By Ted Ayala
How is musical excellence defined? Does a composer’s willingness to go against the grain of his times and fight for his personal convictions bespeak of “greatness?” When considering the latter question, one usually thinks of composers like Beethoven, Mahler, Stravinsky, Webern, and Cage for starters; all of them composers who struggled mightily against those who failed or refused to understand their startlingly new ideas of how music functioned and what it could be capable of expressing. But is the reverse true?—if a composer should defiantly cling to tradition even as the rest of the world is seduced by the allure of the new, is that, too, a sign of “greatness?”
It was such questions that arose at Le Salon de Musiques’ program of chamber music last Sunday afternoon, which was headed by music by the other other Schumann, Camillo (no relation to Robert or Clara).
Listening to Camillo Schumann’s Cello Sonata No. 2, Op. 99—which was being performed in the U. S. for the first time on Sunday—was an experience akin to gazing upon a time capsule filled with relics from the long-ago past, untouched by age.
Around the same time that sonata was being composed, Paul Hindemith was busy composing his opera Mathis der Maler, Dmitri Shostakovich shocked audiences in Russia and elsewhere with the “pornophony” of his Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, Alban Berg’s heartbroken Violin Concerto would be shortly premiered in Barcelona, and the young John Cage was beginning to make his name known among new music circles in Southern California. But you would never guess any of that listening to the Schumann work. Even in 1870 the work would have been considered traditional and perhaps a bit stodgy. For a work composed in the 1930s, it is a bizarrely anachronistic oddity.
The pre-concert lecture mentioned how Schumann lived in Eisenach at the time, J. S. Bach’s hometown, and how this, along with his extensive work in liturgical music, would suggest that the Baroque composer was an important influence, as well as that of Johannes Brahms. If Schumann were indeed influenced by those composers, virtually no trace of their impact could be felt in the piece. The ornate counterpoint of both composers, not to mention the formal rigor of Brahms, was nowhere to be found. Textures were light; the music homophonic throughout. If the influence of others could be adduced, it was that of composers like Max Bruch and Karl Goldmark, maybe Edvard Grieg and Peter Tchaikovsky. Oddly enough, the composer that Camillo Schumann was most reminiscent of was one he likely had never heard: the Russian Nikolai Myaskovsky. Like Schumann, Myaskovsky adhered closely to the traditionalism of the 19th century, though in later life this was as much a personal choice as it was one dictated by the conservative expectations of the Soviet Union’s cultural apparatchiks. But even Myaskovsky wasn’t afraid to experiment with harmony and form at times. “Experimentation,” even “daring” seem to be utterly foreign concepts to Schumann; perhaps he even considered such ideas vile.
It was also explained that the music was a product of the small-town milieu of Schumann’s world. An interesting point—the music’s homespun quality does suggest a kind of defiance against the urban cosmopolitanism which was growing in vogue.
So is the music “great?” Not really. Brahms won’t have to worry about his own cello sonatas being displaced by Schumann’s any time soon. But it is good music; certainly it merits being heard more often. A four-movement work lasting under half an hour, the best of the music had a chastely attractive quality that was best heard in the pastoral songfulness of the second movement, which is interrupted halfway through with a scherzo-like interlude. The outer movements also have some very lovely moments. Especially memorable was the work’s melancholy and brief opening cello soliloquy.
Next to Camillo Schumann, however, the music of Frederick Delius and Frédéric Chopin seemed positively decadent. Despite that their works date about a half century and century respectively before the Schumann work’s composition, both works exhibited a sense of adventure totally absent in the German composer’s music. In fact, both works sounded so much more strikingly modern than anything in the Schumann.
Though an early work, the hazy harmonies of Delius’ 1896 Romance for Cello and Piano prefigured the composer’s later mature style like On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring and A Song of Summer; the almost barless hedonism of the later period heard here in embryonic form.
Chopin’s sonata, his last published work, though proportioned similarly to the Schumann, displayed an intricacy of construction and sureness of expression that dwarfed the later sonata.
It’s probably safe to say that the Schumann sonata has never enjoyed better advocacy than that of cellist Andrew Shulman and pianist Steven Vanhauwaert, who were the performers last Sunday. Total belief in the music and shared virtuosic technical excellence marked their interpretation, traits that also marked their superb performances of the Delius and Chopin.