John Axelrod discusses the psychology behind Schumann's two versions of the Symphony No. 4
It is not fair to say that artists are crazy. It’s a romantic idea, but while many artists, poets and composers straddled the line between genius and insanity, there were a few who were certified and in fact were confined to a sanitarium. Robert Schumann was one of these composers. After a suicide attempt in 1854, he was admitted at his own request, and out of concern for Clara’s safety, to a mental asylum in Endenich. Diagnosed with “psychotic melancholia,” a term used then to describe bi-polar disease, Schumann never recovered and eventually died of pneumonia in 1856. It must be noted that other members of his family suffered from mental illness, with his sister committing suicide. While his music might have been an outlet for his underlying emotional psyche, and he also suffered from alcoholism and syphilis, his mental illness was most likely hereditary.
But can his music tell us something about this mental Illness? Schumann gave us clues. He called his manic, extroverted phase: Florestan, the wild. And his depressed, introverted personality was called : Eusebius, the mild. When he composed this symphony, it was during a very productive year in 1841 and the music recounted his triumphant marriage to Clara the year prior. By the time he revised it in 1851, he had already been suffering from continued episodes of manic-depression and his outlook was dark and grave.
Dr. Richard Kogan believes Schumann ‘s music was indelibly influenced by his bi-polar condition. Taking this cue, it was therefore a fascinating musicological discovery to perform and record with the Bucharest Symphony Orchestra the two versions of Schumann’s d minor symphony, opus 120, known as Symphony 4, and to realize that the structural, harmonic and compositional changes between the two were not only influenced by the German romanticism that darkened the orchestral timbre and instrumentation. But they were also affected by Schumann’s own psychosis.
The original version is full of light and imagination. With Italian tempo markings, this dramaturgical musical narrative of a victorious love story is an expression of a late classical, early romantic idiom, in the style of Mendelssohn, one of Schumann’s champions. When his protégé, Johannes Brahms, received from Clara the draft of the original 1841 score, he preferred it to the revision and pushed for its publication 50 years after it was completed, against Clara’s wishes. She protested that the revised version, now musically different, slower, deeper and longer, with German tempo indications, was the definitive version and the original Italianate was “unfinished.”
You can decide yourself listening to this unique and deeply interesting recording. Not only the musical differences are evident, but you’re also able to hear the actors of this story in the private 2nd and 3rd movements, with the solo oboe and cello representing the voices of Clara and Robert, and the solo violin playing the promenades that sealed their love. The scherzo is the combative father and the trio is the comforting mother. The transition to the finale evolves from the lover’s elopement and victorious escape in 1841 into the sad nostalgia for a love he was destined to lose.
This is the first time in discography to hear both versions on one disc. Why? Because under the microscope of mental illness, it is finally possible to hear both of these psychological portraits of a composer who achieved what can be considered a divinely inspired work, and a man who reminds us all of the vulnerability it can sometimes mean to be human.