In his work, speculative thinking collides head on with a vast, labyrinthine imagination. Schumann was an extremely erudite man. He translated Sophocles at 17. He had considerable literary talents and he was probably one the greatest writers among the composers, up there with Berlioz and Debussy. This makes him an encyclopaedic character. A cosmic figure without limits. The same applies to his music. Although Beethoven was a great role model for him, he never wanted to realise linear trains of thought in his compositions. He was not interested in going from A to B. He starts with a primal cell of a motif, he sets spiralling movements in motion, which exponentiate to create vast edifices. I admire his associative thinking process, his ability to draw out ever new circles of speculation. Schumann’s music is all about dislocation. The bar line is a coffin for him. He almost always shifts the emphasis of the weightier notes. He syncopates the primary accents or overlays various layers of time. What emerges is a sort of delirious time. You no longer feel the passing of time.
Schumann composed at a feverish pace, yet he was most pedantic in all areas of his life. How do these things fit together?
It’s true, he wrote almost everything in a trance, at unbelievable speed. And yet everything he did bore the hallmark of incredible self-control. He had perfect formal awareness and of his peers, only Mendelssohn-Bartholdy matched him in contrapunctual skill. Schumann led a very orderly life. He studied jurisprudence, maintained impeccable housekeeping records, noted even the most intimate details in a marriage journal. On the other hand there was this bubbling excess of the unconscious which he committed directly to paper. He wrote in a trance and yet with incredible discipline. After emerging from a period of wildness he would try to bring his life back into order, he would write nothing but Lieder for a while or devote a year to string quartets. He was very consistent in controlling himself though his work.
But beneath this orderliness there was always a current bubbling away?
This is what I find so amazing. Even in Schumann’s most formally structured pieces you sense this constant tearing at the form. There is always this precarious balance of control and eruption. This is something you also find in Hölderin, who subjected his powerful imagination to the most difficult metres. He wrote the greatest rhythmical works of art ever ventured by a poet and yet form and content never hindered one another. It’s the same with Schumann.
"In his work, speculative thinking collides head on with a vast, labyrinthine imagination. … And yet everything he did bore the hallmark of incredible self-control. He had perfect formal awareness …”
In software design I always find myself going for inspiration to music: Bach, Chopin, Schumann, Stravinsky, Feldman, Ades … all composers with this same gift of profound formal awareness, yet bold, wild creativity. If there is a problem to solve, must all solutions only be found in the problem space itself? Much, much to be learned from temporal thinkers who show a pattern of very fruitful exploration.
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