You are on page 1of 6

-r ~

Loving Schumann

There is a kind of French prejudice, writes Marcel Beaufils

in his stud y of Schumann's piano music, against Schumann: he
is readily seen as a kind of "th icker Faure. " I do not suppose
we need attribute th is lukewarm estimation to some opposition
between "French clarity" and "German sentimentality"; to
judge by current discograph y and radio programs , the French
these days delight in the affecting mu sicians of "heavy" roman-
ticism, Mahler and Bruckner. No , the reason for this lack of
interest (or this minor interest) is historical (and not psycho-
logical) .
Schumann is very broadl y a piano composer. Now the piano ,
as a social instrument (and every musical instrument, from the
lute to the saxophone, implies an ideology) , has undergone for
a century a hi storical evolution of which Schum ann is the
victim. The human subject h as changed : interiority, intimacy,
solitu de have lost their value, the individual has become in-
creasingly gregarious, he wan ts collective, massive, often par-
oxysmal music, the expression of us rathe r th an of me ; yet
Schumann is trul y th e musician of solitary intimacy, of the
amorous and imprisoned soul that speaks to itself (whence th e

II1II£ .-
294 I 0 L D T E S

abundance of in his like that of the splendid

sixth variation of the Kreislerianav, in short of the child
no link than the Mother.

we have from a at the very most a listen-

to a public listening-each record, even when listened to at

ing a field of achievements-it is also that which

certainly existed in Schumann's since he wanted to become
a virtuoso equal to Paganini, has suffered a it no
longer has to match the worldly hysteria of concerts and salons,
it is no longer now, because of the it has be-
come a somewhat chilly prowess, a perfect achievement (with-
out flaw, without accident), in which there is nothing to :find
fault with, but which does not exalt, does not carry away: far
from the body, in a sense. Hence, for today's pianist, enormous
esteem but no fervor and, I should say, referring to the word's
etymology, no sympathy. Now Schumann's piano music, which
is difficult, does not give rise to the image of virtuosity (in effect,
virtuosity is an image, not a technique); we can play it neither
according to the old delirium nor according to the new style
(which I should readily compare to the "nouvelle cuisine"-
undercooked). This piano music is intimate (which does not
mean gentle), or again, private, even individual, refractory to
professional approach, since to play Schumann implies a tech-
nical innocence very few artists can attain.
Finally, what has changed, and fundamentally, is the piano's
use. Throughout the nineteenth century, playing the piano was
a class activity, of course, but general enough to coincide, by
and large, with listening to music. I myself began listening to
Beethoven's symphonies only by playing them four hands, with
a close friend as enthusiastic about them as I was. But nowadays
listening to music is dissociated from its practice: many virtu-
osos, listeners, en masse: but as for practitioners, amateurs-
very few. Now (here again) Schumann lets his music be fully
Loving Schumann / 295

heard only by someone who plays it, even badl y. I ha ve always

been struck by this paradox : that a certain piece of Schumann's
delighted me when I played it (approximately), and rather dis-
appointed me when I heard it on records: then it seemed
mysteriously impoverished, incomplete. This was not, I believe,
an infatuation on my part. It is because Schumann's music goes
much farther than the ear; it goes into the body, into the muscles
by the beats of its rhythm, and somehow into the viscera by the
VOluptuous pleasure of its melos: as if on each occasion the
piece was written only for one person, the one who plays it;
the true Schumannian pianist-c'est moi.
Then is this an egoistic music? Intimacy is always a little
egoistic; that is the price which must be paid if we want to
renounce the arrogances of the universal. But Schumann's music
involves something radical, which makes it into an existential,
rather than a social or moral experience. This radicality has
some relation to madness, even if Schumann's music is con-
tinuously "well-behaved" insofar as it submits to the code of
tonality and to the formal regularit y of melismata. Madness
here is incipient in the vision, the economy of the world with
which the subject, Schumann, entertains a relation which grad-
ually destro ys him , while th e music itself seeks to construct
itself. Marcel Beaufils puts all this very 'well : he clarifies and
names those points where life and music change places, the
one being destro yed, the other constructed.
This is th e first point : for Schum ann the world is not unrea l,
reality is not null and void. His music, by its titles , sometimes
by certain discreet effects of description, continuously refers to
concrete things : seasons, times of th e day, landscapes, festivals,
professions. But this realit y is threatened with disarticulation,
dissociati on, with moveme nts not violent (nothing ha rsh) but
brief and , one might say, ceaselessly "mutant": noth ing lasts
long, each movement interrupts the next : this is the realm of
the intermezzo, a rather dizzying notion whe n it extends to all
of music, and when the matrix is experienced only as an ex-
296 / R 0 L AN D BA R T HE S

hausting (if graceful) sequence of interstices. Marcel Beaufils

is right to set at the source of all Schumann's piano music the
literary theme of th e Carnival; for the Carnival is trul y the
theater of thi s decentering of th e sub ject (a very modern temp-
tation ) which Schumann expresses in his fashion by the carousel
of his brief forms (from this point of view, the Album for the
Y oung, if played in sequence, is no t so well-behaved as it
appears) .
In this fragment ed world, disto rted by whirling appearances
(the whole world is a Carnival ), a pure and somehow terribly
mo tion less element occasionally breaks through : pain. "If you
asked me th e name of my pain , I could not tell you. I think it
is pain itself, and I could not designat e it better." This pure
pain without object, this essence of pain, is certainly a mad -
man's pain; we believe th at only the mad (insofar as we can
name madn ess and demarcate ourselves from it ) quite simpl y
suffer. Schumann experienced this absolute pain of the madman
premonitorily on th e night of Octob er 17, 1833, when he was
seized by the most dreadful fear : that, precisely, of losing his
reason. Such pain cannot be expressed mu sically; music can
only express the pathos of pain (its social image), not its being ;
but music can fleetingl y express, if not pain , at least purity-
the unprecedented quality of purity: to offer th e listen er a pure
sound is an entire musical action by which modern music has
often profited (from W agner to Cage ) . Schumann , of course,
had not conducted such experiments; and yet : M arcel Beaufils
very rightl y points out the enigmatic B natural which open s the
song Mondnacht and which vibrates in us so "supernaturally."
It is in this perspective, it seems to me, that we must listen, in
Schumann's music, to the positions of tonality. Schumannian
tonality is simple , robust; it does not ha ve the marvelous sophis-
tication of Chopin's (notably in the M azurkas). But precisely:
its simplicity is an insistence : for man y Schumannian pieces,
th e tonal range has the value of a single sound which keeps
vibrating until it maddens us; the tonic is not endowed with a
Loving Schumann / 297

"cosmic widening" (like the first E flat of Rheingold) , but

rather with a massiveness which insists, imposing its solitude to
the point of obsession.
The third point where Schumann's music encounters his
madness is rhythm. Marcel Beaufils analyzes this very well; he
shows its importance, its originality, and finally its dissolution
(for example, through the generalization of syncopations).
Rhythm, in Schumann, is a violence (Beaufils shows how it does
violence to the theme, rendering it "barbarous," which Chopin
did not like at all); but (as with pain) this violence is pure, it is
not "tactical." Schumannian rhythm (listen carefully to the
basses) imposes itself like a texture of beats; this texture can be
delicate (Beaufils shows that the lovely though little-known
Intermezzi are differentiated and extended studies of pure
rhythm), yet it has something atypical about it (as is proved
by the fact that we never consider Schumann a composer of
rhythm: he is imprisoned in melody). To put it differently:
rhythm, in Schumann, singularly enough, is not in the service
of a dual, oppositional organization of the world.
Here we touch on Schumann's singularity, I believe: that
point of fusion at which his fate (madness), his thought, and
his music converge. This point Beaufils has seen: "His universe
is without struggle," he says. This is, at first glance, a very
paradoxical diagnosis for a musician who so often suffered, and
so cruelly, from opposition to his projects (marriage, vocation)
and whose music always shudders with the leaps of desire
(despondencies, hopes, desolations, intoxications) And yet
Schumann's "madness" (this is not, obviously, a psychiatric
diagnosis, would horrify me in many respects) arises (or
at least can be said to arise) from the fact
flictual (I should say in my language: paradigmatic) structure
of the world: music is based on no simple and. one

frontation. No Beethovenian or even Schubertian

fragility (tender melancholy of a subject who sees death
298 / R 0 L AN DB A R T H E S

him) . This is a music at once dispersed and unary, continually

taking refuge in the luminous shadow of the Mo ther (the lied,
copious in Schumann's work, is, I believe, th e expression of this
maternal unit y) . In short, Schu mann lacks conflict (necessary,
it is said, to the prop er econom y of th e "normal" subject ),
precisely insofar as- paradoxically- he multiplies his "moods,"
his "humors" (another important notion of the Schumannian
aesthetic: humoresques, mit Humor) : in the same way, he
destro ys the pulsion (let us play on words; let us also say: the
pulsation) of pain by experiencing it in a pure mode, just as
he exhausts rhythm by generalizing syncopation. For him , only
th e external world is differentiated, but according to the Car-
nival's superficial fits and starts. Schumann ceaselessly "att acks,"
but he always does so in the void.
Is this why our period grants him what is doubtless an "hon-
orable " place (of course he is a "great composer") , but not a
favored one (there are man y W agnerites, man y Mahlerians, but
the only Schumannians I know are Gilles Deleuz e, Marcel Beau-
fils, and myself)? Our period, especially since the advent, by
recording s, of mass music, wants splendid images of great con-
flicts (Beethoven, Mahler, Tchaikovsky) . Loving Schumann, as
Beaufils and his publisher give evidence that the y do, is in a
way to assume a philosophy of Nostalgia , or, to adopt a
Nietzschean word, of Untimeliness, or again, to risk this time
the most Schumannian word there is: of Night. Loving Schu-
mann, doing so in a certain fashion against the age (I have
sketched the motifs of this solitude ), can only be a responsible
way of loving : it inevitably leads the subject who does so and
says so to posit himself in his time according to the injunctions
of his desire and not according to those of his sociality. But that
is another story, whose narrative would exceed the limits of