Schumann's Virtuosity: Criticism, Composition, and Performance in Nineteenth-Century Germany

Schumann's Virtuosity: Criticism, Composition, and Performance in Nineteenth-Century Germany

Schumann's Virtuosity: Criticism, Composition, and Performance in Nineteenth-Century Germany

Schumann's Virtuosity: Criticism, Composition, and Performance in Nineteenth-Century Germany

Synopsis

Considered one of the greatest composers--and music critics--of the Romantic era, Robert Schumann (1810-1856) played an important role in shaping nineteenth-century German ideas about virtuosity. Forging his career in the decades that saw abundant public fascination with the feats and creations of virtuosos (Liszt, Paganini, and Chopin among others), Schumann engaged with instrumental virtuosity through not only his compositions and performances but also his music reviews and writings about his contemporaries. Ultimately, the discourse of virtuosity influenced the culture of Western "art music" well beyond the nineteenth century and into the present day. By examining previously unexplored archival sources, Alexander Stefaniak looks at the diverse approaches to virtuosity Schumann developed over the course of his career, revealing several distinct currents in nineteenth-century German virtuosity and the enduring flexibility of virtuosity discourse.

Excerpt

In 1843, Robert Schumann published a review that captures, in miniature, the range and urgency of the issues that virtuosity raised for him. the essay covered violinist Antonio Bazzini’s May 14 concert at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Its opening does not bode well for the Italian star: Schumann seems to announce himself as a staunch antivirtuosity critic. He describes a horde of virtuosos glutting the concert scene and suggests a sweepingly negative view of their work:

The public has lately begun to notice a surplus of virtuosos, and so has this journal
(as it has often made known). Their recently arisen desire to travel to America
seems to indicate that the virtuosos themselves feel this, and there are many of their
enemies who harbor the silent wish that, for Heaven’s sake, they will all stay over
there. For, all things considered, the newer virtuosity has contributed but little to
the benefit of art.

And yet, in his next breath, Schumann claims that Bazzini himself stood apart from this multitude. “But when virtuosity confronts us in as delightful a form as the above-mentioned young Italian,” he wrote, “we gladly listen to it for hours.” the rest of the review suggests diverse ways in which Bazzini, for Schumann, redeemed virtuosity. Schumann praises Bazzini’s compositions, specifically his Concertino in E, Op. 14: “The natural flow of the whole … the really enchanting luster and euphony of individual passages … most virtuosos have barely any idea of these things.” He describes Bazzini’s stage presence, his “strong, youthful face” that provided a welcome contrast to “world-weary, pale virtuoso figures.” He acknowledges Bazzini’s nationality and distanced him from stereotypes of Italian frivolity, calling him “an Italian through and through, but in the best sense.” Schumann also surely recognized that, on this occasion, Bazzini was lending his star power to an orchestra that had become an exemplar of serious programming under Felix Mendelssohn’s baton. At times, Schumann did worry that Bazzini stumbled off this pedestal and delighted the crowd with merely physical stuntartistry. Schumann chided him for programming his Fantaisie dramatique on themes from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and his Capriccio on themes from Bellini’s I Puritani. “In both of the following pieces,” he complained, “I saw unhappily that he was not ashamed of flattering the public. Here was not so much . . .

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