Heinrich Heine and Robert Schumann are each like a giant mountain. To climb either one, to survey and to know the whole output of either man is to stumble up a dream-slope matted with blood and struggle — impossibility! Yet somehow, when placed simultaneously, in opposition, the mountains become easier to climb. Heine’s poetry amply illuminates itself, but it also sheds beam after beam of spinning light on Schumann’s music. And grasping Schumann’s sense of irony, and his legendary (that is to say, concerned with legend) thinking as informed by Heine, brings more music into the reading of the verse.
Tinnictus? Mental illness? The role of the ewige Weibliche for writers of lieder? Topics for another day. Yet —
When encountering such a work as Fünf Stucke im Volkston (“Five Pieces in Folk Style,” penned in the tumult of revolutionary Dresden in the cannon-hot summer of 1849), pictured here, one can get completely tangled up in the execution:
One has to prepare the deep physical structures for a good decade and take a few months to grasp intellectually the architecture of the piece, the purity of the intonation of the intervals, the rhythmic proportions of the notes. The breath must be prepared, the carriage supple, the deltoid poised but untethered, the knuckles of the left hand coiled, the forearm bent with the tensile strength of a young sapling, eager to inflict a certain damage upon any demand from the page. The eyes read ahead, the fingerpads thrum at the angle proscribed by teachers in East Coast cities who synthesized all the yoga of the 1960s with the Swiss gestalt theories of the 1920s with the Zen-thwacks of wisdom of their own prescient Hungarian cello masters. There are structures here! One must always be aware of structure!
And one must practice scales in thirds.
But having done that, having turned the mind’s ear completely in on oneself, having scrutinized the structures through recorded-oracle and mirror-ocular, the performer/interpreter then has to forget himself completely. One has to slide into that dark pond of mythos, cradling the sword.
Nobility, noble love, slumber, irony, heightening things are all here arrayed. Self-aware gnashing of teeth? Intrusion of the inner pedagogue? Mindfulness of “intonation” or bow angle? Such only pulls us — and the listener — away from the myth, the legend, the long arc of mental transport that was originally bestowed by carvers and singers and poets upon the musician, and through the poet/musician (Schumann! Heine!!! le luminiere!) to us.
One has to prepare the aperture meticulously, employ the precision of an architect, but, ultimately, one has to slide through it, and down into that dark matter called romanticism. Release oneself from all the angles. For the moment, leave behind your faith in ever returning to that rational world.