 2 and the Trio in G Minor at a concert in Berlin. These are considered difficult late works which turn most people off Schumann. It was just the opposite for me. It was like being set on fire.

And the flame has never gone out?

On the contrary. It burnss more intensely as I get older.

What is it that keeps it burning?

You never reach a dead end with Schumann and his analytical observations. New doors are always opening up. One door opens onto the next and there is another one behind that, and another and another. In his work, speculative thinking collides head on with a vast, labyrinthine imagination. Schumann was an extremely erudite man. He translated Sophocles at 17. He had considerable literary talents and he was probably one the greatest writers among the composers, up there with Berlioz and Debussy. This makes him an encyclopaedic character. A cosmic figure without limits. The same applies to his music. Although Beethoven was a great role model for him, he never wanted to realise linear trains of thought in his compositions. He was not interested in going from A to B. He starts with a primal cell of a motif, he sets spiralling movements in motion, which exponentiate to create vast edifices. I admire his associative thinking process, his ability to draw out ever new circles of speculation. Schumann's music is all about dislocation. The bar line is a coffin for him. He almost always shifts the emphasis of the weightier notes. He syncopates the primary accents or overlays various layers of time. What emerges is a sort of delirious time. You no longer feel the passing of time.

Schumann composed at a feverish pace, yet he was most pedantic in all areas of his life. How do these things fit together?

It's true, he wrote almost everything in a trance, at unbelievable speed. And yet everything he did bore the hallmark of incredible self-control. He had perfect formal awareness and of his peers, only Mendelssohn-Bartholdy matched him in contrapunctual skill. Schumann led a very orderly life. He studied jurisprudence, maintained impeccable housekeeping records, noted even the most intimate details in a marriage journal. On the other hand there was this bubbling excess of the unconscious which he committed directly to paper. He wrote in a trance and yet with incredible discipline. After emerging from a period of wildness he would try to bring his life back into order, he would write nothing but Lieder for a while or devote a year to string quartets. He was very consistent in controlling himself though his work.

But beneath this orderliness there was always a current bubbling away?

This is what I find so amazing. Even in Schumann's most formally structured pieces you sense this constant tearing at the form. There is always this precarious balance of control and eruption. This is something you also find in Hölderin, who subjected his powerful imagination to the most difficult metres. He wrote the greatest rhythmical works of art ever ventured by a poet and yet form and content never hindered one another. It's the same with Schumann.

Robert Schumann's life ended in an asylum in Endenich near Bonn. He tried to take his life, he was mentally deranged. Experts today still speculate and argue over the nature of Schumann's madness. Was he schizophrenic? What role did alcoholism play? Was it advanced syphilis that destroyed him? People like to judge the quality of his late work according to their diagnoses. What's your opinion on this?

I want to emphasise that Schumann committed himself to the clinic in Endenich. He was not locked away. Sinclair said of Hölderlin: "His disease is but an adopted frame of mind."

But there is no doubt that he was mentally ill, is there?

To put it rather bluntly, normal people do not compose – or they compose like Carl Czerny or Murzio Clementi. You need a certain amount of openness and non-conformism to be creative. People who are considered mad have not been taught by life to wall up their openness and they have more direct contact to their unconscious.

You see the creative potential in madness more than anything else?

I am a doctor's son, so maybe I look at things a little differently. For me, being different is part of life. I do not look for a person's illnesses. I look for the person who has no limits to their imagination, who is not afraid to cross over, whether it be into the world of madness or death, for these are intertwined. People like this have finer antennae than the others. I have no idea whether we would see Beethoven as a normal person if we encountered him on the street. He was a very odd man. Or Mozart, who leapt over the table and cracked jokes and got up to all kinds of high jinks. Would we regard him as normal? I hope not. Or Brahms and his beard and his obsession with eliminating traces so as to pass himself off as an orderly person. But everything that lay beneath his appearance is what made him an important composer. Schumann's emotional life is like a great accelerando, getting faster and faster. It can only end in collapse and in silence.

Do you sometimes find yourself entering into a private dialogue with Schumann?

I wouldn't go that far, no, but I do feel incredibly close to him. I often feel his presence when I'm thinking about something. But I don't ask myself how what decision he would have made or anything like that. And I have no idea how well I would have got along with him as an individual. Think about how insistent he was on meeting Hebbel – and when Hebbel eventually paid him a visit, he didn't utter a word. It was exceptionally difficult to make contact with him.

His appearance was rather unprepossessing, he spoke quitely and often mumbled, he was puffy-faced and short-sighted.

I do not relate to him all that closely as a person. He is more of a intellectual point in my life. "A singing point in the sky or a globe rejoicing" as Nikolas Lenau wrote in his "Notebook from [the psychiatric hospital in] Winnenthal".

Let's talk about the clichees that surround Schumann. Robert and Clara are held as the epitome of the Romantic artist couple. Was this really the case?

It is an illusion to think that two such strong personalities could merge with one another entirely. Clara's composition, her "Romances for Violin" or the "Trio", were really quite important and very much her own. She was certainly not imitating her husband's music in any way, but was developing her own thinking. It is interesting, though, that in the forty years after Schumann died she never composed again. Perhaps she needed the friction, something to fight against, for her own development. When it was gone, she was no longer able to be creatively active. Clara did not have an easy life. She was perhaps the most important pianist of her generation and yet she produced a child every year. She could not practice when he was composing. There was a lot of tension very early on between the two.

Was Schumann a repressive husband who chained Clara to the stove and ruined her great talent?

I will give you an example of the ambivalences in his personality. He was initially engaged to Ernestine von Fricken. When he discovered that she was not going to inherit, he broke off the engagement. Yet at the same time in "Manfred", he mentioned an issue which arose during a flute concert given by his prospective father-in-law. "The lies will course through your veins like poison". A clear indication of Schumann's bad conscience. In general, though, l I think that too much has been made of his relationship with Clara. There are shelves full of books about Clara in the shops – and about two on Robert, and one of those is bad. But there is so much room for speculation about Robert because of the endless material, the housekeeping records, the diaries, the letters. Other composers tend to be absolutely silent in such matters. What do we know about the life of Ravel? He is a mysterious figure, who kept himself hidden. I think we should know about Schumann's life. But more than anything, we should listen to his music! Not even 20 percent of his work gets played in concerts. Most people don't even know the rest.

It's mostly only his piano works that are played in concert.

Exactly. His Lieder are rarely performed and if they are, it's invariably the same ones. There is a book about Schumann and the poets. The subject alone speaks volumes. You should see the lists Schumann compiled of poems that were suitable to be put to music, and then he slowly went about tracking them down. In a number of Schumann biographies you read that shortly before he went to Endenich, he spent all his time in the library looking for material for what he called his "Dichtergarten" or poet garden. This "Dichtergarten" has now been republished. It is an astonishing book! Full of poems from the Greeks and Romans right up to Schumann's own time, and selected with such remarkable consistency! Schumann called it a garden but it is was beautifully designed.

Why is so much of Schumann's oeuvre ignored?

Unfortunately there are plenty of reasons for this which have nothing to do with music. First of all, in committing himself to Endenich, Schumann effectively branded himself with a mark of Cane. His biographers and musical analysts were intent only on determining whether he was sick and whether this or that composition had been written in his better days. This legacy was passed down from one biography to the next. The new German school that grew up around Wagner and Liszt with its revolutionary ethos also has much to answer for. It presented Schumann on the basis of his later pieces, which are much more tightly constructed and dictated by form, as a small-town traditionalist. These were pure polemics which did him no end of damage. And to top it all, Clara and Joseph Joachim began work on a sort of hagiography of Schumann after his death. All the letters were censored. Anything which didn't fit Schumann's sacrosanctity was thrown out. Clara took this to such extremes that by the end of her life, on the advice of Brahms, she had burned the five Cello Romances. An act of destruction which I used as a compositional theme in my "Romancedres". In fact it was Alban Berg whose analysis of Schumann's "Traumerei" first showed that Schumann was not only a delirious composer but also a great counterpointist with considerable formal sophistication.

Schumann has yet to recover from all this?

The prejudices about him not being able to orchestrate, about his music being unwieldy and far from brilliant, are still in place today. And the late Romantic cloak of sound that was always draped around his symphonic music, the giant orchestras, overladen with strings, did him no good whatsoever. Particularly with Schumann, a musician has to be extremely familiar with the pieces, identifying with them with the intimacy of a string quartet. Then the music can start to come alive. With original instruments as is becoming increasingly popular in historical performance practice. The best thing that can happen to Schumann is if all interpretations do away with the traditional stodgy fare completely.

What do you say to the Schumann experts who say that syphilis destroyed his brain and that this affected the music he wrote at the end of his life? That these pieces are more simplistic and harmonically simple.

I devote a lot of my time to the late Schumann pieces and I cannot agree. There is nothing in the later works that could be describes as monotonous rhythm or simplistic harmony. Take the Violin Concert for instance. People say the harmony in the first movement is monotonous. But if you look at it properly, you see that it is made of layers, blocks of stone like in a late Bruckner symphony. This can only function in the archaic form of motif and harmony. In a wonderful second theme, the music seems to forget itself. It is repeated over and over very quietly, like fading brainwaves in an encephalogram. Until it finds its way back again. I find this extremely modern! Or the third movement, a Poacca, dancing with leaden feet. It's as if it were trying fly but its wings are clipped. Or the end. People always say the Violin Concert is not brilliant enough for the violin, but what about those scales that get faster and faster, up and down, like a wheel which that spins faster and faster until it appears to be standing still. This is another idea which I work with a lot in my own compositions. I know of no other composer who was doing anything like this at the time.

How influential is Schumann for your own composition?

I don't know of any work in which he is not present. He even appears in my first published work, the "Kantate Erde und Himmel". Bang in the middle of a symmetrical note formation, comes the motif from Schumann's "Zwielicht" Lied. (Holliger sings) "Was soll dieses Grauen bedeuten?" (what does this horror/dawning mean?) And the words I put to this motif are "Oh, wenn ich wieder wäre" (oh, if only I were once more)

What does the Schumann anniversary mean to you?

I said to my friend, the pianist Andras Schiff, that it's not up to us to suddenly start playing lots of Schumann. We are always celebrating Schumann's anniversary. Now it's the turn of the others who never normally pay him any attention. Perhaps at last the penny will drop with them now, too.


This article was originally published in Die Zeit on 4 June, 2010.

Heinz Holliger
(born 1939) is a Swiss oboist, composer and conductor of global acclaim.

Claus Spahn is a music critic for Die Zeit.

Translation: lp

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