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Unrequited Love - Chopin and Schumann

Robert Schumann on a litograph by Josef Kriehuber, 1839

Publications about Chopin continue to spread rumors of his acquaintance with Robert Schumann. Some write about a close friendship, citing no supporting facts; others reference a lively correspondence, although no one has ever seen such letters

Others still speak of a special understanding between the two, although we do not know what Chopin thought about Schumann's music. Schumann often passed peculiar judgments on Chopin's compositions. The false - or rather undocumented - information about their contact is usually traced back to the vivid imagination of Ferdinand Hoesick, though even Mieczysław Tomaszewski was not above propagating such things.

The legend - which claims that the kinship of souls made Schumann an exceptionally perspicacious listener of Chopin's music - sprang out of two of his statements. The first is the famous "Hats off, gentlemen! A genius" in his review of Chopin's Variations on "Là ci darem la mano", Op 2, published in Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung on 7 December 1831. The author of the article appears as "K. Schumann" - a name equally foreign to readers as was the composer of said Variations. This was the journalistic debut of 21-year-old Robert Schumann, with a typo in the first initial. The second of the two statements appeared five years later, in Schumann's review of the piano concertos in Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, where he wrote,

"If the autonomous, mighty monarch of the North knew what a dangerous foe was threatening him in these utterly simple mazurka melodies, he would doubtless ban this music. The works of Chopin are cannons concealed amongst flowers."

Chopin's music seemed to be a guiding spirit in Schumann's journalism. Schumann made his debut with an article about the Variations, Op 2, while a review of Tarantella, Op 43, published in 1843, was his last statement about Chopin and one of his last articles ever, prior to him leaving Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in 1844.

Today, we may be somewhat troubled by Schumann's opinions. What should we think of a critic who raves about the Op 2 Variations, while panning the B minor Sonata or F minor Fantaisie? An author who finds mistakes in the Op 25 Etudes, waves off the Op 28 Preludes and joins the crowd complaining that Chopin's work is "limited to that narrow scope of piano music"? To be fair, Schumann devoted far more attention to Chopin than any other critic at the time. He defended him against Rellstab and did not hide his high esteem for Chopin's music even when a different aesthetic trend might have forced him to criticise particular pieces.

However, it seems Chopin did not favour Schumann's music. Even if we deem his unfavorable opinion of Carnaval insufficiently documented, there is no doubt nobody ever heard Chopin play or recommended his students to play any of Schumann's compositions.

They met twice. The first time was on 28 September 1835, when Chopin stopped briefly in Leipzig on his way home from a meeting with his parents in Karlsbad. Schumann recorded the encounter in his journal in several sentences filled with romantic excitement. However, Chopin did not record the meeting in any of his correspondence and there is no evidence that he remembered Schumann. In fact, four years later he continued to misspell his last name "Schuhmann". In all of Chopin's correspondence, Schumann's name appears only once (misspelled) in a letter to Julian Fontana. There is something strange about that, though this may be a result of the disappearance of a significant part of Chopin's letters from the latter half of the 1830s. Conversely, Schumann's letters, diaries and notes mention Chopin's name numerous times. He invited Chopin to Leipzig, he asked for a meeting, or for a piece for Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. It seems he received no response to his letters.

A second encounter took place a year after the first. In the summer of 1836, Chopin traveled to Marienbad for a meeting with the Wodzińskis. Schumann wrote to him there, expressing his desire to visit; he received no reply, though he found Chopin at the door of his flat on Ritterstrasse in Leipzig. The entry in Schumann's journal reflects the nature of this unexpected and hurried visit.

"At 12 noon, Chopin, Nowakowski, Raymund Härtel. His Ballade is more dear to me than anything. Very pleased, very pleased [Chopin's reply]. He listens reluctantly when one speaks about his compositions. Warmth passing through everyone. A moving image - Chopin at the instrument. New études in C minor, A flat major, F major, the old mazurkas in B flat, two new Ballades, Nocturne in D flat... I offered him my Sonata and Etude, he offered me his Ballade. Trunk, correspondence. I took the Master to see Eleonore [Henrietta Voigt]. He played a Nocturne and études of arpeggios alone. Farewell. He has gone, he has gone."

Schumann certainly did not imagine he would meet Chopin again. His Kreisleriana, Op16, released two years later, included a dedication: "To my friend, Mr F. Chopin." In 1840, Chopin, releasing the Ballade in F major Op 38, dedicated it to "Mr Robert Schumann." The difference in the two dedications is minor, but evident.

"Schumann and Chopin are two exquisite individuals," writes Ludwik Bronarski in Szkice Chopinowskie ("Sketches of Chopin"), continuing, "though they are very different. They may share certain characteristics that result from the time in which they lived, the trends to which they submitted, atmosphere which they breathed. In general, however, their origin, rearing and milieu made them very distinct persons, psychologically and artistically." Schumann must surely have carried silent resentment in his heart that his efforts were not met with a warmer reception. Can one, nonetheless, resent unrequited love?

Author: Ludwik Erhardt, October 2010.

The article comes from the "Chopin Express", gazette published for the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition by Adam Mickiewicz Institute and Gramophone.

Other articles of interest in "Chopin Express" 05:
"Sixth Time at the Competition" - Yamaha Pianos


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