Robert and Clara Schumann: Florestan's Story
IN every person’s memory there are niches fixed, and in those niches are sacred persons. These are such as never obtruded themselves upon you, staining the pane through which their light shone with their own images, but who became perfectly transparent to the word they uttered, the song they sang, or the work they did. Such a sacred person to me is the gifted woman who first interpreted for me Schumann's Albums. Many years ago it was, as she told me, that she one day stood unperceived in the halfopen door of her master, near the lessonhour, and heard him softly rendering a theme which stole far into places of her heart which had been awaiting its spell unconsciously. Presently he felt that there was a listener, and, hastily brushing away a tear, he placed the music in a far corner of the room, away from his répertoire. She confessed, that, afterward, when he was not present, she had looked on that which he evidently desired to conceal; she saw written, in pencil, upon it, “ Sternenkranz.” Thenceforth shops and catalogues were ransacked, but no “ Sternenkranz ” was found, — the word was evidently her master’s own fancy; so she summoned all her heroism, one day, when HERR Otto complained of her indifference to the pieces he set before her, and informed him that she should perish at his feet, unless he would give her “ Sternenkranz.” Of course her guilt was manifest, and Herr Otto, in a spasm of anger at “ prying women,” as he called them, brought out the treasure, and with it others of a very rare album of Schumann’s, to which he had given no names, leaving them to whisper their own names to each soul that could receive them: Star-Wreath it might be to one, Bower of Lilies to another. It was the same as with that white stone which the Seer of Patmos saw, — within it “a name written which no man knoweth, saving he that receiveth it.”
This piece was to the lady a touch of consecration. Thenceforth she was known among us as “ the Schumannite woman.” I verily believe that to-day, next to the divine Clara herself, she is the best interpreter of Robert Schumann’s works living; and if the love she has obtained for him is not as universal, it is just as fervent. Many silent and holy hours have I sat communing, through her, with him whom the Germans love to call their Tone-Poet; and the music remained to clothe with the full vesture of romance the meagre paragraphs of the journals which hinted his love, his sorrow, and at length his insanity and death. More, however, I longed to know of him, —of the wedlock of these Brownings of music ; and more I came to know, in the way which, with this preface, I now proceed to relate.
A bitter December evening found me tumbling through snow and ice to accommodate a certain lyceum in one of our Northwestern cities. Cold winds from over the Lakes made me wish that the Modern Athens had kept its lecturesystem at home ; for it has always seemed to me, that, wherever this has gone, her eastern storms have gone with it. Such ugly thoughts were shamed, however, by the beaming welcome which shone from the face of the kindest of landladies, and at length completely thawed out of me by the glowing fire to which she introduced me, and which animated the coziest of rooms. Why has not some poet celebrated the experience of thawing ? How deliciously each fibre of the thawee responds to the informing ray, evolving its own sweet sensation of release until all unite in a soft choral reverie ! Carried thus, in a few moments, from the Arctic to the Tropic, I thought, as dear Heine says, my “sweet nothing-at-all thoughts,” until a subtile breath of music won me back to life.
Heavens! what is that? A strain, strong and tender, pressed its way into the room, soothed my temples, then broke over me in a shower of pearls. Confused, I started up ; and it was some moments before I understood that the music proceeded from the room adjoining mine in the hotel. Not altogether unfamiliar was the theme; the priestess of whom I have spoken had once brought it from the Holy of Holies, when she was appointed to stand ; and now, remembering, I broke out with the word, “ Florestan ! ”
As I uttered it, the music ceased with the dreary fall of an octave. Whether the musician had heard the exclamation, or whether such a terrible termination was in the music, I knew not: the latter was quite probable, for, alas! such fearful Icarus-falls are not rare in poor Schumann’s music. However, I did not consider long, but, rising quickly, passed into the hall, and knocked gently at the door of the next room.
“ Enter,” replied a voice, eagerly, but softly.
Enter I did, and stood before a man of about forty winters. His face was so swart that I could see only the German in the blue eye, and at once imagined that a stream of Plutonic fire had streamed into his veins from some more Oriental race. I stammered out an apology for my intrusion, but told him how irresistible were such subtile threads as Schumann’s “ Carnival ” had projected through the walls which separated our rooms.
“Florestan,” I said, “was too much for me.”
Then his eye lighted up as might that of some Arctic voyager, which, having for bleak months rested only on the glittering scales of the ice-dragon coiled about him, is suddenly filled with the warm spread of the Polar Sea. Taking my hand, he said, —
“ In me, wanderer that I am, — in me, with the Heimweh in my heart never to be stilled but in that home where Schumann has already gone, — you see Florestan.”
“ Louis Boehner !”
Filled with wonder, and scarcely knowing what I did, I took a little piece of paper which he unwrapped from many folds and placed in my hand. On it these words were written: —
“ Peace and joy attend thee, Louis Boehner! and mayst. thou never want for such a friend as thou hast been to
“ ROBERT SCHUMANN.”
I could say no word ; never have I felt a profounder emotion than when, at this moment, I drew so near one whose brow Art had crowned with a living halo.
Students of German music and composers will need no word to bring before them the fulness of this incident. But to others I may briefly mention some facts connected with Schumann’s “ Carnival, or Scènes Mignonnes, on Four Notes.” Not by any means representing the pure depths of Schumann’s soul, this strange medley is yet pregnant with historic associations. The composer wrote it in his young days, stringing twenty-two little pieces on four letters composing the name of Asch, a town of Saxony, “whither,” according to Sobolewski, “ Schumann’s thoughts frequently strayed, because at that time there was an object there interesting to his sensitive soul,” In the letters A, S, C, H, it must be remembered that the H in German stands for our B natural, and S or es for E flat. The Leipsic “ Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik ” was begun and for ten years edited by Schumann, — in what spirit we may gather from his own words: — “ The musical state of Germany, at that time, was not very encouraging. On the stage Rossini yet reigned, and on the piano Herz and Hünten excluded all others. And yet how few years had passed since Beethoven, Weber, and Schubert lived among us! True, Mendelssohn’s star was ascending, and there were wonderful whispers of a certain Pole, Chopin ; but it was later that these gained their lasting influence. One day the idea took possession of our young and hot heads,— Let us not idly look on ; take hold, and reform it; take hold, and the Poetry of Art shall be again enthroned ! ” Then gathered together a Protestant-league of music, whose Luther and Melancthon in one was Schumann. The Devil at which they threw their inkstands and semibreves was the Philistines, which is the general term amongst German students, artists, poets, etc., for prosaic, narrow, hard, ungenial, commonplace respectabilities. “Young Germany” was making itself felt in all coordinate directions: forming new schools of plastic Art in Munich and Dresden,—a sharp and spirited Bohemian literature at Frankfort, under the lead of Heine and Boerne; and now, music being the last to yield in Germany, because most revered, as it is with religion in other countries, a new vitality brought together in Kühne’s cellar in Leipsic the revolutionists, “ who talked of Callot, Hoffmann, and Jean Paul, of Beethoven and Franz Schubert, and of the three foreign Romanticists beyond the Rhine, the friends of the new phenomenon in French poetry, Victor Hugo.” This was the Davidsbund, or League of David (the last of the “ Scènes Mignonnes ” is named “ Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistines”). An agreeable writer in the “ Weimarer Sonntagsblatt ” has given us a fine sketch of this company, which we will quote.
“ The head of the table was occupied by a lively, flexible man of middle age, intellectual in conversation, and overflowing with sharp and witty remarks. He was the instructor of more than one of the young musicians around him, who all listened to his observations with profound attention. He was very fond of monopolizing the conversation and suffering himself to be admired. For he called many a young, highly promising musician his pupil, and had, besides,the certain consciousness of having moulded his daughter Clara, at that time a girl of fourteen, into a prodigy, whose first appearance delighted the whole world, and whose subsequent artist-activity became the pride of her native city, Leipsic. By his side sat a quiet, thoughtful young man of twenty-three, with melancholy eyes. But lately a student in Heidelberg, he had now devoted himself entirely to music, had removed to Leipsic and was now a pupil of the ‘ old schoolmaster,’ as the father of Clara Wieck liked to be called. Young Robert Schumann had good reason to be melancholy. After long struggles, he had only been able to devote himself entirely to music comparatively late in life, and had been obliged to pass a part of his precious youth in studies which were as uncongenial as possible to his artist-spirit. He had finally decided for the career of a virtuoso, and was pursuing the study of the piano with an almost morbid zeal, when the disabling of one of his fingers, a consequence of his overexertions, obliged him to give up this career forever. He did not yet suspect that this accident would prove fortunate for him in the end, by directing him to his true vocation, composition. Perhaps, too, it was the first germ of love, in the garb of admiration for the wondrous talent of Clara, which made young Robert so quiet and dreamy. His companions were all the more lively. There sat the eccentric Louis Boehner,1 who long ago had served as the model for E. T. A. Hoffmann’s fantastic pictures. Here J. P. Lyser, a painter by profession, but a poet as well, and a musician besides. Here Carl Bauck, the indefatigable, yet unsuccessful composer of songs,—now, in his capacity of critic, the paper bugbear of the Dresden artists. He had just returned from Italy, and believed himself in possession of the true secret of the art of singing, the monopoly of which every singing-master is wont to claim for himself. C. F. Becker, too, the eminent organist and industrious collector, belonged to this circle, as well as many more young and old artists of more or less merit and talent.” 2
Florestan then stood before me ; and with him, although invisible, stood that sacred circle, which had unconsciously borne within it the germs of so many future sorrows and glories.
“With him,” said Louis Boehner, “I began life, when we were boys together at Heidelberg ; with him I stood when the dawn of a better day, which since has blessed hill and vale, was glowing for his eye alone ; this breast held his sorrows and his hopes, when he was struggling to reach his Clara ; these hands saved him when in his madness he cast himself into the Rhine ; these eyes dropped their hot tears on his eyelids when they were closed in death.”
Overcome by his emotion, he sat down and sobbed aloud.
At that moment, hearing my name called loudly in the hall, I went out, and was informed that my audience was waiting at the Lyceum, and had been waiting nearly fifteen minutes!
NEXT morning, bright and early, I was in the artist-pilgrim’s room, listening to that which it thrilled him to tell and me to hear. And first he told me the story of Schumann’s love.
The “old schoolmaster,” Wieck, trained his daughter more ambitiously than judiciously ; and, indeed, none but one of the elect would ever have survived the tasks imposed on her childhood. Indeed, she had no childhood: at the piano she was kept through all the bright days, roving only from scale to scale, when She should have been roving from flower to flower. At length her genius asserted itself, and she entered into her destiny; thenceforth flowers bloomed for her out of exercise-books, and she could touch the notes which were sun-bursts, and those which were mosses beneath them. From this training she came before the best audience in Germany, and stood a sad-eyed, beautiful child of fourteen summers, and by acclamation was crowned the Queen of the Piano. Franz Liszt remembered his enthusiasm of that period, and many years afterward wrote in his extravagant way,—“ When we heard Clara Wieck in Vienna, fifteen years ago, she drew her hearers after her into her poetic world, to which she floated upward in a magical car drawn by electric sparks and lifted by delicately prismatic, but nervously throbbing winglets.” At her performance of Beethoven’s F Minor Sonata, Grillparzer was inspired to write the following verses : —
In sullen humor locked his charms all up
Within a diamond casket, firmly clasped,
And threw the key into the sea, and died.
The manikins here tried with all their might;
In vain! no tool can pick the flinty lock;
His magic arts still slumber, like their master.
A shepherd’s child, along the sea-shore playing,
Watches the waves, in hurrying, idle chase.
Dreaming and thoughtless, us young maidens are,
She dippeth her white fingers in the flood,
And grasps, and lifts, and holds it! ’T is the key.
Up springs she, up, her heart still beating higher.
The casket glances, as with eyes, before her.
The key fits well, up flies the lid. The spirits
All mount aloft, then bow themselves submissive
To this their gracious, innocent, sweet mistress,
Who with white fingers guides them in her play.”
The first, perhaps, to recognize the surpassing ability of that child was the young editor of the “ Zeitschrift,” Robert Schumann. On her first appearance, he wrote,— “Others make poetry,— she is a poem.” And soon afterward,— “ She early lifted the veil of Isis. The child looks calmly up, — the man would, perhaps, be dazzled by the brilliancy.”
From this moment there was an elasticity and purpose about the young composer, the secret of which no one knew, not even himself. Like one caught in the whorls of some happy dream, who will not pause to ask, “ Whither ? ” he poured out before this child the halfrevealed hopes striving within him ; an equal spell was woven about her ingenuous and earnest heart, and their souls were joined in that purple morning ; in due time they were to be rather clenched, through pain. It was under this baptismal touch of Love that Schumann wrote his first sonata,—“ Florestan and Eusebius.” It gained him at once a fame with all from whom fame was graceful.
In the light of this period of his life must be interpreted those wonderful little “ pieces ” which mystify whilst they fascinate ; without it their meaning is as strange as their names. Often did he say, — “I can write only where my life is in unison with my works.” “ Listen now to these,” said Florestan, as he opened an album and struck the piano ; “these are the voices of a new life.” The “ Alternatives,” with song, “ My peace is o’er”; “Evening Thoughts”; “ Impromptus,” (whose first theme was written by Clara): these seemed like the emotion of some newly winged aspirant released from its chrysalis, resting on its first flower. But faster than planets through the abysses Love moves on. Florestan ceased, and there was a long silence; and then he told the unspeakable portion of his story by performing these two : “ Sternenkranz,” “ Warum.” Who has ever scaled the rapture of the former; or fathomed the pathos of the latter ? Every summit implies its precipice ; and the star-wreath that crowned Love was snatched at by the Fate which soon burdened two hearts with the terrible questioning, Wherefore ?
Thus: before these two were fully conscious of the love they bore each other, the shrewd eye of old Wieck had caught a glimpse of what was coming to pass. He had educated this girl to be an artist to bring him fame; alas, it must be confessed that he thought also of certain prospective thalers. Willing as he was that all Leipsic should admire his daughter, he did not like the enthusiasm of the “ Zeitschrift.” He then began to warn Clara against “ this Faust in modern garb, who, when he had gained one finger, would soon have the whole hand, and finally the poor soul into the bargain ! ” Stupid old schoolmaster, thou shouldst have known that it is Mephistopheles, and not Faust, that women hate!
The old man, finding that his warnings were of no avail, forbade all acquaintance, forbade Robert’s visits to his house. Then, inaugurating at once Clara’s career as a virtuoso, he took her to Vienna.
No wonder, that, when she appeared there, it was to be as the priestess of Beethoven. It takes something besides an academy to train artists up to Beethoven. Robert was forbidden to write to her; but the “ Sehwärmbriefe of Eusebius to Chiara,” utterly unintelligible to the general reader of the “ Zeitschrift,” who, doubtless, fancied that its editor had gone mad, were quite clear to a certain little lady in Vienna, who consequently pined less than her father had anticipated.
“ Amid all our musical soul-feasts,” he writes, ‘‘ there always peeps out an angel-face, which more than resembles a certain Clara. Why art thou not with ns? (Warum!)And how thou wilt have thought of us last night, from the ‘ Meeresstille’ to the flaming close of the A major symphony ! I also thought of thee then, Chiara, pure one, bright one, whose hands are stretched towards Italy, whither thy longing draws thee, but thy dreamy eye still turned to us.”
At length a sun-burst. In 1840 appeared the first number of Schumann’s “ Myrthen,” whose dedication, Seiner geliebten Braut, breaks forth in the passionate and beautiful song, — “ Thou my soul, O thou my heart! ”
But this word Braut means Bride in the German sense of “ affianced ”; and although the joy of this relation passed over Schumann like the breath of a Tropic, bringing forth, amongst other gorgeous fruits, his glorious First Symphony, which some one has well called the Symphony of Bliss, yet, ere this bliss was more than an elusive vision, the two passed through fierce wildernesses, and drank together of bitter Marahs. “ But of all this,” said Florestan, “ you will know, if you have the right to know, from these,” —his “ Voice from afar,” and his ‘‘Night-Pieces.”
Neither of us dared break the silence claimed by these exquisite pieees when they ceased; we shook hands and parted without a word.
BUT another mystery about the loved and lost master, which I longed to have revealed, would not let me leave the city. In the afternoon I sought Boehner, and asked him to walk with me. As soon as we had alluded to the one subject that bound us together, I requested him to tell me, what had not yet been given to the world, the details of Schumann’s insanity and death.
Then, as one who takes up a heavy burden to bear it, he proceeded : —
“ The heart of Robert Schumann was a lyre so delicate, and with strings so sensitive, that the effect of his pains and his joys, both always in extremes, was as if you gave an Æolian harp to be swept now by a cold north-wind and now by a hot sirocco. His spirit wore on to the confines of his flesh, and was not warmly covered thereby, but only veiled. Under his grief he seemed stronger; but when his joy came, when Clara was his own, and went through Europe with him, giving expression to the voices within, which, to him, had been unutterable, — then we saw that the emotions which would have been safe, had they been suffered to well up gently from the first, could come forth now only as a fierce and perhaps devastating torrent.
“ Schumann saddened his intimate friends by times of insanity, five or six years before the world at large knew anything of it. At such times he imagined himself again cruelly separated from the patient and tender being who never left his side ; and he would write pieces full of distractions, in the midst of each of which, however, some touchingly beautiful theme would float up, like a fair island through seething seas. Then there were longer intervals, of seven and eight months, in which he was perfectly sane ; at which times he would write with a wearing persistence which none could restrain: he would put our advice aside gently, saying, — ‘ A long life is before me ; but it must be lived in a few years.’ And, indeed, the works which have reached farthest into hearts that loved him most deeply date from these times. I remember, that, when he sat down to compose his last symphony, he said, — ‘ It is almost accomplished; but the invisible mansion needs another chamber.’
“ Once when I was at Frankfort, Clara Schumann sent me this word : ‘ Hasten.’ I left all my affairs, and came to watch for many months beside this beloved one. It was not a wild delirium which had taken possession of him ; the only fit of that kind was that in which he tried to drown himself in the Rhine, — at the time when the papers got hold of the terrible secret. His insanity was manifested in his conviction that he was occupied by the souls of Beethoven and Schubert. Much in the manner of your American mediums, he would be seized by a controlling power,—would snatch a pencil, and dash out upon paper the wildest discords. These we would play for him, at his request, from morning till night,—during much of which time he would seem to be in a happy trance. Of this music no chord or melody was true; they were jangling memories of his earlier works.
“ One day he called his wife and myself, and took our hands in his own :_ ‘ Beethoven says that my earthly music is over; it cannot be understood here; he writes for angels, and I shall write for them.’ Then, turning to me, he said, —‘ Louis, my friend, farewell! This is my last prayer for you,’ — handing me the paper which I have shown you ; ‘ and now leave us, to come again and kiss me when I am cold.’
“ Then I left him alone with his Clara.
“ A month from that time, Schumann was no more.”
Out under the glowing sunset, I clasped hands parting with Louis Boehner, and said, as my voice would let me. — “ Take this paper, and when you would have a friend, such as you have been to Robert Schumann, come and help me to be that friend.”