Monday, June 18, 2012

Robert's Romance and the 19th Century iPod

My latest guest post at the Ecstatic Living Room blog...

At a concert I gave with the pianist, Jeremy Denk, about a week and a half ago in Chicago, Jeremy described the piano as the "iPod of the 19th century".  In the days before iPods, CD players, cassette tapes, 8-tracks, record players, and phonographs - the days during which the majority of the standard classical repertoire was written - if one wanted to hear some music outside of the concert hall, one had to make music themselves. Pianos were the primary way of doing that and experiencing in one's home.

My partner and I recently purchased a new upright piano for our apartment, and it has been a fun opportunity to pretend like we're back in the 19th century, playing our 19th century iPod in our home and making music together, mostly sight reading through songs as we laugh at our silly reading mistakes along the way.  Perhaps because Jeremy and I were so focused on Schumann for the past couple of weeks in preparation for our concert in Chicago, my partner and I have also been exploring Schumann's many songs, some of which I think are perhaps some of the most beautiful songs ever written.

In one of the more romantic stories in Classical music history, after a long and dramatic courtship, Robert Schumann finally married his great love Clara Wieck in 1840.  The two were madly in love, but were prevented from marrying for a long time by Clara's father, who disapproved of Robert, thinking him an unsuitable since he was a poor composer.  As the tension of their protracted and fraught engagement finally released, and they were able to be married, Robert suddenly had a flood of songs pour out of him - he composed 168 songs in 1840 alone, and in the process elevated the whole art form of song to an entirely new level.  Among the songs he composed that year are his famed song cycles Liederkreis Op. 24 and Liederkreis Op. 39Frauenliebe und Leben (Woman's Life and Love), and his incredibly beautiful song cycle about a poet's infatuation and break up with his love, Dichterliebe (which Jeremy and I performed last week in Chicago).

In a ridiculously romantic gesture, Robert grouped together the first 26 songs he composed that year into a collection entitled Myrthen and gave them to Clara as a wedding present.  The first song, Widmung (Dedication), is perhaps one of his most beautiful compositions.  While I don't understand why there are Jellyfish floating around in the backgroud of this video, here is one of my favorite Lieder singers performing the song:

Du meine Seele, du mein Herz,
Du meine Wonn', O du mein Schmerz,
Du meine Welt, in der ich lebe,
Mein Himmel du, darein ich schwebe,
O du mein Grab, in das hinab
Ich ewig meinen Kummer gab.

Du bist die Ruh, du bist der Frieden,
Du bist vom Himmel mir beschieden.
Daß du mich liebst, macht mich mir wert,
Dein Blick hat mich vor mir verklärt,
Du hebst mich liebend über mich,
Mein guter Geist, mein beßres Ich!

- Friedrich Rückert

You my soul, you my heart,
you my bliss, o you my pain,
you the world in which I live;
you my heaven, in which I float,
o you my grave, into which 
I eternally cast my grief.
You are rest, you are peace,
you are bestowed upon me from heaven.
That you love me makes me worthy of you;
your gaze transfigures me;
you raise me lovingly above myself,
my good spirit, my better self!

Imagine getting that as a wedding present from your brand new husband -  we should all be so lucky...

I've linked to some of my favorite recordings of each of these cycles above.  If you're in the mood to immerse yourself in the results of Robert Schumann's romantic high in 1840 and experience the products of his honeymoon bliss, check out one of those recordings above.  In case of you are curious, here's a recording one of the songs that my partner and I have fallen in love with during our explorations at our new piano.  It's called Schöne Fremde (Beautiful Foreign Land), from Liederkreis Op. 39.

Es rauschen die Wipfel und schauern,
Als machten zu dieser Stund
Um die halbversunkenen Mauern
Die alten Götter die Rund.

Hier hinter den Myrtenbäumen
In heimlich dämmernder Pracht,
Was sprichst du wirr wie in Träumen
Zu mir, phantastische Nacht?

Es funkeln auf mich alle Sterne
Mit glühendem Liebesblick,
Es redet trunken die Ferne
Wie vom künftigem, großem Glück.

   - Joseph von Eichendorff

The treetops rustle and shiver
as if at this hour 
about the half-sunken walls
the old gods are making their rounds.
Here, behind the myrtle trees,
in secretly darkening splendor,
what do you say so murmuringly, as if in a dream,
to me, fantastic night?
The stars glitter down on me
with glowing, loving gazes,
and the distance speaks tipsily,
it seems, of great future happiness.


Anonymous said...

A piano is a iPod? Huh?
I am a big fan of both you and Mr. Denk as performers and writers and the thought of both of you in the same recital is my idea of perfection.
But... Though superficially clever-sounding, this analogy doesn't really hold water.
I guess an iPod would be like a piano if it required hundreds of thousands of hours to master and required incredible facility and sensitive artistry to make it speak. An iPod can be operated by a two year old. It plays music, yes, but you don't play it.
Music "played" on an iPod will be identical every time; no two performances on a piano will ever be the same.

And I definitely don't think that you could say the experience of playing a piano and "playing" an iPod are remotely similar. One requires thinking, imagination and energy; the other requires none of those. An active vs. a passive experience.

I guess, to stretch a point, maybe a player piano would be kind of like an iPod, but I don't think that's what was meant by the comment.

I'm probably making too much of an offhand remark, but glib analogies between human capablities and technology are so common right now. Technology is great and all, but I'm not sure why we seem so pleased to compare our considerable achievements to those of a machine.

Anyhow, I really wish I could have seen that recital.
Your recordings are in constant play on my iPod :), but I'm sure the real thing was vastly better.

Thanks for the blog and the music...
Drew in Seattle.

Emi said...

I found your blog from Jennifer Rivera's, and I love this analogy between an iPod and a piano, because this is how I used the piano in my parent's house when I was younger. I guess there was also an element of wanting to be a part of the music that I moved me, to play it (however unskillfully!) so that I could feel the emotions more deeply. I don't think the analogy trivializes the joy of creating music oneself in order to hear it, but I can perhaps see why the other commenter dislikes it. But hey, one could sing along with an iPod, and then it becomes a more active experience...