Radu Lupu Opens the Schumannfest

Robert Schumann and his wife, Clara, lived in Duesseldorf from 1849 until Robert was sent to an insane asylum near Bonn in 1854. To celebrate its most famous resident (with the arguable exception of Josef Beuys (G)), Duesseldorf has named a music school, a concert hall, and streets after one or both of the Schumann’s. They’ve also recently begun staging a Schumannfest (G), a two-week long celebration of Robert Schumann’s life and work.  Yesterday I saw one of the earliest events of this year’s fest, a piano recital by the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu, whose Edison-Award-winning 1996 Schumann recital disc is a treasured part of my music collection. 

The 61-year-old Lupu has gotten rounder and more hirsute as the years have progressed, and now looks a bit like Johannes Brahms, which is perhaps not unintentional.  He played an all-Schumann program — the Forest Scenes, Humoreske, and the Sonata No. 1.  And he was glorious — fierce and almost-unhinged, then suddenly reflective and profound.  That’s Schumann for you, especially in the Sonata.  Lupu’s glorious performance earned him several curtain calls and two encores from the demanding German audience.

Duesseldorf’s lucky to have a link to the Schumanns, since they are among the most thrilling personalities to have emerged from German Romanticism, which wasn’t stingy in the production of human brilliance and refinement. Schumann pledged his love to his lovely inamorata, the young piano virtuoso Clara Wieck, by sending her compositions inspired by his love.

They were his way of winning her from the influence of her tyrannical father, who strove to keep her away from the eccentric, penniless composer at all costs.  Schumann wrote one of his former teachers in 1840, shortly before his hard-fought wedding to Clara: "Certainly there’s something in my music that reflects the enormous struggles she cost me.  The concerto, the sonata, the Davidsbundlertaenze and the Novelettes — she was the occasion for nearly all of them."  With the marriage, two of the greatest musical minds of the 19th century were united.  Clara herself, in addition to being a virtuoso of the first rank, was a gifted composer.

There was no happy ending. Robert’s emotional instability was accentuated by their move to Duesseldorf in 1849. Although they were received with warmth and enthusiasm by the local artistic community, Robert’s mental condition steadily deteriorated. The young family moved from apartment to apartment, desperately trying to escape the street noise that destroyed Robert’s calm and fueled his auditory hallucinations. He could not stop the chords and melodies constantly ringing in his head, and could not even slow them down enough to write down the strokes of genius amid the psychotic noise.  Once, during a lucid moment, he begged Clara to leave him, because he feared he might injure her.

On February 27, 1854 — the day of the Rose Monday parade which crowns carnival celebrations in the Rheinland, Robert wandered out of their apartment in the Bilker Strasse (just a few blocks from where I live) dressed only in his morning coat. The costumed crowds thought he was just another one of them. He walked to the nearest bridge and threw himself into the icy Rhine. He was rescued by a passing ship, recognized by some of the carnival-goers, and brought back to his apartment. He would never regain his sanity. He was sent to a mental hospital near Bonn, where he finally wasted away in 1856. 

Clara outlived him by 40 years, and honored her former husband by playing his piano music in recitals all over the world.

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