YR3 Week8: Clara Schumann - Piano Concerto No.1; Billie Marten



Candide Vox Recording // Clara Schumann (1819-1896) // Piano Concerto No.1 in A Minor, Op.7 // Voelker Schmidt-Gertenbach conducts the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. Soloist: Michael Ponti

Piano Concerto No.1 in A Minor, Op.7
- Allegro maestoso
- Romanze (Andante non troppo con grazia)
- Finale. Allegro non troppo

We went to Tristan und Isolde this evening. It is the most repugnant thing I have seen or heard in all my life. To be subjected to this particular kind of love madness through the whole evening——offensive to every sense of decency and then to behold the general audience and the musicians as well obviously delighted with it——that was the saddest experience in my whole life as an artist...“” clara schumann, diary entry november 8, 1875

the thirteenth of September marked clara schumann’s 200th birthday, the inception of a sharp witted mind that reaches for the strongest opinion she can find regarding any musical object. her nearly sixty-year career as a performer and composer was at the epicenter of late-Romantic music, this despite a lifetime of grief and misfortune: 

In 1847 she lost her first son Emil (born 1846). Then came the catastrophe which destroyed her husband. In 1872 her beloved daughter Julie died, leaving two small children. In 1879 her son Felix passed away, only twenty-five years old. Her son Ludwig (born 1848), mentally ill, had to be “buried alive” in an institution. Her son Ferdinand (born 1849), a volunteer in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71, died in 1891 and it fell to her to provide for his family. Her health began to fail her in the late 1880s. Her faculty for hearing diminished considerably and in the 1890s she was often dependent on the wheelchair. “” joseph braunstein, notes for recording

for all that strife and triumph she rarely gets a mention in the popular discourse of the genre. even when her husband is the topic of discussion, she’s little else than ‘Schumann’s wife’, despite him owing much of the early flight of his career to her championship of his little known works in her concerts and the devoted maintenance of his compositions after his suicide attempt and subsequent confinement to an asylum.

Cholera threatened Paris and Clara’s recital was sparsely attended because the rich people had left the city. Thus a sensational Parisian success was denied to Clara and Wieck decided to return to Leipzig where another student of his eagerly awaiting the return of father and daughter——Robert Schumann. “” joseph braunstein, notes for recording

when a young and ambitious johannes brahms showed up at their doorstep, it was clara that was his most enthusiastic of supporters, featuring many of his early works in her concerts and with whom a lifetime of inseparable friendship engendered rumours of romantic intimacy. the program notes for a TSO performance that featured brahms’s Symphony No.3 this week was kind enough to briefly mention her, if only as ‘Brahms’s close friend’. 

Clara Schumann symbolized the union of the great artist, exemplary wife, mother and head of a household to be maintained under the most trying and tragic circumstances. In this respect she was unique among other women in the world of music. “” joseph braunstein, notes for recording

Clara Wieck Schumann

Clara Wieck Schumann

then there’s the valiant effort it’s required of me to get a hold of a vinyl recording of her Piano Concerto No.1, several attempts in the last three months: i found hundreds of schumann records, just not the schumann i was looking for. and as if to drive the point home: the copy i ordered on Discogs got lost in the journey so i ordered another one a month later, which arrived on the same day the first one was returned by a neighbour who finally figured out who the package was for——ffsakes——and a friend didn’t fail to notice that the library log card attached to one of the records had no rental entries. i won’t start virtue signalling on here about how androcentric the genre is——old and unfortunate news.

She did not consider a piano concerto a mere virtuoso vehicle, but rather a symphonic commonwealth in which the piano plays a prominent role. For these reasons she referred to study a concerto from the orchestral score. “” joseph braunstein, notes for recording

with that said, i’m not quite sure what to make of this concerto, it spreads in a number of directions without arriving at one definite destination. unpredictable is a somewhat accurate description, restless too. a relatively short event, as all three movements are played out without breaks. it opens without too much fanfare, getting right into the main subject that is piped up high on oboe. the material develops steadily until the piano enters, recapitulating that oboe subject with emphasis. the next peak in the action is a duet between cello and clarinet, slowing the tempo down as the work enters the second movement (Romanze) and concludes with an extended piano cadenza.

Before Liszt, people used to play, after Liszt they pounded or whispered. He has the decline of piano playing on his conscience. “” clara schumann, diary entry november 13, 1882

the cello returns again, this time for a duet with the soloist and a brief dialogue ensues, the end of which is announced by a gentle roll on timpani (this gentle stomp on timpani dots the work throughout). the final movement is the most decorated, a bouquet of ornamentation and figuration for the soloist to finger as the orchestra glides beneath at a lower altitude. beginning with a crystalline sequence of arpeggios, the Finale is a densely populated spread of musical material, always lively but without bombast or Romantic billowing of heart-strings. after another round of cascading arpeggios, the locomotive accelerates for a pounding finish by soloist and orchestra in unison. 

I feel really relieved and know now what I am up against. This is a horrible piece, nothing but scraps tied together and on top of shameless length. “” clara schumann on bruckner’s seventh symphony, december 1885

(song of the week: Mice - Billie Marten) 

some poets have too much of a melodic bent in their inner voice to be satisfied with words alone, and take refuge instead in the exceptional combination of a musician with a poetic disposition. aside from listening, there’s pleasure too in reading Bon Iver’s ‘Minnesota, WI’ or leonard cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’——some examples that come to mind. i think Billie Marten is that kind of a combination, a synthesizer of infectious melodies to smooth the passage of cryptic and insinuating lyrics whose images dissolve into each other with an ambiguity verging on nonsense. 

And the stars, 
they look like little mice
To me, I am my only vice.
Sat on a dead man's bench
The sun cools my neck
It covers my skin
The earth pulls me back in

How 'bout that?

isabella tweddle (on stage as Billie Marten) is a 20 year old british folk singer from yorkshire ’in the vicinity of Whitby’, whose work found an audience as early as fifteen with the introspective dreariness of her writing style, sung in what is the equivalent of mumble-folk. it’s the style of singing that i find irresistible, sickroom melancholic music, of the same strain as the rain you hear in the voice of Iron & Wine’s sam beam; the bored bard crooning in the songs of nick drake; the tired troubadour jaded and restless in the songs of Phosphorescent’s matthew huock. i think that’s what i first heard in Mice: the contradictory combination of the inertia of fatigue, and the hope and verticality inherent in anything that wants to sing...

Watch me as I go and separate
the ones that I am made to love and hate
And slowly counting down my body weight
I'm tired
I'm tired