Smart and Not-So-Smart

Writing about music: a hazardous enterprise. I’m comforted that sometimes even brilliant people can write stupid things about music. Roland Barthes is one of my heroes; nothing makes me happier, for example, than his unique book The Lover’s Discourse; but then:

“… the same composer can be minor if you listen to him, tremendous if you play him (even badly) — such is Schumann.”

Schumann is a “minor” composer if you listen to him????? Can you see the smoke coming out of my ears? Actually, I tend to have the opposite feeling. My first days practicing a piece of Schumann tend to be awkward, uncomfortable, like a shotgun marriage–not at all a torrid, instantaneous love affair.

But my first Schumann listenings are torrid in the extreme. The first time I ever heard Davidsbündlertänze, for instance … My brain retains things from the Oberlin (undergraduate) years in categories. Certain things are rawer, more vivid, they cut me more deeply. This Schumann is one of them. It is one of the chosen, cherished moments my brain has culled from exams, parties, study guides, dormitory meals, dormitory showers, piano lessons, lectures, rehearsals, first friends, lost friends, first kisses, and late-night snowbound walks. My brain said: REMEMBER THIS. And it is so. If I call that piece to my mind, a set springs into place: a dimly lit concert hall, a girl (now woman) playing the piano, seeming far away, and myself in the seat, blown away by the music, not quite believing what I am hearing… it is like a photo thrust in front of my face. It is odd. This is primarily a memory of a sonic event, of moving (affecting) sounds. The memory only came into prominence, gathered significance (like a rolling snowball) from the nature of the music. But it comes back to me completely as a visual event, a film still, a snapshot–timeless, soundless.

It also brings with it a feeling, a sinking, blurring feeling which is the collapse of the past into my present, and the sense of all the things I could teach that 18-year-old boy now if I were sitting next to him… He seems tangible; I want to touch him (though he is me). What would my then skin feel like to my current hands? Would I be able to reach that stubborn, enthusiastic, overworked teen and tell him what he needs? Would he laugh at 34-year-old me? But this is all after-the-fact.

The moment in Davidsbündlertänze is also after-the-fact, it is a recurrence, the recurrence: the second piece of the set comes back after a long absence. After the piece’s many events, its varied cast of characters, its ebullient and melancholy dances, a memory arrives, the first (only) real memory, which then unexpectedly surges into a tragic, violent outpouring, a revolt (no this cannot be a memory, cannot be MY memory, no this sadness cannot return, I cannot take it again, no I refuse to allow the penetration of the past into my present), and the only solution: the final piece, a luminous, otherworldly waltz. The waltz is nonsense (not present, not past, only future?); though it feels like a memory, it is not; it is in the “wrong” key (therefore absurd as an ending, though it is one), it is fragmented, halting, and what does it mean?, perched as it is between comfort and farewell and anticipation and loss… in the words of Roland Barthes:

“Love has two affirmations. First of all, when the lover encounters the other, there is an immediate affirmation (psychologically: dazzlement, enthusiasm, exaltation, mad projection of a fulfilled future: I am devoured by desire, the impulse to be happy): I say yes to everything (blinding myself) …

[Could there be a better description of some of Robert Schumann’s music? I don’t think so]

There follows a long tunnel: my first yes is riddled by doubts, love’s value is ceaselessly threatened by depreciation; this is the moment of melancholy passion, the rising of resentment …

[… which describes pretty well another goodly portion of Schumann’s music… ]

Yet I can emerge from this tunnel; I can “surmount,” without liquidating; what I have affirmed a first time, I can once again affirm, without repeating it, for then what I affirm is the affirmation, not its contingency: I affirm the first encounter in its difference, I desire its return, not its repetition. I say to the other (old or new); Let us begin again.

[And this, I think, accounts for the remainder… those unusual Schumann moments which are not consumed either in fevers of enthusiasm or melancholy but somehow define another, transcendent category… like the last waltz of Davidsbündlertänze.]

Now, I think that’s pretty good stuff. Roland, let’s make up. I forgive you for calling Schumann a “minor” composer (sort of). Let us begin again.

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