Academic journal article Notes

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

Academic journal article Notes

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

Article excerpt

Schumann's Virtuosity: Criticism, Composition, and Performance in Nineteenth-Century Germany. By Alexander Stefaniak. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016. [x, 297 p. ISBN 9780253021991 (hardback), $46; ISBN 9780253022097 (e-book), $45.99.] Music examples, figures, bibliography, index.

In his recent book, Alexander Stefaniak chose an unlikely topic, explicitly stated in the first part of the title, Schumann's Virtuosity. Robert Schumann's life and works have been considered from many perspectives, ranging from the relationship between his literary sensibility and his compositional style (John Daverio, Robert Schumann: Herald of a 'New Poetic Age' [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997]), to the influence of Beethovenian counterpoint on Schumann's compositions (Christopher Reynolds, Wagner, Schumann, and the Lessons of Beethoven's Ninth [Oakland: University of California Press, 2015]), to Schumann's output in relation to culture (Larry R, Todd, ed., Schumann and His World [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994]). Yet aside from a chapter on Schumann's improvisational practice (Dana Gooley, "Schumann and Agencies of Improvisation," in Rethinking Schumann, ed. Roe-Min Kok and Laura Turnbridge [New York: Oxford University Press, 2011], 129-56), Schumann's virtuosity has received minimal scholarly attention.

In his book, Stefaniak seeks to complexify the commonly held conception of Schumann as an antivirtuoso polemicist, claiming that his distaste for frivolity and showmanship was only part of Schumann's attitudes about virtuosity. Through close readings of Schumann's criticisms and analyses of selected compositions, Stefaniak makes a case for Schumann's support of serious virtuosity: "The rhetoric in his and his critics' reviews did not signal a wholesale rejection of postclassical virtuosity or the aesthetic of pleasure; instead, they attempted to describe the sound and the cultural status of specific showpieces and performances (partly by contrasting them with more accessible virtuosity)" (p. 126).

Organized largely chronologically, the book also contains two main sections. The first focuses on critical discourse about virtuosity, and the second on Schumann's notions of virtuosity in relation to the work concept. In addition, six chapters each examine a different aspect of Schumann's views about virtuosity. As the author explains:

   Chapter 1 explores Schumann's critique
   of the pleasures that such showpieces
   provided. Chapter 2 analyzes his concept
   of the "poetic," and chapter 3 traces his
   involvement with amateur music-making
   and salons that cultivated "poetic" virtuosity.
   Chapter 4 shows how Schumann
   attempted to channel the sublime in
   virtuosity.... Chapter 5 examines how
   Schumann navigated a tension that
   nineteenth-century writers perceived between
   the spectacle of virtuosity and the
   aesthetics of the musical work. Chapter 6
   follows Robert's collaborations with Clara
   and Joachim, two virtuosos whose interpretations
   of canonic repertoire gained
   them reputations as "priests" of high art.
   (p. 11)

The epilogue draws connections between Schumann's views about virtuosity and those held by certain virtuosos today.

In the first part of the book, Stefaniak provides close readings of music criticism to reveal how Schumann, like others of his time, argued against overt displays of showmanship, even if he also encouraged virtuosity that inspired deep contemplation. For instance, in a review of the violinist Antonio Bazzini, Schumann contributed to negative discourse about virtuosity in general--especially in relation to showy pyrotechnics or artifice without musical substance: "For, all things considered, the newer virtuosity has contributed but little to the benefit of art" (Schumann as quoted in Stefaniak, p. 1). On the other hand, he praised Bazzini's virtuosity when it was transcendent--that is, able to transport listeners from the everyday to the realm of music: "Sometimes when he played, it seemed that he came from the land of song--not a land that lies here or there, but that land from which everything unknown eternally beckons" (p. …

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