Robert Schumann wrote some of the grandest piano music of his time. Of all high-profile composers of the 19th century, he was probably the most troubled. As a young pupil, every mistake he made on the piano was rewarded with a whack on the knuckles. As a young man he fell in love with and married his teacher’s daughter, to his teacher’s disapproval. The young lady, Clara Wieck, attempted to make a living by touring Europe in order to bring her husband’s works to a broader audience. This effort sort of fell on deaf ears and the Schumann family’s financial situation was so dire that Clara and Robert simply gave each other original compositions as birthday gifts. Schumann concocted a mechanism to help strengthen his hands for performance that just about put him out of commission (heavy weights were involved). A probable case of tinnitus was interpreted by Schumann to be angels communicating musical ideas to him in his sleep. In college, a professor told our class of how the great composer used to throw fancy banquets for himself and his multiple personalities. A story like that doesn’t square with the family’s small income, but it does match Schumann’s descent into insanity. His physical and mental health were so bad that he actually committed himself to an insane asylum, which in the mid-nineteenth century, were just above city sewers in terms of code and comfort. It is widely believed that Robert Schumann died of mercury poisoning.
The angelic passages passed on to Schumann in the middle of the night came to life in “Geistervariationen”, German for “ghost variations.” Though they’re not as widely celebrated as Schumann’s other works, pianist András Schiff makes sure to preserve its legacy. Schiff already has a reputation of being the go-to performer/preserver of Schumann’s pieces, be they well known or obscure. For example, the ECM double album Geistervariationen contains a full performance of “Kinderszenen”, a suite so famous that every intermediate piano student will be asked to stumble their way through “Träumerei” at one point or another. But within the same package, Schiff includes the mysteriously obscure “Geistervariationen”. It’s a blending of different worlds. “Kinderszenen” is all about the kids, the wonders of childhood. “Geistervariationen” is haunted by a hybrid of tinnitus and schizophrenia and almost didn’t get completed due to a suicide attempt.
The most surprising resurrection for musicologists and fans of classical music alike is András Schiff’s discovery of an alternate ending to the last movement of Schumann’s “Fantasie C-Dur”, or “Fantasy in C Major”. These last few bars have not been long-lost or well-hidden. It’s just that the composer wanted his corrections to be definitive and he simply scratched out his first idea. Schiff secured a photocopy from the music library in Budapest that was lucky enough to have this original manuscript (getting a 100+ year old piece of paper photocopied was quite the ordeal back in 1975). Glancing at the two endings, Schiff’s expert opinion was that Schumann was too quick to second-guess himself. We’re often led to believe, after all, that our conscious mind can wreck an otherwise great idea. While Robert Schumann certainly didn’t wreck the “Fantasy”, András Schiff feels that the original idea deserves just as much attention as the official one, diminished-seventh chords and big fermatas and all.
In the hands of András Schiff, Robert Schumann’s piano works still remain some of the grandest of their time. The presence of the ever-reliable Manfred Eicher behind the knobs assures that the ECM tradition of putting all of the microphones in the right place is upheld. The Geistervariationen album would still be a wonder at half the size. Spanning 48 tracks in over two hours, generosity is its middle name. The quality of the sound and the music are a given.