Review: Oxford Lieder Festival, ‘Schumann and the Critics’

The Oxford Lieder Festival’s focus on Robert Schumann in 2016 provided numerous opportunities to throw new light on the huge scope of the composer’s output. A lecture at the Queen’s College Shulman Auditorium featuring prominent music critics Hilary Finch and Richard Wigmore offered a chance to consider the man behind the music. In a little over an hour and a half, the two speakers evaluated the success and impact of Schumann’s lesser-known career as a prolific music critic and journalist, which for large periods of his life was his main focus. Peppered throughout with short performances of Lieder by the composer and his peers, this event was a lively journey through the characterful world of 19th century music criticism, which also allowed the speakers to reflect on the nature and function of the discipline in the modern world.

A staple of musicological thought on Schumann is that his musical career was one of sharp fluctuations in output, mirroring a supposed duality — of reflective and frenetic impulses — in his personality and in the compositions themselves. This duality is even present in the Lieder Festival’s subtitle: ‘The light and shade of Romanticism.’ For Hilary Finch, longstanding music critic for The Times and BBC Magazine, this interpretation is correct for the wrong reasons. As she pointed out, the vast quantities of criticism, journalism, and creative writing are proof that Schumann only lagged in musical composition when he was particularly busy composing in literary forms. Thus fluctuating output is an inaccurate assertion. However, she also maintained that the duality of the frenetic and reflective is present in this constant swapping between writing music, and writing about music.

One of the main conduits for Schumann’s criticism was the music journal Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which he co-founded in 1834. Finch presented the publication as a disruptive cosmopolitan project, intent on challenging the accepted mores of contemporary society and lauding new directions in the music world. Whether the journal remained true to this vision was not a question into which Finch delved too deeply, although she did quote one excoriating review of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, criticised by Schumann as a work that a German would never dream of producing. Apparently even the most cosmopolitan of Germans were permitted a bit of French-bashing from time to time.

A curious transition came next, in the form of an ‘Étude’ (Op.125) by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, played by Queen’s College student Richard Fu. Hummel was identified as a favourite of Schumann’s, appearing frequently in Die Neue Zeitschrift as an innovative young talent. This particular Étude, however, was an exercise in imitating Bach which, despite being compellingly performed by the expressive Fu, was not really illustrative of what Schumann saw in the composer. The piece was followed by a second short lecture by Richard Wigmore which explored the involvement of later composers in the criticism business. Although Finch’s readings from Schumann’s work demonstrated the erudite but readable character of his prose, Wigmore’s selection of extracts by his successors possessed a lot more humour and colour. Particular highlights were Debussy’s indefensible rantings against the German classical tradition, Hugo Wolf’s Wagner-inspired eviscerations of Brahms, and pretty much everything written by Berlioz. The latter’s disdain for the Paris Opéra was especially amusing, and demonstrated how music criticism could be much more polarised and visceral than it is in Schumann’s elegant and precise work. Wolf’s own song ‘Abschied’, in which a critic meets his comeuppance by being kicked down a flight of stairs, was a satisfying musical end to this section of the lecture; with both the music and the comedy handled adeptly by New Zealand-born tenor Julian Van Mellaerts.

wigmore-richard
Second speaker Richard Wigmore. Credit: Richard Wigmore

Finch returned to offer some closing remarks about what Schumann’s criticism could mean for the occupation today. For Finch, the twin aims of Schumann’s journal, and his wider writing, were to encourage new composers and develop contexts around new works. These aims she, rather pessimistically in my view, deemed obsolete in a modern classical music culture which has little room for new compositional talents or approaches. Instead Finch’s modern critic must challenge received opinions about interpreting the repertoire, writing for the audience/reader rather than the encouragement of the artist. While this is surely a legitimate and productive view, Finch went on to claim that such aims can only be fulfilled by ‘experts’ in the field; those with the experience and knowledge to properly address the questions ‘what are they doing?’ and ‘does it work?’ when faced with any given performance. This elitist vision surely excludes the audience/reader, treating them as passive consumers of information as opposed to legitimate opinion-formers in their own right. Also making a few throwaway comments about the threats of online blogging (guilty), Finch failed to properly address how the field of music criticism is to be prolonged. If such a view had been common when a young Robert Schumann, opinionated but not exactly ‘expert’ at that time, set up his music journal, we might not have been listening to his insights in the Shulman Auditorium almost two centuries later.

Ben Horton

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