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Thread: The problem with Schumann

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    Senior Member Kurkikohtaus's Avatar
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    Default The problem with Schumann

    Schumann is often dismissed as a poor orchestral composer, accused of bad and "muddy" orchestration.

    On the surface, this is very true, I have never in my life heard a live rendition of a Schumann Symphony that has been pleasing. I've always attributed this fact to the idea that Schumann was a bad orchestrator and never have I thought that the orchestra played badly or that the conductor wasn't up to the task.

    That said, I just conducted a funny little concert that included one movement of Schumann's Rhein Symphony. The concert was an hour-long Watermusic concert, with explanatory babbling from the podium. The program was as follows:

    Handel - Watermusic (D major suite)
    Schumann - Rhein Symphony (2nd movment - scherzo)
    Sibelius - Swan of Tuonela
    Strauss - Danube
    Smetana - Vltava

    As the program was quite easy (and quite short), I spent a lot of time balancing out the Schumann. The movement is less than 10 minutes long, and I easily spent over an hour rehearsing it, giving very very specific instructions like (... clarinet, you have pp but play mp ... horn, you have f but play p ... etc.) for every single phrase of the piece. I basically explained Schumann's orchestration to the orchestra so that they would understand which parts to bring out and which to subdue, where the peak of the phrases should be (as opposed to how they are written)... Lots and lots of time and effort, and what came out was a startlingly beautiful and clear sound.

    So the problem is that this kind of detailed work is necessary, given Schumann's "complicated" orchestration, in every single movement of every single Symphony. And there is simply no time for that in any given concert. I could afford to do it to one (easy) movement on a short and easy program, but if we were doing the whole Rhein symphony, there simply would be no time. And the catch is that the orchestra cannot simply play instictively and balance it out themselves, as they would in Brahms or Dvorak. This is music that requires maximum problem solving from orchestra and conductor alike, and in the world of professional orchestras, there is unfortunately no time for that.

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    I don’t subscribe to this view that Schumann was a poor orchestrator. Schumann was a brilliant composer in all departments. A decent set of recordings of his symphonies such as those by Sawallish/ Staatskapelle Dresden are truly admirable. There is no hint of any of the problems you are talking about. There is a good explanation of the apparent balance problems, and it just requires a few tweaks here and there to get the balance right. The result, if done correctly, is well worth it. These 4 symphonies are really excellent. The same is true of much of his chamber works. It goes without saying that his solo piano works are first rate.

    In any event I thought that the view you express is somewhat exagerrated and antiquated. More modern opinion is a lot more sympathetic. Indeed there are several sources on the Net to refute this idea of Schumann being a poor orchestrator. It took me only a short time to find the following using a Google search. I'll keep things short but I've seen many others in the past, all saying the same basic thing. Those below should suffice to illustrate the main counter-arguments (the first found at websites for Pomona College, the second at Karttunen.org).

    It is fashionable to criticize Robert Schumann for being a "poor orchestrator." Those who offer such an opinion do not usually mean that Schumann was ineffective at finding the right orchestral color to suit the character demanded by the music: indeed, the passion, heroism, and turmoil that are evident in all of his output come across clearly in the orchestral works. Instead, most criticism focuses on his technical knowledge -- for example, whether certain orchestral instruments could or could not play various pitches -- and his handling of balance. The technical knowledge that Schumann somewhat lacked primarily concerned the brass instruments. Until valves became standard on horns and trumpets, those instruments had only limited notes available, a fact which Beethoven, Mozart, and all other earlier composers had to take into account, and a limitation which Schumann had a tendency to disregard or misunderstand. Although Schumann's carelessness in this area is perhaps a trifle embarrassing, it does not indicate any overall lack of talent for writing for the orchestra.
    The balance problems that occasionally arise in Schumann's orchestral music are, in most instances, easily solved by making adjustments in the dynamic indications of the various parts. In a few cases, conductors sometimes take it upon themselves to make more serious changes, asking some sections of the orchestra -- most frequently the horns, trumpets, and timpani -- to play notes other than those indicated by the composer. Although purists reject these alterations as arrogant attempts to "improve" on a creative genius, no disrespect is intended: the most venerated symphonies of the great Beethoven are often subjected to exactly the same kind of changes, even (or perhaps especially!) by highly respected conductors, only without the pseudo-justification that Beethoven was a "poor orchestrator."
    Another:

    Even today one often hears the claim that Schumann's orchestration was in general defective and needs to be improved on. This received idea is so strong that many conductors have never even thought of trying the original scoring. In the end as performances add on to the prejudices of previous generations, the real Schumann becomes more and more difficult to find.
    There are in my mind three main reasons for these misunderstandings. Firstly, the orchestra itself has changed a great deal since Schumann's days. The string sections of the orchestras that Schumann wrote for were significantly smaller than today (in Leipzig: 9-8-5-5-4), the music does often sound too thick if played with almost twice the number of string players.
    Secondly, the way Schumann's tempo's are treated. Little respect has been paid to the original indications, and the consensus seems to be that either he didn't know what he wanted or the metronome he used was faulty. The problem is that his indications are sometimes uncomfortably fast and sometimes uncomfortably slow. There must be something more than a faulty metronome behind this. There is something in the nature of Schumann's music that make it almost fit within the conventions of a much more straightforward music, but in the end it won't. The irregular phrase structure goes often unnoticed making especially the finales often sound simply repetitive, when in fact there is an subtle play of irregular phrase lengths that, if observed, lightens the music.
    Thirdly, the rubato in his music often becomes heavy, especially in the concertos, where one hears a lot of slowing down, but much less going forward. When the tempo fluctuations become too mannered, the irregularities and surprises are hidden and the very nature of the music altered. In the performances of the solo piano pieces one can more often hear the real Schumann, whose music fluctuates between blissful peace and feverish anxiety,
    It is surprising how many of us have don't have the curiosity to try out the music the way Schumann wrote it down first and make one's own analyses about the possible problems, however crazy it might sound. Instead, we try to fit Schumann's very unconventional music to conventions that come from nowhere in particular.
    Even Schumann's chamber music with piano is said to suffer from bad instrumentation, the piano being written too much in the middle register making balance impossible. Could the different piano of the time have been the reason for this kind of writing? Schumann wrote for what the piano he knew, not the much more powerful instrument of today. If we today feel the music sounds bad on the instruments we use, we could learn from how the music sounded with the instruments he wrote it for and study how something similar can be produced on our instruments.
    Many of the mysteries concerning Schumann become clearer if one thinks of his music as being written by a pianist and not a string player. The phrasing and rubato become evident in most cases when one imagines him writing for the piano. Often one hears that Chopin's rubato comes from the Italian opera and to understand Mozart's music one has to listen to his Operas. Schumann's essence is in his piano music.


    Topaz
    Last edited by Topaz; Nov-19-2006 at 15:14.

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    Senior Member Kurkikohtaus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Topaz View Post
    A decent set of recordings of his symphonies such as those by Sawallish/ Staatskapelle Dresden are truly admirable. There is no hint of any of the problems you are talking about. There is a good explanation of the apparent balance problems, and it just requires a few tweaks here and there to get the balance right. The result, if done correctly, is well worth it.
    Yes, I agree, the result is very well worth it, because on the level of pure musical conception (in the composer's mind, separate of performance), Schumann's music has that same smell of genius that Beethoven and Brahms have.

    But there are a few problems with your argument, Topaz ... Nothing personal, mind you, this is all for the sake of a good discussion about good music ...

    First of all, on this and other music forums, I find that many arguments and discussions are supported by evidence from recordings. I advance the theory that recordings are completely irrelevant as support for any argument, except when one is comparing one recording to another. The true (and in my opinion only) relevant medium in which to discuss Classical music issues is live performance. If you want to talk about the technical possibilities of making good Schumann recordings vs. good Beethoven recordings, that's OK. But if you want to say that Schumann was not a bad orchestrator and that recording evidence supports this claim, that just doesn't hold water for me.

    Beethoven can be played live as written and sound very good, and musicians can use their basic orchestral instincts to balance out the few places where there may be issues.

    Brahms is more difficult in that he layers his dynamics (different instruments are marked with different dynamics at a single instance in the score). But the layering is very logical, and as long as good orchestral players know that p means p, even if they hear dynamics around them that are louder than p, there are no balance issue in Brahms, because the layerings are sorted logically in the texture.

    And that is the problem with Schumann. His orchestration requires major dynamic layering and yet he does not layer his dynamics. For example, he writes a passage where the whole orchestra has p, whereas Brahms would layer the various textures, for example string accompaniment figurations p, held notes in the brass pp and melody in the winds mf. This idea is covered in the first quote that you offer, but the quote doesn't quite do justice to the real problem, which I will get to in a second.

    Say that a zealous Schumann-loving conductor actually edits the dynamics in the parts before the first rehearsal, and instructs the orchestra to approach the piece as they would Brahms, to listen for the various layerings and respect that other parts will be naturally louder or softer than theirs at any given point. And here's the catch: a good "Brahms" orchestra will do this, and the music still won't "work" most of the time!. Because Schumann's orchestration woes simply do not end at dynamic layering: he does not understand the idiosyncratic nature of the various woodwind instruments (not just the Brass!) and writes parts in weird registers or with weird slurs, or in weird combinations. Time and the development of orchestration in subsequent years (Brahms, Dvorak, Rimsky-Korsakov) has shown that Schumann was not a misunderstood pioneer. His music is simply very difficult to get to sound in a live performance context.

    Back to my original point, on a melodic-harmonic-structural-emotional level, I very much like Schumann's music. But the work needed to get it to sound in a typical week of 3 rehearsals and a concert is almost impossible to achieve, and this with very good orchestras that I've heard live. This simply can't be compared to recordings, where you have endless chances to get it right, and that's before the sound engineers get their hands on it!

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    Kirkikohtaus


    I would guess that the issue you have raised is one which most people on this board probably have very little knowledge about, or indeed have much interest in, as I cannot think there are many other conductors here. I only commented on your post because it referred to Schumann, and, as I believe you are aware, I consider he is one of the finest Romantic composers. I love all his symphonists, which (as a whole) I consider better than several other composers' I can think of.

    In your first post, it did sound as though you were being unduly critical of Schumann as a composer. I saw no offsetting positive comment in your post, just negative comment about his alleged poor orchestration abilities. As you know, Schumann is generally highly regarded, and in some European countries extremely highly regarded. As you now say, the result on recorded material is normally good to listen to.

    I should think that 99 % of all classical music that is ever heard is on recorded format anyway. As far as I am concerned, as long as the recorded sound is OK that is all I am really bothered about. I have just listened to the Rhenish symphony again and I must say that to me it does not too difficult to get the balance right for the Scherzo movement, even if the score itself is not perfect. As you may know, Schumann did not spend umpteen years (like Brahms) composing these works. His output in his short life was considerable and mostly of high quality. Perhaps I am being naive in suggesting that for an orchestra not used to this work a run through a decent CD recording may be fruitful to get it on the right tracks. It was, after all, only a 6-7 minute piece of Schumann that you selected. Not long is it?

    I did not rely solely on CD recorded material on which to base my comments. I anticipated your response on that point, which explains why I inserted the two quotes which attempted to deal specifically with your assertions about the balance problems you experienced. I cannot pursue that narrow aspect any further because I am not a conductor or musician. However, I suspect that there are detailed counter-arguments to the further points you make, or at least a different opinion painting a less negative picture. But I can't be bothered to pursue it any further, as it’ s all too academic for my limited interests in music purely as a listener.

    Lastly, I read somewhere that Schumann, in addition to being greatly impressed by Beethoven, also studied the symphonies of Haydn with regard to the latter's economy of material and monothematic treatments. As a result, it has been suggested that in all of his symphonies Schumann deliberately attempted to see how much he could do with as little as possible. In this respect, he was rather contrary to the stereotype image of the super lush Romantic. I wonder whether this factor might provide a possible further explanation for the problems you have commented on.



    Topaz
    Last edited by Topaz; Nov-19-2006 at 21:01.

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    Senior Member Kurkikohtaus's Avatar
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    Hey, Topaz, thanks for the further feedback.

    Instead of arguing further, let's agree on the basic things.

    Schumann was a great composer.

    His piano music and his songs are first class and unmatched in their own way.

    His symphonic music is original, imaginative and worth the effort it takes to play it well.

    The problem is that many orchestras simply do not take the time or have the discipline to play this very specific music very well. Schumann orchestral music is "its own category" and must be approached as such... when an orchestra approaches and treats it as "something between Beethoven and Brahms", it unfortunately doesn't work.

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    K...

    Agreed absolutely.

    It's been an interesting discussion to brighten up my day.



    Topaz

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    I agree with Topaz on this one. Schumann is not superficial. He moves us greatly if only we take the time to listen carefully. I think that in many respects he can be compared to a dark jewel.

    There are astonishing passages in virtually everything he wrote for orchestra. In the symphonies, for sure. Even in the piano concerto, some wonderful things. His use of woodwinds is wonderful. And in the far too neglected Violin Concerto there are some truly magnificent passages.

    I love this composer. Hugely neglected and wonderfully talented.

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    Senior Member Kurkikohtaus's Avatar
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    Ahh... the piano concerto. Here I think Schumann is at his best as a composer of orchestral music.

    I would like to point out one interesting thing about this piece that many people do not know, if they have not been initiated into the world of orchestral performance (from the players' point of view that is...)

    This piece, the 3rd mvmt specifically, is very scary of soloist, conductor and orchestra alike. There is a long standing and ever growing account of performances of the Piano Concerto's Finale that have either gone terribly wrong or fallen apart completely, necessitating a stop-and-restart. As a young orchestral player I actually played in a performance with one of the best Canadian concert pianists of his time, where we did indeed have to stop, about 3-4 minutes into the Finale and restart it.

    The reason this happens often is that Schumann uses a rhythmic technique called Hemiola in this movement. I will not bore you all with an explanation of what this is, but I will say that most composers, when utilizing a Hemiola do so for exactly 2 bars, usually at the end of a phrase. Well, Schumann uses this device for entire passages, dozens and dozens of bars, both in the solo part and in the orchestral accompaniment. What this can lead to is that both orchestra and solo lose sense of where "Beat 1" is, which leads to the countless train wrecks that have occured in the history of this piece.

    Amusingly, there is even a movie about it, it is called Madame Sousatzka's Piano (click the link), starring Shirley McLain as a piano teacher who does not want her gifted young student to perform in public until he is truly ready. Being a brash and impatient young man, the student goes to a different teacher, who arranges a performance of Schumann's Piano Concerto for him, and guess what happens?

    It falls apart in the 3rd mvmt.

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    Further to Robert Newman's post above, many people who take the time to explore Robert Schumann's works come to the same conclusion that he is a much under-rated composer.

    I would say that novices might find his style perhaps a bit "heavy", and even those with rather more experience might find it not quite right for them yet. But I'm pretty sure that with a bit of perseverence many will find that Schumann is one of the very best, certainly among Romantic composers.

    For the first 10 years of his composing life (roughly 1830-40) Schumann wrote exclusively for solo piano, and in my view nothing has topped it except the works of Beethoven and Chopin. Much of Schumann's output is so-called "miniatures", i.e. short pieces similar in design to a lot of Chopin, who was a very close contemporary. But each of these last two composers wrote in different styles. Both are extremely good and they complement each other. Chopin is the easier style for beginners with classical music, and Schumann is more of an acquired taste.

    In my view, Schumann's solo piano achievements alone are so good, on their own, as to place him in the top 10 tier of composers. But, unlike Chopin, this was only a part of his total output. Schumann was prolific in several other areas. I like every one of his four symphonies, all of his marvellous song cycles, his cello concerto, brilliant piano concerto, highly inovative piano quintet, string quartets, several overtures, and the wonderful Oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri. Robert Newman mentioned the violin concerto. I agree it is a treasure. The version I have is Gidon Kremer, with Ricardo Muti conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. This was a very late work (possibly his last), published posthumously. The second movement is to die for.

    There is much depth to Schumann’s work, and yet it all manages to remain pretty accessible without getting over-involved or too personal and introspective. To say that he managed all this variety and high quality in his relatively short life, while coping with serious bouts of mental depression, is incredible. He was a brilliant writer too, as the editor of a famous German musical journal which he founded to promote the regeneration of interest in good music after its partial decline in the years after the deaths of Beethoven and Schubert in 1827/28 respectively. In addition, of course, he was married to one of the most charming, and gifted of all 19th C musical stars, the pianist Clara Schumann who outlived him by some 40 years, and who tirelessly championed his piano works all over Europe in numerous concerts.

    Anyone out there who has not yet made the effort to get to know Schumann should do so in my view. The effort will be repaid. Start with his piano concerto and then the symphonies. After that try a selection of his superb solo piano pieces, making sure you get Op 9 (Carnaval), Op 11 (Piano Sonata 1), Op 15 (Kinderszenen), Op 17 (Fantasie), Op 18 (Arabesque), Op 19 (Blumenstucke). There are many good orchestral pieces such as Op 70 (Adagio & Allegro), Op 92 (Konzertstuke). His song cycle Op 48 (Dichterliebe) is a must. I have just been listening to the latter, which gave me the inspiration to write this little eulogy.


    Topaz
    Last edited by Topaz; Dec-05-2006 at 22:37.

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    Senior Member Kurkikohtaus's Avatar
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    The pieces that Topaz lists are truly the ones that best represent Schumann's life's work. However, I disagree with the idea that one should begin with the concerto and the symphonies. If you have Beethoven and Brahms in your ear, you will listen to Schumann's pieces with that prejudice in mind. You will immediately form comparisons to Beethoven and Brahms and perhaps miss the uniqueness of what makes Schumann special.

    I suggest to start with the song cycle Dichterliebe and the piano pieces Carnaval and Kinderszenen. Through these works you will discover the essence of Schumann as an artist. One can then listen to the Symphonies and Concertos with that essence in mind and avoid the prejudicial comparison to Beethoven and Brahms.

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    Senior Member Vesteralen's Avatar
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    Wow!

    I had to resurrect this thread too, if only because it was so fascinating.

    The fact that none of these posters is still around is sort of bittersweet. Bitter because they were really entertaining to read, sweet because I would have ben absolutely intimidated to take part in this discussion!

    But, good stuff for Schumann-lovers like me.

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    Schumann has a problem? That's a new one on me.

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    By the time Schumann started to write his symphonies and other orchestral works, the valved horn had already been invented and was starting to be used, even though it was not quite a perfected instrument.
    In 1846, Schumann wrote his wonderful but terrifyingly difficult Konzertstuck for four horns and orchestra as a showpiece for valved horns. Some advocates of period instruments have declared that they would like to hear an "authentic" performance of this piece on natural horns, but they fail to realize that it is absolutely unplayable without valves !
    The greatest performance of this horrendously difficult piece is on EMI with Klaus Tennstedt, the Berlin Philharmonic and its horn section.It's just been reissued on a 14 CD EMI set of Tennstedt recordings. It's almost worth getting for this alone !
    Certain conductors of period orchestras,such as Gardiner, Norrignton, and others say that the balance problems in Schumann's orchestral work are much easier to handle with period instruments. Maybe, but I'm not sure.
    Gardiner's set of the four Schumann symphonies . with his period Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantiqueplus the Konzertstuck etc is pretty good , though not superior to the ones by the likes of Bernstein,Karajan,Kubelik,
    Barenboim, and other eminent conductors of Schumann's music.

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    Senior Member kv466's Avatar
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    I like the Rene Leibowitz


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    Senior Member Vesteralen's Avatar
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    Thanks, kv, you reminded me to check to see if this is available on disc now. It is, and I ordered it.

    Best Rhenish I ever heard, if a twenty-five year old memory can be relied upon.

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